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.
What’s the hardest project you’ve 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 you’ve 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!
What’s one of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken in your life?
Nothing is a risk, it’s just part of living life.
My colleagues don’t know that I’m…