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Relishing responsibility

KOSOVO CRISIS

As one of RedR's youngest members, 24-year-old Nicola Adams was surprised to get the call-up to go to Albania for three months with Oxfam.

When it came she was at work in Arup Associates' London office where, two years after graduation from Southampton University, she describes herself as 'a very small cog'.

Arup was able to give her an almost instant release from duties and a week later Adams was out in the field constructing water supply systems in refugee camps. One month on, she says the responsibility compared to her normal job is huge.

'You have to do everything here, from design work to ordering materials yourself and paying the men's wages. I have even had to negotiate for engineering support from a Spanish major - it's quite bizarre,' she says.

Despite her relative inexperience, Adams has taken to the work quite easily. One of the most difficult aspects is communicating with the local people employed by Oxfam. But with a smattering of Albanian picked up over the last few weeks, and her interpreter Julian to help, she has struck up a good rapport with the workers - at least for most of the time.

'There are occasions when Julian doesn't translate everything they say,' she jokes.

Most of the work Adams does bears little resemblance to her job in England. She is much more involved with the 'hands-on' construction of the water system and much relies on her own ingenuity with the materials to hand.

'You learn through experience,' she says. 'The first day we tried to seal the connections between water pipes and valves using

PTFE tape. Then we realised that wrapping a few strands of flax around the pipes before joining them works a lot better out here.'

The hours are also much longer than at home. Oxfam engineers are putting in 80-90 hour weeks on average to meet deadlines to supply water and sanitation to the refugee camps.

Despite this effort, Adams admits to a sense of frustration that she cannot do more. 'I see a lot of things going on here which I know could be done better. It is annoying that we have no say in how the camps are run and are just here to provide the water.'

All the Oxfam team in Tirana stay in rented apartments around the city. Because of the long hours they meet up to eat out every night. This may sound like a luxury, but is more important than just saving on the washing up.

'It is good to have an opportunity to unwind and discuss what has happened during the day. It helps to foster good team spirit,' says Adams.

Aid agencies also try to have social events in the evenings to keep in touch with each other and relieve some of the stress. But because of the high risk of crime in Albania, Oxfam operates a 10pm curfew so all night parties are definitely out. However, Oxfam does have a policy of rest and relaxation where engineers are allowed a week's leave to recharge their batteries half way through their assignments.

All in all Adams describes the work as 'very fulfilling' and has found Albania to be 'a beautiful country'. She is puzzled that aid agencies are finding it so difficult to recruit engineers.

'Maybe it is people's perceptions of what is involved with aid work that puts them off, but most of the time it is not as daunting as you might think,' she says.

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