UNV Partnerships Forum 2014: UN Volunteers' inspirational stories spark tears and cheers

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For most of the attendees of the UNV Partnerships Forum 2014, the highlight was the Inspiration in Action – Blue Room Talks session.  Eight UN Volunteers from across the globe, chosen to represent the over 6,000 UN Volunteers and UNV’s various geographic and programmatic areas, took center stage to share their stories. They provided inspiring insight into their assignments, and the difference they are making within communities every day.

Four of the eight UN Volunteers who spoke during the Blue Room Talks session of the UNV Partnerships Forum 2014 held in Bonn: from left to right. UNV Pediatric Surgeon Bip Nandi (UK) serves in Malawi; UNV Communications Officer Moses Zangar Jr (Liberia) serves in Zambia; national UN Volunteer Li Wei serves on a forest management project outside Beijing in China; national UN Volunteer Samar Mohamed Wahba serves with UNICEF Egypt. (Celine Bolton/UNV,2014)

For most of the attendees, including UNV staff present, the highlight of the UNV Partnerships Forum 2014 was the session on the first day called Inspiration in Action – Blue Room Talks.  Eight UN Volunteers from across the globe took center stage to share their stories and provide inspiring insight into their assignments, and the difference they are making within communities every day.

Chosen to represent the over 6,000 UN Volunteers and the breadth of UNV’s various geographic and programmatic areas, the UN Volunteers selected through a competitive process for the Blue Room Talks included international and national UN Volunteers, a UN Youth Volunteer and a UN Online Volunteer.

All spoke from their hearts and provided their eye witness perspectives on how volunteering is transforming their communities and changing themselves. Their poignant stories of dedication, innovation, courage and always humanity brought many listeners to tears and touched everyone. 

Watch their inspiring stories by clicking here

Dr. Bip Nandi, from the United Kingdom, recalled arriving to take up his position as a UN Volunteer pediatric surgeon at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, which brought the number of pediatric surgeons in the country to two. He mistakenly took the back entrance and was alarmed to find the building in a state of disrepair, an impression exacerbated by finding a tree lying across one corridor where it had crashed through the roof.

In her introduction, the UNDP Associate Administrator had cited Malawi as one of the countries which will achieve the MDG of reducing its child mortality rates by 2015.  That notwithstanding, for Bip and his medical team, “Every day we start with a new challenge. No gloves or no blood or no electricity or no water.  But every day we manage.” 

After describing life-saving surgery he performed on a six-year-old accident victim, where he used a hand drill on the child’s skull for part of the procedure because the hospital has no power tools, Bip said he now considers himself lucky to be working at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.  He praised his surgical team who treat 500 major cases annually, including highly specialized surgeries on their little patients, and who regularly work on weekends to reduce the backlog of cases and minimize delays to surgeries. “In one weekend, for the cost of 40 Euros, we can save five lives,” said Bip, who also said his colleagues are very underpaid.

“Volunteering is more than gap filling,” said Bip.  “We must address systemic inefficiencies by bringing novel ideas and experience. Volunteerism embodies the ability to learn from each other.”

Addressing the Forum participants he concluded, “I hope together we can improve the future of pediatric surgery in Malawi.”

Li Wei, a national UN Volunteer deployed to a forest management project near Beijing, said her volunteer assignment provides her an opportunity to raise the awareness of government officials in China about the importance of environmental protection and conservation of the country’s fauna and flora. At the same time, as a UN Volunteer she has opportunities to raise public awareness about the possibilities to influence government decisions through civic engagement, to prevent or correct policies that would otherwise result in harm to local habitat and species.

“When we do forest management,” said Wei, “the most difficult part may be dealing with people.”

She shared an example of how, thanks to her persistent community outreach and investigation, and good interpersonal skills in presenting the issue to her manager, she was able to stop the theft and destruction of a forest re-seeding programme by members of the public. 

Wei’s forest management team had noted that saplings planted to reforest an area did not thrive and in fact kept disappearing after planting. Wei discovered that a poor family living in the forest, earned its livelihood selling the produce of their fruit trees and was harvesting the newly planted saplings both for firewood and to ensure that their own fruit trees thrived in the area. 

Wei went to her supervisor to see if anything could be done. Her team introduced the family to techniques to improve their fruit production without harming the land. Her team also tried to develop more economic opportunity for the local people and encouraged the use of more efficient heating systems that required 30 to 50 percent less fuel.

“Now we see that the survival rate of our seedlings has improved greatly,” said Wei.  “I was proud of this improvement because it proved the value of mutual cooperation.”  Wei thanked UNV, saying  “...It brings me so close to the government decision-making process. I really believe volunteerism can be a future for China for sustainable development.”

Wei has also worked to change stereotypes about volunteers being inexperienced in their fields by taking on complex tasks of increasing responsibility and requiring greater skills.  

Moses Zangar Jr., a journalist from Liberia, told the Forum participants, repeatedly and enthusiastically, that being an international UN Volunteer Communications Officer with UNDP Zambia is the best thing that ever happened to him.  At a journalism workshop in South Africa, Moses met Osman Benk Sankoh, another African international UN Volunteer.  “He had so much passion,” said Moses, who seemed to have no shortage of the stuff either.

“He showed me the website and I applied.”  When he had not heard from UNV after two weeks, Moses contacted his friend Osman, again. “He told me, ‘Moses, don’t rush. Cause when you rush, you crush.’”  In 2009, Moses received a letter from UNV offering him an assignment as a UNV Public Information Officer within the Electoral Assistance Division of the UN Mission in Sudan.

“I was a proud international UN Volunteer in Sudan,” said Moses, who had served in the Public Information Section of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).  Maintaining that being a UN Volunteer was a highlight of his life, Moses observed that the electoral information materials he was preparing made no mention of people with disabilities. “They have to vote, so I went to find them,” said the journalist, who is an American Sign Language Interpreter. 

Slow going at first, he encountered people with disabilities who said, “’Moses, my wife can vote for me.’” “I said, ‘Oh, no! It is one person, one vote,’” he recalled.

After making contact with the South Sudan Deaf Association, he used his sign language skills to conduct a two-day-long electoral briefing. “I stood from eight in the morning to five in the evening. But I was happy,” Moses stated. 

Following up, he observed association members relaying the information to their family members and other deaf people.

Currently a UNV Communications Officer in Zambia, Moses targets messages projecting how the UN in Zambia supports the Government and people of Zambia in a more coordinated way through the “Deliver As One” initiative, and is deeply involved with the planning and execution of the Post 2015 consultations. 

He is also using his assignment to learn best practices to take back to Liberia, explaining:  “I was from a war-torn country, Liberia, and worked in a war-torn country, Sudan. Now I am in Zambia, which has had unbroken peace for 50 years.  That’s what I mean by best practices.  I want to find out.  Zambia, guys, what did you do to be at peace all these years?”

“I am happy to work with UNICEF Egypt,” said national UN Volunteer Samar Mohamed Wahba, “because I work with the poorest children in Egypt.” Samar has been an educator for ten years and taught in international schools in Egypt before shifting her focus to development through her assignment at a community kindergarten supported by her host organization. 

“I was happy to instruct teachers on the active learning method,” she said.  “The new technology such as computers, has increased children’s interest in schools.  In the UNICEF Egypt project, teachers are taught how to create crafts, how to work with paper, how to impart learning through playing. UNICEF provides furniture and supplies at the beginning of the training.”

Samar, whose assignment will end shortly, reflected on it, saying “I think being a UN Volunteer gave me an opportunity for civic engagement in my country, to visit different areas and be a decision-taker.  Thanks to UNV and UNICEF Egypt, I move on with memories of the happy smiles of children as they have a good start to reach their potential.”

Four years ago, when Kirthi Jayakumar, a lawyer in Chennia, India, specializing in public international law and human rights, filled out her application to be a UN Online Volunteer, she did not realize that she was on a road to change her life.  A survivor of physical abuse, now in her mid-20s, Kirthi Jayakumar, seemed completely at ease when she asked the Forum’s audience members to reveal by a show of hands, “How many of you have taken education for granted?”  All too many raised their hands. 

Kirthi has been fulfilling the online volunteering opportunity to be a blogger, and regularly writes articles about life in Nigeria for the site Delta Women. Online volunteering has helped restore in Kirthi the strength and confidence to go back out in public and take part in events such as the Partnerships Forum.

Some months ago, Kirthi was struck by photos from a correspondent which depicted young children as they made a journey of 25 kilometers every morning, coupled with a 35-kilometer return journey in the evening due to a road diversion, just to attend school in the next village.  Haunted by the images of small children, including children carrying even smaller children, on this long trek to school, Kirthi and her correspondent decided to “do something”.  The result was a series of articles and a social media campaign that went viral, but then shut down.  

Before the Blue Room Talks ended, Kirthi announced that months of subsequent correspondence with the Nigerian government had resulted in the opening of a new school in the children’s community that very day.

“I hope we come up with more collaborations that give children a better start at the future,” said Kirthi. 

With his rapid-fire delivery, Ioseba Amatriain Losa, from Spain, a fully funded UN Youth Volunteer who is serving in Colombia, told participants, “I have been volunteering my whole life.” He has served as volunteer in Spain, Venezuela, Bolivia and Colombia with non-governmental organizations, and was a European Volunteer in Georgia within the European Voluntary Service.  He also served in the Philippines with the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation in Gender and Human Rights Public Policies.

As a UN Youth Volunteer, Ioseba works in advocacy and youth policies, supporting the Presidential Programme for the national youth system “Colombia Joven”. The system’s main goal is to establish policies, plans and programs that aim to contribute to the social, economic, cultural and political promotion of youth.

Ioseba said he was reconciled that he wasn’t going to change the world, but that “The world is going to change me.”  Paradoxically, he immediately recalled with relish helping to select the winners of the Youth Volunteering Awards in Colombia, which surely will “change the world”, if only momentarily, for the recipients. 

“There is Katrina, a 24-year-old nominee who uses art to help people at risk of social exclusion, conflict, leaving school early, prostitution among others,” Ioseba said.  “David is 16 and builds houses with the Scouts, which he describes as “building homes”, for poor families.  He is a natural leader and has brought other people to the programme. Now he is promoting sustainable gardening.”

“When I notified him that he was one of the award winning volunteers, he said volunteering had changed him a lot and when I heard that, I felt connected,” said Ioseba. “Volunteering is empowering youth to help keep their heritage, learn about sexual health, experience leadership and raise awareness about the environment.”

“As volunteers, youth are changing their communities, their world and themselves,” Ioseba concluded.

“People ask what they want out of life. I found that volunteerism can fulfill you,” said national UN Volunteer Sathaboramana “Mana” Kheang who served as an LGBT Human Rights Officer for “Being LGBT in Asia”, a joint regional initiative fund by UNDP Asia, Pacific Regional Centre and USAID, based at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia.

 “When you volunteer, you can make people understand and you can remember that over and over. Serving as a UN Volunteer for LGBT, I got to address the LGBT part of human rights. LGBT people are our family and friends.”

A call from a prison, about a woman being harassed by other inmates, led Mana and a colleague to undertake a three-hour drive to the prison to investigate and have a talk. “I said, I knew they are prisoners, but that it doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to life, to be treated as human beings,” Mana stated. 

Upon returning, Mana and her colleague got a call from the prison that the harassment had stopped. “The prisoners also thanked us for making them feel like human beings,” said the former UN Volunteer currently pursuing her Master of Arts in International Studies at the University of San Francisco. 

 “You don’t have to go home and surf the channels for a reality TV show,” Mana advised participants, “because you are part of this reality.”

“I am very comfortable presenting in the Wasserwerk/Pumpenhaus building because I am a water and sanitation engineer,” Bobbie Baker, from Ireland, a UN Volunteer in Sudan joked with the Forum participants.  The conditions he endures in Sudan, where temperature can reach above 50oC, are no laughing matter.

“As an engineer, to create the perfect partnership, you have to work hard to work together,” he said.  “We work with partners to serve 130,000 refugees across 13 camps.   We have the odd disagreement, but we always agree to sit together to tell stories of each other’s families.”  Bobby concluded about his colleagues, “And if we didn’t care, we wouldn’t work so hard to stay together.” 

“We have worked with other UN entities, implementing partners and have worked hard to provide what other people take for granted…clean water,” he continued. “Maintaining these partnerships is not an eight to 4:30 occupation. We build a platform upon which people can re-build their lives.”

“UNHCR (Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) is a protection agency,” he explained. “Sometimes a small thing, like a broken toilet or water pipe can have a significant impact. For example, an out of service latrine recently meant that 200 children had to leave school.  This area is on a human trafficking route, so leaving the school made the children vulnerable.”

Bobby added that everyone at the refugee camps is encouraged to take part in maintaining the upkeep of the facility. “We encourage a community management system staffed by refugees, for example, to monitor the water system,” Bobby said.

When asked whether he felt that UNHCR, his host organization, really valued his service, Bobby did not hesitate, saying, “I have felt from the start that I was working in partnership with UNHCR. I have felt totally ingrained in the system and that I have the complete support at the Country Team. "

The Blue Room Talks were moderated by Ms Merjam Wakili, a media trainer with Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcast service, who had given the UN Volunteers media training to help them prepare for the talks and take questions from the audience.

Truly the stars of the UNV Partnership Forum, as they addressed their audience during the Blue Room Talks, and thereafter mingled among participants for the rest of the Forum, these UN Volunteers were living embodiments of UNV’s motto: Inspiration in Action.

Presiding over the closing of the UNV Partnerships Forum, UNV Executive Coordinator Richard Dictus left the last words to these UN Volunteers who had touched so many of the participants with the eloquence of their own commitment:

Bip Nandi:  “Volunteering changes lives.”

Wei Li: “Volunteers build bridges between the people and the government.

Moses M. Zangar Jr.: “Volunteers bring inspiration and enthusiasm to development.” 

Samar Wahba: “National volunteers know their communities best.”

Kirthi Jayakumar: “Volunteerism is only a click away.”

Ioseba Amatriain Losa:”Youth volunteering is not the future. It is the present.”

Sathaboramana “Mana” Kheang: “Engage in human rights for dignity for all.”

Bobbie Baker: “To build and maintain partnerships, we have to work hard to work together.”