FILE - Rania Al-Mashat, International Monetary Fund (IMF) advisor, Shaden Khallaf, senior policy advisor for the Middle East and North Africa Bureau at the UNHCR, Azza Karam, UNFPA senior advisor and Jacinthe Rihan, Program Area Manager for Greater Cairo
CAIRO - 4 December 2017: Many inspirational Egyptian women have overcome all barriers, as gender, age, race and nationality, to land the highest positions in some of the most influential global institutions for development. Each is playing a vital role in the international arena, whether socially, culturally or economically—and they are all worthy role models for every Egyptian girl.
In the midst of refugee crises: Shaden Khallaf
Shaden Khallaf is the senior policy advisor for the MENA bureau of the UNHCR and the most senior Arab woman in the refugee crisis policy-making. She works on advancing policy change in the field and across the region to support millions of displaced refugees.
Working from inside refugee camps and the regional bureau to coordinate life-saving assistance to millions of displaced refugees, Khallaf has always felt a strong connection with refugee mothers, who go to enormous lengths to protect their children from the horrors of war.
She can never forget her first visit to a detention center or the desperation in the eyes of that man who attempted to take his life right in front of her. And above all, the moment, when she knew that 22 of her colleagues lost their lives in the same office she was based days earlier, was just one of those moments where her life was turned upside down.
Khallaf has set to articulate these experiences and so many others into advocacy messages for government authorities, policy makers, royal families, celebrities, businesses and public audiences, using each of the harrowing stories as an opportunity to make a difference in dramatic refugee crises.
“It has been a long journey, and one which has affected me on all levels: emotionally, intellectually, socially and more. But I have always known that this is what I want to do, and every day I am reminded of why,” Khallaf says.
She started out as an intern in the protection unit of the UNHCR in 1998, and has remained committed to this humanitarian responsibility for over 18 years. Having grown up in seven countries, exposed to cultural diversity and immersed in the work of public service at a young age thanks to her parents, Khallaf has always appreciated the value of giving back and being an active actor in the global arena. She has also always felt a strong connection to the cultural, political and socioeconomic context in the region. “It is so important to have this contextual understanding of the region, which I owe in part to my father, and to be working from the perspective of global responsibility sharing for refugee crises of the magnitude we are seeing today,” Khallaf explains.
A central part of her work is to address the needs of refugee women and children; being an Arab and a mother of two boys herself has been a mixed blessing for Khallaf. She also has to deal with the daily challenge of fulfilling her responsibility as a caring mom, all the while balancing that with the pressure to deliver quick and efficient life-saving assistance to those she works to protect. “There are days when it all becomes quite overwhelming, and I wish for a quieter job or less emotionally charged line of work, and I constantly wish for more time with my kids,” Khallaf says.
Yet, she still finds it extremely rewarding seeing her boys becoming more socially aware and empathetic. “They are learning to be empathetic and to be part of the solution by sharing what they have and helping those who are less fortunate,” she says. “I will not forget the day my kids came to me with some money they had saved up and asked me to use it to buy food and toys for refugee children. I could not hold back the tears of pride . . . That made me realize that they understood why my work mattered, and that was such a reassurance and relief.”
She often has to ensure that her personal connection with those she is there to assist remains balanced with the reality of what can be done, while remaining clear-headed and composed, despite the emotional impact of the work.
“The range of human pain, misery, loss, and tragedy we see all the time is, in fact, only paralleled by the strength, courage, resilience and hope that we also see in refugee crises,” Khallaf says, adding that the situation in the region is becoming more volatile, making her mission more important than ever. “The world, and the MENA region in particular, is facing one of the most transformative moments in its contemporary history, and we all have to do our part to better understand this phase, and to better position where we are going.”
“It takes courage and strength to face the enormous hurdles Egyptian women face every day in making a decent living, caring for their children and their elderly, being the source of comfort and refuge for their families, managing households, all the time while negotiating promotions, fending off discrimination, dealing with harassment, and having to work twice as hard to earn the respect they deserve in the workplace. I am inspired by Egyptian women, and women everywhere around the world, who selflessly stay the course and make it easier for all of us to do the same.”—Shaden Khallaf
This article is part of Egypt Today’s campaign “Break the Silence ... Say No to Violence” marking the 16-Day campaign of activism against gender-based violence GBV from November 25 to December 10. In a series of articles, we document the journey of inspirational women who made it to the top in the world of development and NGOs including, Rania Al-Mashat, International Monetary Fund (IMF) advisor, Shaden Khallaf, senior policy advisor for the Middle East and North Africa Bureau at the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), Azza Karam, UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) senior advisor and Jacinthe Rihan, Program Area Manager for Greater Cairo and Delta at Plan International Egypt. The four women