Faces of UNICEF

"Be sincere to your duties, and enjoy doing what you do."

Narender Nalwade, Driver, UNICEF India (Hyderabad Field Office)

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What does your average working day look like?

I’m at the office by 9:00 a.m and the first thing I do is check the general maintenance of our two UN vehicles. After this, I report to the State Operations Officer (my supervisor) for any issues, including re-fueling, following which I coordinate my day’s travel-related assignments with the executive assistant (for the Chief of Office) and the admin assistant (for all staff). The rest of the day is spent in driving office staff to their destinations, as well as the dispatch of mails or parcels through local post office, official bank work and occasionally payment of office bills. My lunch break is generally at 1:00 p.m, though sometimes I re-schedule, depending on my assignments for the day. I end the day by discussing the next day’s plan with my supervisor and admin focal point for next day’s travel assignments.

Describe your job in three words 

Challenging, organised and enjoyable. 

What’s the hardest part about your job?

To drive UN Vehicles, it’s ensuring the safety of staff as well as the vehicle in difficult terrains, where paved roads do not exist.

What’s the best part about your job?

Driving on long highways and the chance to see programmes in the field and interact with the senior officials as well as other UNICEF colleagues.

What’s the best trip that you have so far taken as a UNICEF staff?

One of my best driving trips with UNICEF was during a visit by the IKEA team to a project they funded in Kurnool district in 2008. There was a delegation of six people, accompanied by our Child Protection specialist, and I was advised by my supervisor to take utmost care in transporting the team safely, guiding them and helping them interact with locals. It was a very good experience to see the project with the donor team first hand and support them not only with their transportation but also act as a guide.

What is one thing about you that colleagues do not know?

I am a good cook! 

What’s the one place you wish to visit in your life? 

I’ve always wanted to visit the Niagara Falls and hear the roar of water splashing around. 

Who is your role model?

Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, former President of India, is my role model. He started from humble beginnings and went on to become the head of the nation. He is also widely regarded as one of the most respected living Indians in the world.

Any advice for young people who aspire to get a job like yours?

Always respect rules and guidelines, have patience, be sincere to your duties, and enjoy doing what you do. 

"When you see bullets passing by, you realize the work you do is really important."

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Bernt Aasen, Regional Director, Latin America and Caribbean Regional Office

What does the average working day look like for a Regional Director?

As a Regional Director, most of my working days I am at the service of the 24 Representatives in Latin America and the Caribbean and colleagues at Headquarters and Regional Advisors. The only part of my “working day” I’m in control of, is the early part: I get up around 5:00am and spend an hour or so responding to e-mails and up-dating my “to do list”. I make breakfast and send Miel, my 9-year-old, off to school. After that I go to the gym. I’m usually late in the office, sometime after 9:00am. 

Describe how you became a UNICEF employee.

In 1986 there was a team from UNICEF in Oslo to recruit new talent. I was working in the Municipality of Oslo, on a project for reorganizing social services and I had just figured out that the project was not really about improving services; but rather an exercise to reduce public expenditure. I was very frustrated with the project and politicians, so I asked for an interview with the UNICEF recruiters and got a chance to talk with them. Six months later I was offered to join Guatemala Area Office as a JPO. At the time, honestly, I saw it as an opportunity to get back to Latin America where I had spent a year traveling around as a “back-packer” in 1979-80. Today, this is how I see it: as a footballer I never got to play for Barcelona or Manchester United, but I did get to work for a unique organization, UNICEF.

What’s the hardest project you’ve ever worked on?

South Sudan and Afghanistan are the two most difficult locations where I have worked for UNICEF. Difficult, because in both places, we operated in war zones where staff frequently came in harm’s ways. In South Sudan, we often experienced the militia supporting the Government that tried to shoot down our planes. When you sit in one of those small planes and see bullets passing by, you realize that the work you do is really important. It is so important that some people try to kill you to stop it.

What was a moment in which you knew you failed at work?

By 2004, the United Nations had become a deliberate, direct target for Taliban and all opposition to the foreign military presence in Afghanistan. In spite of all the good guidance and advice from the UN Security Operation, every time I authorized field trips for staff, we knew risks were very high. It was a heavy responsibility to carry. And when, unfortunately, it all went wrong and colleagues got hit, injured and killed, I blamed myself for not being cautious enough. Actually, I still do.

What have been the biggest frustrations in your career and how have you dealt with them? 

When we had to cancel polio vaccination campaigns due to insecurity (at the time WHO/UNICEF had some 15,000 polio vaccinators working for us) and when newly built schools were burnt down and teachers attacked, I felt defeated. When I left Afghanistan in 2006, a journalist asked me what I had learnt from Afghanistan and I responded: “I have learnt to live with defeat.” I always disagreed with western politicians and generals that believed a military solution was possible in Afghanistan and that the country could be run as a “western style democracy”. Peace and opportunities for children and women to develop to maximum of their potential still seem far away in Afghanistan.

What are the most satisfying parts of your job?

I spent some 20 years being at the “front-line” for child rights: managing funds to invest in children and advocating for policy reforms with politicians. In my two latest jobs in UNICEF, Chief of Staff, in the Office of the Executive Director in New York Headquarter and Regional Director in Latin America and the Caribbean, I have missed the contact with children, adolescents and families we are working for. I miss seeing the direct impact of our work. Nevertheless, it’s also satisfying to use all my experience to groom staff who can become the next generation of leaders in UNICEF.

Can you describe a moment when you saw the direct impact of your work on people?

In Afghanistan, we had a great joint project with UNESCO and WFP on literacy. They did not allow me to go to the classes for women, but I remember the smiles on the faces of grown men being able to write their own name and the names of their children for the first time. Small victories in an assignment where I felt defeated.  

Who do you look towards for inspiration? 

I like to read biographies of people who overcame challenges and went on to live extraordinary lives. For many years, I have spent so much time reading office documents so “down-time” with a good book has become a luxury. I’m also into music; rock, punk, blues. Playing music very loud energizes me!

Have you ever had a mentor that led you toward your current path?

My first bosses in UNICEF, Agop Kayayan in Guatemala and Patricio Fuentes in Honduras, gave me a lot of encouragement. They trusted me more than I trusted myself in those early days in my career. They helped me understand that working for UNICEF was not just about having an interesting job. As an International person, you are also choosing a way of life.

Favourite quote that relates to your personality?

As a kid, I was very impatient and always complained about everyone being too slow - my playmates, my fellow students, my teachers. My mother once said: “The problem is not that everybody is slow, you are too fast. Slow down and you’ll be okay, my boy.” That stuck with me.

What  motivates you for another day of work?

Maybe the fact that the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the mandate of UNICEF are very powerful and I have always believed in the vision of making UNICEF a “billion people movement”. Barcelona’s logo says they are more than a football club and, likewise, UNICEF is more than a UN agency. We represent the values that should drive the development agenda and bring justice and opportunities to all peoples. 

What is the most memorable place you’ve traveled to with UNICEF?

I don’t know if they are the most memorable places, but I can say that after being in Afghanistan and South Sudan, my assignments in Latin America and the Caribbean for 1987-92 were so much “lighter and happier”. I was fortune to work with some extraordinary people in Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Honduras. Child Rights in this region have made tremendous progress over the last 25 years and I am proud of having been part of that history. There are still excluded groups that have not benefited from the progress made and that are left behind but I’m very optimistic for the future of children in Latin America and the Caribbean. There are better times ahead, progress will continue. The future looks good!

If you had an extra day off, how would you spend it?

I would like to hang out with my son and his friends in Vancouver. I don’t get to spend enough time with him and Vancouver is a fabulous city. My son, Chris, is drummer in a punk band called “Anchoress” (music available on iTunes!). He’s also a “start-up” writer and a filmmaker. I very much admire his creativity and high-energy.

What do you miss most about being a kid? 

What I miss the most about being a kid and adolescent is being able to just speak my mind. You know what they say in New York; to be a good diplomat you have to be honest. And when you learn to fake that you become excellent. Unfortunately, it’s probably true.

What’s one of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken in your life?

When we were flying in small places to remote locations in South Sudan, we took along a barrel of fuel inside the aircraft. When we were running out of fuel, we would just land on a dirt airstrip, take the barrel out, hand-pump fuel into the plane and took off again. Flying around with a barrel of fuel inside the plane in areas where militias were shooting at us is as risky as it gets. If a bullet had hit us, I would not be writing this piece today.   

"Nothing is a risk, it’s just part of living life. "

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Mary Pereira Mendes, C4D Specialist, UNICEF Iraq

What does your average working day look like?

There’s a blur between day and night at work. My job consists of actively interacting with people, organizing field visits to understand community-level issues, making sure that everyone is well informed on best practices to cope with Syrian refugees living in camps. We do this through our network that is comprised of Syrian refugees themselves who are trained and go tent to tent, building a relationship with people and listening to them. They have discussions with the women, adolescents and other people in the community. The conversations can be around maternal health, adolescent issues and problems related to water, power supply, livelihoods etc. The psycho-social aspect is an important part of this process because these families have fled their homes and they’re now in a new country. They’ve been through so much, which is why listening to them helps them to adapt better to their new environment.

How would you describe your job to a 5-year-old?   

I talk with a lot of different people and ask them what they need. Then I try to find a way to get what they need to them.

How did you join UNICEF?

I was still in the cradle when I joined: I wasn’t even 19!  It actually happened by accident. I was simply filling-in temporarily for someone for one week. After that, I took a volunteering assignment in Nigeria and then I moved to Iraq.      

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in a very traditional and religious family. We were six siblings. My father was a very fun person to be around. He had a really big mustache and he twirled it threateningly when boys came around us. He taught us all our first dance moves. My mother stitched all of my dresses when I was growing up. It was a happy upbringing and we all ate and prayed together.

What do you miss most about being a kid?

I miss having my father around me. He died when he was 50. 

What was the most challenging moment?

The most challenging moment was during my first job in Nigeria. When I arrived in Kano, we weren’t allowed to use motorbikes for safety reasons. But I still had to get around so I just took motorbikes and went everywhere I needed to go. I had to move around because we had polio workers who were targeted and shot. I went to visit them in the hospital. I asked the workers if they wanted to come back - even after they were shot. They said they were all eager to get back to their jobs and help eradicate polio. 

Whats the hardest project youve ever worked on?

I think it’s the one I’m working on right now. We are still trying to clearly identify who the internally displaced persons (IDPS) are in Iraq. It’s hard to assist people in need while trying to make them visible at the same time.  

What was a moment in which you knew you failed at work?

When we had a massive resistance to polio vaccines in remote district in Kano, Nigeria. I had discussions with women to address the polio rejection and it seemed that they’d understood the importance of vaccines for their children. But when the campaign started, there was total rejection. There were other needs in the community such has lack of access to clean water. There were roughly a thousand families and the government didn’t provide much for them. So despite our efforts, they didn’t feel that their essential needs were truly being addressed. Finally, I coordinated with two health camps to install hand water pumps, and that’s when we had a massive acceptance for the polio drops. 

What have been the biggest frustrations in your career and how have you dealt with them?

I sometimes feel there is a gap between operations and programmes in my day-to-day job. Operations can make or break a programme. Money has been a big issue. Sometimes it doesn’t come on time and I’ve even had to spend my own. In Nigeria, I donated wheelchairs to a children with polio. So far, I’ve given over 15 wheelchairs. The person who makes the chairs was also a polio victim, and he employed other polio victims.

What are the most satisfying parts of your job (be specific)? 

Interacting with different people and communities. Seeing the smiles on the faces of women and children.        

Who do you look towards for inspiration? 

My kids, because they treat me like a hero and a role model. They have been supportive of me leaving them and going to emergency areas for work. They have never told me to come back. They simply say, “Mama, we’re with you.” 

Have you ever had a mentor that led you toward your current path?  Favorite quote that relates to your personality?

Believe in yourself and you can do anything you want.

What is the most memorable place youve traveled to with UNICEF?

I would say Nigeria. That’s where I found myself and my strengths and people skills. When something needs to be done, I make sure it’s done, although it might not always be a straight road.  

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing children?

In Iraq, interruption of children’s lives by conflict. The impact that is has on their minds, their loss of education and fear of sound. They will always associate sound with conflict.    

If you had an extra day off, how would you spend it?

I would catch up with my yoga. 

Which books, movies, or music are you currently enjoying the most? 

I don’t really have time to read have no time to read, basically. And the only thing I watch on TV is the news.

What advice would you give others who are looking to get where you?

Follow your heart, but use your head. Show your passion! But it doesn’t always get you a job. 

If you could give one piece of advice to everyone reading this, what would it be?

In life, we all keep chasing happiness. And we look at happiness as it were something in the future. But actually it’s always surrounding you. So live in the moment!   

Whats one of the biggest risks youve ever taken in your life?

Nothing is a risk, it’s just part of living life. 

My colleagues dont know that Im… 

Sensitive. 

"Reaching children in remote areas and making an impact in their lives is very rewarding."

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Ibrahim Khalil Conteh, Chief of Field Office for South, North, West Kordofan States and Abyei Administrative Area, UNICEF Sudan 

Tell us how you became a UNICEF employee 

In 2004, I was Head of Programmes for WFP in South and Central areas of Somalia and had the opportunity to collaborate with UNICEF. UNICEF was very pro-active in the programme and its contribution was remarkable in delivering services for women and children. I became interested in the work of UNICEF. The Chief of Field office for UNICEF encouraged me to send in my CV through the global web roster. I left WFP in 2006 and joined UNOCHA in Sudan. 5 months later, I interviewed with UNICEF Ethiopia for a post in the Somali region and was offered the position. I have been with UNICEF ever since. 

Any specific tips for getting noticed when applying for jobs like yours?

Working hard and well with partners is essential. I was able to get noticed by a UNICEF colleague through my contributions in a collaborative task. I learned a lot about UNICEF’s work and became interested in the organization. It’s important to show that you can do the work and deliver.Talking to UNICEF colleagues and learning more about the organization was also very helpful. 

What’s the hardest project you’ve ever worked on?

The conflict in the Nuba mountains that erupted in 2011 left about 147,000 children vulnerable without access to social services and immunization coverage. We’ve been trying reach children in the non-government controlled areas but it’s been very difficult so far. We managed to immunize some children in these areas but many still are still in need of vaccines. This has been a very challenging task - reaching children in unreachable areas.

What are the most satisfying parts of your job? 

Seeing smiles on displaced children’s face after being treated for malnutrition is very satisfying. Reaching children in remote areas and making an impact in their lives is very rewarding. Being close to communities that are in need of help and seeing the changes that UNICEF brings on a daily basis - it proves that you’ve made a difference in someone’s life.

Can you describe a moment you have seen the impact of your work directly on a child?

A displaced child was suffering from cholera in a camp in Zambia. The parents didn’t know what was wrong with him and couldn’t afford to go to a hospital. At the time, proper services were not provided in the camp. I made a visit after UNICEF had set up mobile toilets and noticed the boy was in a very bad shape. I immediately took him in my vehicle and rushed to a UNICEF-supported health center. The child tested positive for cholera and was immediately admitted. I visited a day later and saw that his condition was fast improving. In about a week’s time, he had completely recovered and was discharged. 

Who do you look towards for inspiration?  

I am usually inspired by people who go to great lengths to help others that need support. That’s why I wanted to become a humanitarian worker in the first place. Motivated people that show empathy to humanity inspire me.

What’s your motivation for the work you do?

Building a good team that collaborates to create innovative ideas to deliver results for children - that’s what motivates me. With kind and passionate colleagues, I eagerly look forward to another day of work to do more for children.

What was the saddest moment working for UNICEF?

There was an attack in a village called Abukorshola in South Kordofan State of Sudan where over 40,000 people were displaced in a single day, 80% of them being women and children. They walked long distances and you can see the children were weak, some abandoned and could not find their parents. It was really sad seeing all these children in a very bad situation.

If you had an extra day off, how would you spend it?

I would spend time to think about what I could do creative and innovative to make a difference in the lives of children in difficult circumstances. We are obviously doing our best, but we can always do better. It’s important to continuously think about ways of improving our work for children.

If you could give one piece of advice to anyone reading this, what would it be?

UNICEF is a great organization, with an interesting mandate. It’s not just about working for the organization, it’s about being passionate for the cause of children. Try by all means to do something remarkable, something new and something fulfilling to change the lives of children and make them better people in the world.

"I’m proud to give girls access to education."

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Mama Sophie, Education team, UNICEF Central African Republic 

Meet Mama Sophie who works in the education team at UNICEF in the Central African Republic. She’s passionate about children’s rights - especially education - and has been part of the UNICEF family for 19 years.

Tell us how you became a UNICEF employee 

In 1995, I was working at the Ministry of Education and I was responsible for overseeing the teaching of foreign languages in CAR secondary schools. I think I was chosen for my UNICEF position because I was a qualified woman with 15 years of work experience in education. 

Any specific tips for getting noticed when applying for jobs like yours?

Besides my technical skills and experience working in the Ministry of Education, I worked a lot with women in my church and I was particularly involved in areas of literary and development. I think these two interests were beneficial in my application.

What’s the hardest project you’ve ever worked on?

Setting up temporary learning spaces during the recent humanitarian crises has been a big challenge. The international community depended on us and we had to deliver as quickly as we could for the many beneficiaries that were relying on our efforts. At the same time, we had to make sure that all the requirements were met in order to make the space fully operational.

What are the most satisfying parts of your job? 

I get a lot of satisfaction seeing children, especially girls, in different school related activities such as studying in class or receiving school-supplies. UNICEF’s work in education produces instant results and that is something that makes me very happy. 

Can you describe a moment you have seen the impact of your work directly on a child?

I worked on a project in the southern part of the Central African Republic, an area where children had very little access to education. In just a few months, our team was able to work with the community and build learning spaces. When we inaugurated facilities, I was very happy because I knew I’d contributed to providing education to these children. 

Who do you look towards for inspiration?  

I was raised by a very strong woman. Her name was Sister Suzanne Monfort and I owe my success to her. She wasn’t African but she spent her entire life educating girls and giving them a strong foundation. It wasn’t an easy task. Some of these girls became very successful and went on to hold high positions in government and in international organizations. This is also why I am passionate about giving back to the community and making my work purposeful. 

What is it about your job that motivates you each morning for another day of work?

Finishing what I’ve started and seeing results that can have a positive impact on the lives of children. 

What was the saddest moment working for UNICEF? 

In October 2002, we had to flee from rebels that attacked the area where were working in. We drove on rough roads and unnavigable terrain for three days to escape from violence. I was really scared. We were saved by our amazing drivers who managed to get us out of there. The people that we were working with on the ground also helped us a great deal. 

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing children?

The biggest challenge facing children is lack of funding for various projects. UNICEF has a lot of expertise to carry out the best programmes available. Unfortunately, the funding is not always appropriately allocated for children in the Central African Republic.

Another major challenge is the illiteracy of parents, especially of mothers. I think we should include that in our programmes because it has a big impact children’s development.     

If you had an extra day off, how would you spend it?

I would spend the day at home or outside Bangui with my family. I would enjoy my free-time with my husband, my children and my grandchildren, which is what I usually do on weekends in times of peace. 

What do you miss most about being a child?  

When I was little, we used to have fun with other children from my area dancing and singing outside at night under the moonlight. Children don’t do these kind of things anymore. 

If you could give one piece of advice to anyone reading this, what would it be?

Whether you work for UNICEF, a government, an NGO, or if you’re just a regular parent, it’s important to do something every day to advance the rights and well-being of children. In your daily tasks, take any form of action that will help the future generation. You will never regret these actions.  

What do people not know about your job you wish they did?  

When conflict broke-out in December 2012, I was put in charge of the office because the international staff were evacuated to Yaoundé. In this regard, I received a letter of acknowledgement from the Executive Director Anthony Lake. When he came to Bangui in January 2014, I had the pleasure to thank him in person for this distinction.  

My colleagues don’t know that I’m…

Proud to be part of the UNICEF family for the past 19 years. I am a mother of 7, grandmother of 4 and I still continue to work for the education of children of the Central African Republic, especially for girls.