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“Telling individual stories is a very powerful way of getting people to care”
Conversation with Melissa Fleming - Head of communications and chief spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
  • Credits: Sciences Pho

 

Why are MUNs important?

MUNs enable students to intensively experience what international diplomacy is like. I like the fact that students are challenged to take the views of countries they don’t necessarily agree with. It makes clear how challenging it is in the international diplomatic arena to reach consensus, to try to persuade governments to change their views, to come aboard or to sanction other governments in order to isolate them. Lots of people think that it is easy for the UN to solve problems but when you see how many players there are and how complex the circumstances are, you understand easier how difficult it is to run the world.

Many SciencesPo students dream of being in your position, working for the United Nations. What advice can you give them? What should they be most aware of?

It is really important to understand the different parts of the UN, the political part and the secretariat. They mostly deal with peace and security. Those jobs are different from the humanitarian work we are doing or the job I used to do before at the International Atomic Agency, which is another very specialized and technical UN Organization. We needed to prevent potential catastrophes, now we deal with the fallout of actual catastrophes, which is war. For me, when human beings are involved, it is so compelling, as well as to be able to try and make the world a better place for people who probably need us most. In the end, it depends on your area of study and what you are interested in. Sadly, today it is not easy for young people to get into the UN. You need to have relevant professional experiences and pass an exam that depends on your country.

We heard your two very moving TED Talks, one of which was in Thessaloniki in Greece, and you also mentioned that never since WW2 have so many people been forcibly displaced with 84% of refugees living in developing countries. Nevertheless in Europe, media and politicians often use the term refugee “wave”. With the anti-refugee policies of many countries such as Hungary, Austria, Poland, which is literally abused by right wing politicians - do national politicians, as well as a majority of European citizens not see the bigger picture?

The statistics of people forcibly displaced have increased over the years. At the same time, we see less compassion from rich countries of the world. In 2015, when refugees started coming to Europe in big numbers, there were warmly welcomed in the beginning. However, the extreme right-wing parties saw an opportunity in these large numbers to make people afraid. They exploited this issue. It started with Viktor Orban in Hungary who started building a fence and created a false narrative about who was arriving, calling refugees “economic migrants” - or men who would bring terrorism. At first, the majority of people was shocked by this, but two years later the same rhetoric can be found in Austria, Germany or France, even becoming mainstreamed. They make it seems as if everybody was coming to Europe. It is dehumanizing.

In your Talk, you told the story of Doaa, a then 19-year old Syrian refugee in Egypt, who wanted to go to Europe with her friend Bassem. This latter had to spend all his savings to get on a smuggler’s boat of 500 people. 11 survived the journey. Is it too “abstract” when you speak about stories people drowning in the mediterranean sea? Can people in Europe even notice the concept of risking your life? How can we  get people into recognizing what refugees  are having to go through?

I have studied this because I am in charge of communications. If I were to talk always about 66 million people all the time, I would not evoke any sympathy or compassion. Studies in social psychology show that even if you present two tragedies, people already start to shut off. So, telling individual stories is a very powerful way of not just informing people, but getting them to care. Then, they will perhaps do something. I take a lot of encouragement from the reactions to Doaas story. I wrote a book based on that TedTalk, now translated into eleven languages. JJ. Abrams and Steven Spielberg have even optioned the rights for a film. There is also going to be a young adult version for the ages between 12 and 18 and it is going to be marketed in schools all around the world. In countries like Germany, Austria or Sweden that are taking large numbers of refugees, I know that a lot of people are interacting with migrants for the first time in their lives. Individual stories are convincing and can help change views about the motivations for people to flee.

Let us ask you a slightly more personal one: in light of what you deal with on an everyday basis: Do you ever get angry? In other words: how do you separate work and private life?

It is very difficult to separate them. There is always this feeling of never doing enough. I travel a lot: last week I went to Kenya and Uganda for example. There, you see huge influxes of refugees who have fled with nothing, coming from nothing. When I fly back to the USA, everything seems to be so golden and glimmering, that is why the comparisons are sometimes hard. Especially when I see children peacefully playing in a playground or safely walking to school rather than being in a bomb-shelter trying to learn despite missiles targeting their schools, I realize that all children should be able to live like that. However sometimes it really gets to me what human beings do to other people, when you see civilians being targeted in wars, women being raped as a weapon of war, children being turned into soldiers or families being torn apart. You just wonder: does humanity ever learn? It is frustrating. On the other hand, I do take a lot of inspiration from refugees. When I hear their stories, I ask myself how they could have survived. How you can still smile, be positive, hopeful and try to rebuild your life and your country.

A lot of people want to help but don’t know how. Do you have any advice? How can we help on a daily basis?

There is a lot we can do. However, it is very difficult to say from a global perspective. I did write a piece which is called “8 Ways To Help Refugees” and is on the TED-ideas blog. You can either help refugees where they are or in your own community. You can donate, even small amounts. Also volunteers might be needed in specific centers within the communities. Sometimes kids need tutoring. What is really important is to educate yourself and to help change the ugly narrative. We believe that everybody fleeing war and persecutions has the right to seek safety in another country. If your government is building fences, then stand up and say “not in my name”.

 

Interview: Alexander Bernard, Raphael Bucher, Eva Marxer, Cosima Sagmeister

Photography: Sciences Pho