Information Officer for Emergencies | International Organisation for Migration, the United Nations Migration Agency*
Olivia Headon spoke to Women in Foreign Policy about finding her way in college, nailing that first job and working for the United Nations.
*The International Organisation for Migration became the United Nation’s Agency for Migration when it joined the United Nations (“UN”) in September 2016.
Olivia, thank you for agreeing to talk to Women in Foreign Policy. As the Information Officer for Emergencies at the UN Migration Agency (“IOM”) what does a typical day look like for you?
That is a hard question because every day is so different and is very much influenced by what is happening in the rest of the world and where the world’s attention is. Typically, on a Monday or a Thursday you will find me reviewing press releases because on Tuesdays and Fridays I brief the press here in Geneva on various humanitarian crises and issues.
In my role, I focus on the work of IOM's department of operations and emergencies. I try and work with colleagues here at our headquarters in Geneva to bring more visibility to their work or highlight IOM's perspective on a crisis. I also work with colleagues in the field who are assisting with a humanitarian crisis to get up-to-date information and to help them get their stories to a more global audience.
There must be plenty of days where there are a number of competing stories and issues. How do you decide which story gets priority that day?
There are different factors that I consider such as whether the story is important to IOM. If the story relates to an issue which IOM is trying to position themselves to strategically, or it is connected with another partner organisation or UN agency that would give it the priority.
I would also assess how interested an international audience would be in the story, or whether there is a particular angle that IOM have worked on with colleagues in the field which can function as a hook to gain the world’s interest. If the story is not necessarily globally relevant, I would still consider whether it is important regionally, or on a more local level. With more localised stories I would also think about whether we are communicating the story in the right languages.
Also, if we see the world's attention is already moving towards an issue or event that is connected with our work, we will usually put something in the media - in particular, if there is miscommunication about numbers who have been displaced or the response efforts. As an organisation, IOM try and ensure that accurate information is available so that journalists are armed with the real facts for reporting.
Your role clearly entails a lot of writing, press management and assessing public opinion. Did you gain the skills and knowledge you use now in college, or how did you go about developing the skills and knowledge you need to do your job?
My degree was in philosophy and political science which is quite relevant to what I am doing now, but I wasn't a great student, so it is almost irrelevant what I studied because I just wasn't that engaged in it. Philosophy is excellent for conceptualising ideas, but in college I never gave it enough focus and attention that I could say that I am using a philosophical mindset now in my job. I also took a course on democracy and development in Africa and that did give me some base knowledge for the work I do now, but I have had to do a lot of reading since I started working in this area.
I think people often assume that I was a great student because I am good at my job (and I am happy to say that); in reality, I nearly failed the second and third year of my degree. I was lucky that the university I went to was understanding. At the time, I wasn't thinking clearly about what my degree meant and what a waste of time and money it would be if I failed my degree. In my final year, it clicked how important it was, and I studied and realised how interesting my subjects were. I ended up with a decent average grade which I now really appreciate getting as I think I would have found it difficult to have gotten the roles I have had with a lower grade.
That said, grades are not everything and some of the biggest and best experiences which contributed to where I am were volunteering for Amnesty International and for one of the societies in my university called the Philosophical Society. Those experiences are what really developed my interest in and skills for communications. In fact, it was volunteering with Amnesty that landed me my first internship which was with Amnesty International in Tel Aviv in Israel.
That is really interesting to hear because I think lots of people go through rough phrases in college, whether it be with academics or for personal reasons. I think it's really helpful to hear about how you found your focus in final year and turned your degree around (and also how it was the other stuff you did in college that really helped you develop the skills for your career).
It would be great to hear about what you did when you left college?
I knew that I wanted to go to Israel or Palestine after university having connected with the issue from different books and articles. I often think that Irish people have a natural empathy with the Palestinian struggle and it is an issue that is frequently discussed in Ireland.
Towards the end of my final year, my university sent out an email of internship opportunities that were available including one with Amnesty International in Tel Aviv, so I applied for that. I only included one essay as a writing sample in my application, but I also added examples of different campaigns I had been involved in with Amnesty in Ireland and my college. I think having tangible examples of the work I had done is what made Amnesty give me an interview
And how did you approach preparing for the interview with Amnesty International?
I think it might have been one of the first interviews I had done. I tried to read more about the situation in Israel and Palestine, which is what I thought the focus of the internship would be. In fact, (as I learned in the interview), the placement focused on supporting African refugees in Israel who were mostly from Sudan and Eritrea. In the interview, I talked about real examples of work I had done in college and events I had organised. I had also spent some time volunteering in Kenya when I was at university, so I was able to work that in as well.
As the internship being offered was more about building experience and wasn’t going to lead to a job at the end, I think Amnesty were happy to hire someone who didn’t have much experience beyond campaigning work in college (which thankfully they did with me).
And how did you find the internship with Amnesty in Tel Aviv?
I was very much engaged in the campaigning, and activism that Amnesty was doing in Israel. They were fighting for refugees' rights and empowering them to organise their own demonstrations. I met some fantastic people through Amnesty, and I am still friends with quite a few of them and regularly see updates on Facebook about the activism they are involved in.
With Amnesty in college, I had been jumping around from different areas of human rights; what the internship in Tel Aviv made me realise was that I was very interested in displacement, forced migration and people on the move in general. So I started applying for migration-focused internships. In the end, the only organisation that responded to me was the international organisation for migration (IOM).
By the time IOM offered to interview me I had moved from Israel to Jordan as there had been an issue with my visa and I had had to leave Israel quite suddenly. So I went to work with Syrian refugees near the Syrian border in a Jordanian town called Mafraq. Conducting a phone interview from a remote part of Jordan was a bit of nightmare, but despite the signal cutting on several occasions, IOM offered me a five-month internship with their office in New York. I think they liked that I had experience in Israel and Jordan assisting migrants and refugees and not just experience in an office in Geneva, New York or Brussel etc.
In between Jordan and moving to New York I went back to Ireland for two months where I worked for the Immigrant Council of Ireland where I gained some useful experience working for a national NGO.
How did you find interning with IOM in New York?
In New York, I was working in a small office with only twelve people, and nearly half the team were interns; because of that, I had to do a lot more and at a higher level. I represented IOM at different meetings, developed strategies and met with the Secretary-General and the heads of IOM staff. Unfortunately though, I didn't get a full-time job with IOM straight away, and I ended up going back to Ireland when the internship ended.
How did you approach looking for a job when you went back to Ireland?
I focused entirely on applying for jobs, but after two months nothing had come up. At that point, I decided that if I sat around just applying for jobs and did nothing else maybe I would get an interview but perhaps I wouldn't. Whereas if I actively reached out to organisations that I thought were interesting that would be a lot more productive. In the end, I contacted the Centre for the Care of Survivors of Torture in Dublin, and I ended up helping them with fundraising and writing grants for a couple of months.
While I was volunteering there, I was contacted by IOM and asked if I would be interested in coming back to work for them in New York. I jumped at that opportunity and ended up working for IOM in New York for three years as a consultant and then as Associate Migration Officer working on communications and humanitarian policy.
It is interesting to hear your talk about the times in between roles and the effort you had to put into getting your first proper job. From a distance, it can always like people move quite effortlessly from different roles, but it can take a lot of energy and persistence.
I think one of the hardest times in anyone's career is making that jump from internship to real job. I saw it with myself, with peers and with people who have worked for me. It's so hard to break through from intern to employee and to start to get those real years of experience on your CV.
And how have you managed to progress your career with IOM and end up in headquarters in Geneva?
When I became Associate Migration Officer at IOM there weren't many others working in communication roles there, so I was able to develop that role myself. I also worked directly with headquarters and colleagues around the world so I think that was helpful as people could see the product of my work.
It was also important that I had a boss who believed in me and pushed for me to be seconded to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (“OCHA”) to help them prepare for the World Humanitarian Summit. OCHA is the leading platform for humanitarian coordination for UN agencies and charities. All the UN agencies are represented on this platform, and they coordinate and decide how to respond to disasters and conflicts around the world. It was the first time in a long time that IOM had seconded anyone to OCHA, so it put me at the forefront of the agency for a time. Through the secondment, I also learnt a lot more about the other aspects of delivering humanitarian relief beyond that which related to migration. The World Health Organisation(“WHO”) was part of OCHA as was UN Women which meant it was a great learning experience and helped me move forward in my career.
The UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants also took place in New York while I was working for IOM which was a significant opportunity for me, as was IOM becoming an actual UN agency in September 2016.
Since joining IOM, I have had to work hard to keep moving up in terms of responsibility and my role. It is crucial to ensure that other people who have a say in your career know how good you are at what you do, so if there are any opportunities and you put your name forward for it, you will be properly considered for it. I made sure to do this, and when the role of Information Officer for Emergencies came up in IOM headquarters in Geneva it was offered to me.
How do you find working at the UN at an early stage in your career?
I am doing work that I don't think I would ever be able to do at such an early stage in my career, such as briefing the press, stepping in as the IOM communication officer for the Rohingya response last October, and going to Libya and helping our communications team there. IOM is the type of organisation that will throw you in deep but give you the support so that you can do what needs to be done.
Within IOM, there are a lot of people who have vast experience but there are also many young faces who have been able to move up quite quickly based on the good work that they have done at an early stage of their career. Our current Deputy of Operations and Emergencies Vincent Houver was under thirty and the head of mission for IOM in Haiti when the 2010 earthquake struck. IOM didn't pull him out when that happened and replace him with someone more senior; they worked with him to make sure he had the support needed to continue to do his role and enhance the response. That approach worked and ultimately IOM was one of the biggest humanitarian responders, supporting the victims of the earthquake. This shows other young humanitarians what they could be capable of if they are dedicated and produce good results.
What kind of advice do you have for someone who is in college or who have maybe just finished and is looking to get into development?
- One of the best pieces of advice that were given to me and still holds true is “get your boots dirty”. If you are interested in a particular issue or region, go there and see if you can find an opportunity there. I know even with the UN they will sometimes hire people on the ground because they are there.
- Talk to people. If you know someone who is doing the type of work you want to do then hunt them down and set up a skype call, or if you are in the same place as them to go for coffee. Ask them for advice or if they know of any upcoming opportunities, or if they can review your CV.
- If you are about to finish college or have finished college think about the right type of internships. Are you ok to undertake a placement that is just about gaining experience or do you want a job at the end of it? If you want to work for a UN agency people usually get in through an internship.
- The type of work you are interested in doing in development is always important to consider. For example, with communications, if I had worked for a creative agency or an ad agency first and then tried to transition over to IOM maybe I wouldn't have a base knowledge on migration and how IOM works, but I would have this incredible knowledge of how to run campaigns and how to be a professional communicator which would be an advantage to me for IOM. Definitely consider how you could build experience in non-humanitarian sectors which can feed into a role in the humanitarian sector.
- What I would also say is don't give up. It can be hard. It was difficult for me for a couple of months, but I know it was difficult for other people for a lot longer. Hang in there!