During this summer, I was a Protection Intern at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), stationed at the MENA Regional Bureau in Amman, Jordan, for my Leadership-In-Action (LiA) project.
The UNHCR is the UN refugee agency and operates heavily in MENA, experiencing one of the world's largest forcible displacement crises. With approximately 15.6 million forcibly displaced and stateless people, the UNHCR works to protect persons of concern - refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless people, internally displaced people, and refugee returnees.
I was fortunate to spend my LiA embarking on many different projects and learning about the many facets of protection work for persons of concern. My initial primary objective was research-based, where I created comprehensive mappings of academic institutions, centres, and academics across eighteen Arab/MENA countries. However, as the weeks continued in my LiA, it was fascinating to branch out to topics such as climate policy, training development, mixed movement, community-based protection, and statistics and data work. In reflection, I'm proud to say that I successfully achieved these goals, and I feel I developed a lot from the unique challenges I overcame during my two months there.
My mapping research project supported the GAIN – Global Academic Interdisciplinary Network- initiative, a partnership between the UNHCR and universities. GAIN is a collaborative effort between the UNHCR and local universities to promote teaching and research related to forced displacement and foster community outreach for solidarity among the academic community and forcibly displaced scholars and students.
My role was to create two different databases using qualitative research and knowledge of the MENA region to map the potential for engagement. I then analysed the data I had collected and aggregated to strategise which institutions we should engage with, culminating in a priority list for easy use by the country offices. The result of my research was an Excel database organised by country with quick find institutions and academics' contact details accompanied by a more comprehensive 40+ page Word database, which includes more detailed information about routes for contact.
My role at the UNHCR developed as I got to branch out during my time there and develop both subject specialist knowledge and experience in other areas, which was a definite high point!
As a passionate climate activist, I had the opportunity to do environmental work, analysing the global strategic climate action plan and the regional climate policy. It was really fun to see how we can 'green' refugee strategy and begin considering mitigation of climate policies in the upcoming years. Climate change is having and will continue to have a catastrophic impact, by forcibly displacing groups and by impacting continual migratory routes, therefore, being able to discuss with specialists this topic was incredibly insightful! I also learned more about statistics and presenting data when I looked at the 22 Arab/MENA countries' statistics on persons of concern to showcase three-year trends regionally. Speaking Arabic was also a great asset for translation and communication with others.
Later on, I also had the opportunity to learn how to complete training materials for various recipients and was tasked with creating pieces of training on mixed movements and community-based protection. Mixed movements are the movements of various groups (refugees, migrants, asylum seekers, etc.) through similar migration routes, mainly the Central Mediterranean Route. Individuals travelling through these migratory patterns often face extreme dangers, such as extreme physical and sexual violence, trafficking, kidnapping for ransom, smuggling, and other human rights violations. This was a specific tragedy I had never learnt about in-depth and is an important crisis to know about for human rights protection. Community-based protection was another interesting topic, especially from a leadership perspective as to how to help communities in a way that acknowledges that they know the best threats they face and the tools needed, that empowerment of communities should be the core aim, and that community work is a continuous program engaging with communities, not 'at' communities.
A lasting impact as a result of my placement I hope was most distinctly felt through a Arabic-English contextual glossary I created for the SGBV (Sexual and Gender Based Violence) unit. I hope I created a lasting impact by suggesting more MENA-context specific terms that were not acknowledged and necessary to fully understand the contextual intricacies behind SGBV in MENA. As a Middle Eastern woman who is a strong defender of feminism and gender equality I think I did manage to change the more Western glossaries used prior to my role in the task. This is hopefully alongside the mappings and trainings I created that have a sustainable impact in repeated continuous use between RB and the country offices.
A key challenge during my LiA experience was the demand for a high degree of independence in my work. At the beginning, this level of autonomy was overwhelming and slightly stressful. However, upon reflection, this challenge pushed me to become more self-reliant and enjoy the creative freedom and a sense of ownership in my projects. I also realised the value of seeking collaborative advice from my colleagues and overall becoming more independent.
Reflecting on my LiA project, the most unexpected and impactful lesson that reshaped my understanding of leadership was the critical importance of strategy. I discovered that good leadership relies on strategic planning that should always go back to the mission's overarching goals and objectives. Being too broad and vague can be ineffective, create unintended consequences, and jeopardise the efficacy of the work you aim to achieve. This is especially prudent considering the sensitivities of humanitarian work. This entails making informed decisions that may require compromises while maintaining a delicate balance that does not undermine the UNHCR's overarching mission. This highlighted for me the necessity of thoughtful decision-making in leadership.
My time in Amman, Jordan, was amazing. Travelling, volunteering, and meeting wonderful people while doing meaningful humanitarian work at the UNHCR was transformative!
Alongside receiving invaluable advice, I was privileged to become friends with several colleagues and learn from them, and I am very grateful for their support throughout my time there- a big thank you to Maisam, Shady, Chetna, and Sultana for their incredible kindness! Thank you as well to my supervisor, Ameera, for being so fantastic, and who I have deeply enjoyed working with alongside and have grown so much from- a true leader to learn from for a leadership project! Additionally, my thanks to the countless other UNHCR staff both at the RB and country offices for their detailed briefings and patience with many questions!
I also want to give the biggest thanks to the LSE team and the Laidlaw Foundation- I feel incredibly proud to be a Laidlaw Scholar!