Why did you decide to get into the humanitarian field?
My interest in this field started at a very young age. My family and I were refugees from Sierra Leone, and we moved from there to the UK in 2000, which is when we applied for asylum. I was a refugee, so I’ve always had an interest in these issues.
When I was at secondary school in the UK, I volunteered at the local refugee day centre. My school had a programme that encouraged young people to volunteer there. My Arabic was useful, because there were lots of Iraqi refugees coming into the country at the time. I would volunteer there at lunchtime and during school breaks; I knew then that I had a passion for this sort of work but I was never sure which path to take or what I wanted to do specifically within the humanitarian field. It’s very broad, and there are many directions you can take, depending on your interest and skills.
What I knew was that I wanted to go into the humanitarian field, one way or another. I studied Human Geography for my undergraduate degree, and I focused on population movements, demographics, migration and so on. I then went on to do an MSc in Violence, Conflict, and Development Studies at SOAS in London.
Previously, you worked as a regional communications spokesperson for the UNHCR. How did you get there?
After SOAS, I applied for an internship with UNHCR in 2011. I got the internship in Lebanon, in the resettlement unit. To be completely honest, I wasn’t sure what resettlement really meant at the time. Working in that unit helped me learn the intricacies of resettlement: why people get resettled, how they do it, and so forth. It was very interesting but I wasn’t sure that resettlement was necessarily my calling. I looked for other work back in the UK, and got a job working for a small NGO that sought to empower Palestinian women. However, I had also applied for a junior communications job at the UNHCR at the same time. The position was based in Qubayat, a small village in the North of Lebanon, quite close to the Syrian border.
My only experience with communications at the time came from an internship I had done at the BBC. I worked in the African unit on the radio show 'Africa, Have Your Say'. I believe I was in the right place at the right time and I did well in the written exam and the interview.
I worked with UNHCR’s communication unit in Lebanon for over two years. I was then relocated to the Regional MENA bureau in Amman where I worked as part of the team dealing with the Syria crisis on a Regional Level. At the same time, things were kicking off in Iraq as well so I was moved there for a few months in April 2015. Whilst in Iraq, I was working on both the Syria crisis and the internal displacement crisis in Iraq.
Can you tell me a bit more about the written exam?
When you apply to work for UNHCR you go through a written exam. The position was quite junior, so it was to test my ability to draft. As a communications assistant, I had to be able to draft a press release or a quick briefing note. There were a lot of scenarios posed to me. The exam also tested my ability to write in English and in Arabic, because I have to do both in the job.
The position was at a junior level. In practice it was like being a reporter in the field – I’d go out, speak to refugees, and report my observations. I wasn’t doing live interviews then – that came later.
Describe a typical day as a Communications Officer for the UNHCR.
Hectic, whether in the field or in the news office in Geneva. In my last role as Associate Regional Communications Officer and Spokesperson for UNHCR in the Middle East and North Africa, I was the official spokesperson for the Syrian Refugee Crisis on a regional level. This role was very challenging as it carried enormous responsibility and required meticulous coordination and clear understanding of the refugee situation and regional politics.
As a Regional Communications Officer, I travelled extensively across the region and provided communications support to the respective country offices. My role involved extensive coordination with other Press Officers and managing media relations across the region. I handled media interviews in both Arabic and English. But I was also very lucky to be supported by a wonderful team back in our headquarters.
A typical day could involve anything from drafting an urgent press release, to conducting a live TV or radio interview, visiting camps, attending meetings with donors, journalists and other UN agencies and NGOs, organising and or attending press conferences, and answering questions from journalists all over the world, both over the phone, via email or impromptu interviews.
What were the most important skills and abilities that you learned from this job?
At first, I had limited responsibilities on the job, but I had to prove myself capable and show initiative. I was their eyes and ears in the field at that time. When I first started, there were only about 20,000 refugees in Lebanon. Now there are 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon and over 4.8 million in the region. One particularly great thing about the UNHCR (especially the Communications department) is that they invest a lot in their staff. We’d always have training on concepts such as interview techniques, content creation, and how to find and pitch a good story. I learned how to do live interviews, how to be comfortable in front of the camera (this can be more daunting than it looks!), how to handle tough interview questions, how to make sure you get your key messages across regardless of the length of the interview; sometimes you have two minutes and so much information to get in, so there are ways to make sure you say what you need to say.
When and why did you begin sharing photographs under @refugeediaries on Instagram?
One of the training sessions at the UNHCR taught us how to best use social media in our work. There are lots of different platforms: Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and so on. I realised that Instagram would be an interesting way to relate short stories, and a way to humanise refugees who are often just referred to in numbers. Unfortunately, because the press is so saturated with information, they jump straight to showcasing the number. I believe that the media plays a huge part in the way people at home look at refugees. Focusing on numbers rather than the human stories dehumanises people. Who are these people? How do they live? They are just like you and I, people who celebrate birthdays, someone’s child, uncle, aunt, friend; people with hobbies, likes, and dislikes; exactly like any one of us. They’re not just numbers.
As a humanitarian worker, I would sit with these people, day in and day out, and feel frustrated that their stories were not being told. I could sit there for hours, and it felt like speaking to members of my family or my friends. When you spend time talking to people you realise that we honestly have so much more in common than we think. I wanted to show that there are human beings behind these numbers. Even the term 'refugees' is problematic in my opinion. Society likes labels. But labels often do more harm than good. They put people into 'boxes' and create certain perceptions. The image that comes to mind when people say 'refugee' is automatically that of a poor person, often in distress, desperate looking and a burden.
What role does the media plays in the way people view refugees?
The media is never objective and is often sensationalist. No one seems to have an interest in relaying the truth. I am more familiar with Western media and, what is apparent to me, is that the level of deliberate misinformation around the refugee issue is unprecedented. Refugees are portrayed as good for nothing, useless people coming to feed off the welfare system. This is categorically false. I have met people from all walks of life who just happen to be in this label that you consider 'refugees' because they were forced out of their country. I have not met a single refugee that has said to me “I wanted to leave my country.” Not one person.
I have worked with refugees since 2011. Nobody – whether it was the displaced Iraqis or the Syrian refugees in Lebanon or Jordan – said that they wanted to leave their home. Why would we assume that they did? Why can’t we think of them the way we think of ourselves? Would you want to pack your entire life into a plastic bag and risk your life across an ocean for £50 a week welfare support? It’s complete desperation! Honestly, no one wants to do this.
When I was in Lesbos, I met some people who had lost family members along the way. Some had drowned and some had become separated at some stage in their journey. People just wait in the hope that their family will turn up, or they wait for the bodies of their loved ones to wash up on the beaches. They bury them, and then they move on. Tell me – who wants to do this? These people obviously feel like this is their only chance to survive in some way. What really upsets me is that none of the reality of the situation is actually portrayed in the media. Sometimes, I don’t even want to read the news because there are too many lies.
You’ve mentioned the media’s portrayal of refugees. Are there any news channels, social media profiles, or documentaries that you would recommend for those wishing to follow the crisis intensely? Where should people go for unbiased coverage?
Honestly? I don’t think there is somewhere to go for that kind of coverage. This will sound biased because I worked for them, but I would say UNHCR’s online pages are a good place to start. They give good insight into the situation of refugees and they humanise them.
I still read the BBC, The Guardian, The Independent and so on. I make sure I get my news from multiple sources. I’m also interested in the different ways that news is relayed. However, I think the nature of the media today makes it difficult to have a neutral or objective media outlet. A lot of it is influenced by politics, unfortunately.
Would you ever consider taking a job in the media, or becoming a journalist?
I would like to. Not because I want to work for a specific outlet, but because I like telling true stories. I think we have so many different ways to educate each other in this day and age, and I would like to be part of this movement of people that are doing this. I want to show everyone that we’re not so different. But at the moment, I feel like many of the outlets are agenda-based, and it’s hard to get the truth out. I’m not saying it’s impossible - I think The Guardian and Channel 4 News are very good – but I would struggle with having to do things a based on a certain agenda, other than the truth.
Many college-age students from Europe and the United States have travelled to places like Lesbos to help refugees there. How do you feel about this idea?
Personally, I cannot believe that the refugee crisis is allowed to happen on Europe’s doorstep. There is so much that needs be done, and there’s so much that the EU and the international community need to do. However, they’re choosing not to do anything, other than build walls and shift the responsibility from one place to the other. Whilst people in power continue to ignore the crisis, this tragedy has shown the humanity of people from all over the world; people who went to Lesbos and other Greek Islands to volunteer and help refugees. I met people from England, New York, Sweden, Germany, Palestine... These people came together because they felt a moral obligation to react. When I first got to Lesbos, there nothing was being done. It was purely a volunteer-based response. Aid agencies were present, but very little was being done. It was a difficult thing to see. This was tricky because I understand that there was (and still is) a lot of politics involved, but at the end of the day people were dying, quite literally; and the rulebooks on whose duty it is honestly shouldn’t matter. If you can help, you should help. Eventually, criticism started to mount and we started to see some action being taken. When people are drowning in the middle of the ocean, and well-equipped European countries are choosing not to help prevent death – then they are complicit in these people’s deaths.
Being on Lesbos was a life-changing experience. When I was there, I had a job to do. However, you cannot do that when you look across the sea and see a boat of people drowning in the distance. All I could hear were people screaming in the distance, and there was nothing I, or anyone there, could do. In one particular instance, if it weren’t for the Spanish lifeguards who happened to be there (who had jet skis), all of the people on a boat would have died.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Sometimes the water was calm as the boats arrived, and everything would be fine. Other times, you could be sitting in a coffee shop in the late evening, about to go home, when you would suddenly hear screaming coming from the sea. All the volunteers would bolt out of the door and run towards the pitch-black water. You would see a boat that had crashed into the rocks, and people everywhere, children crying and screaming. You were paralysed because you couldn't believe that this was happening constantly.
Once, we were driving along the beach and we saw that a boat had capsized. Volunteers were running towards the boat and they managed to pull out as many people as they could. Somebody passed a package to me, and I realised that it was a shivering baby. I ran into the car to give it some warmth and held the baby close to my chest to keep him warm. He was so pale and his little body was freezing. I have never been so scared. I tried to stay calm, but all I kept thinking was 'please don’t die in my arms'. I got some scissors to cut the baby out of the tiniest life jacket and multiple layers of plastic bags. His parents had tied him up to protect him. He was as small as a loaf of bread. Finally, the volunteers located the mother, and I passed the baby back to her. I asked how old the baby is, and she replied: “He is sixteen days old.”
This family made it all the way from Afghanistan, and they didn’t have many resources. A lot of these people have sold everything they own to get on that boat and make it to a safer place. The journey is very expensive – its about €1,200 per person to get on that dingy boat. That’s why you see a lot of single men coming on these boats.
The media loves to paint an unflattering picture of these men, saying "Look at all these single men coming from the Middle East. They’re going to be terrorists, thugs..." But really, it's because the rest of their families can't afford to come too. Some sell everything to send one person across the sea, to give him the chance of a good life. If any of them bothered to speak to these men, you’d find grown men crying over their loss, their loneliness and their fears. They cry about how their family saved everything to allow them to make this journey so that the Taliban or ISIS or whoever would not force them to join them. None of these stories are ever told.
These men don’t come from wholly safe countries. It’s scary to see how the media decided to alienate certain groups. It’s a struggle to me to see how this is happening.
What advice would you give to a young woman who wants to pursue a similar career?
I would say make sure this is what you really want to do. This career path is incredibly rewarding but also very challenging, both physically and mentally. The nature of the job calls for a lot of travel and instability, so you often find yourself alone; sometimes lonely and away from loved ones. But what it takes from you, it gives back. The people you meet enrich your soul, and the things you learn about yourself and others. You are inspired by the incredible resistance of human beings who are going through some of the most horrid experiences but still manage to find the strength to get up in the morning and look life in the eye as if to say you will not break us. A career in this field offers you the opportunity to help other human beings and in many cases to witness history first hand. It inspires you to want to change things in our world but it also makes you feel that the world is losing the plot sometimes.
I love working in this field and I loved my job with UNHCR. But at times I have questioned whether I was able to keep going. It consumes you. There are nights I couldn't sleep. Nights I would stay up and cry because I would replay the things I heard and saw that day. So it really gets too much sometimes. The hardest part is the sense of helplessness you feel. You often find yourself in very frustrating situations where there is little to nothing you can do. Despite your best intentions you often have resistance and obstacles that get in your way or the way of the agency you work for... restrictions that are based on laws, and policies of a certain country you are working in. It is often these rigid rules and laws that end up costing people their lives and their dignity.
Bathoul Ahmed | Humanitarian Worker
Previously worked at UNHCR
Exclusive interview with Aisha Babalakin, 8 May 2016