Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (UNHCR's World) - New York: Life in the fast lane

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1996

At U.N. Headquarters, UNHCR staff work hard to keep the plight of refugees on the international agenda, says Sr. Liaison Officer Marie Okabe.

By Marie Okabe
UNHCR Senior Liaison Officer New York

A typical day in the UNHCR Liaison Office to the United Nations, also known as "LONY," is a whirlwind of activity. There are eight of us in the office, but we don't deal directly with refugees. Instead, we try to keep refugees on the international agenda.

"Mr. Blatter, it's the 38th floor," secretary Jodette Cerrato tells Werner Blatter, the head of office. The "38th floor," the top floor of the gleaming United Nations headquarters building on the East River, is the office of the U.N.'s top official, the Secretary-General.

The urgent phone call is from an aide to Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The aide wants an update for the Security Council on the refugee flows from Burundi. Refugees, being one of the most visible symptoms of things gone wrong in a country, are frequently cited in the Security Council deliberations to illustrate the link between humanitarian concerns and the need for political action.

The next call comes from the Secretary-General's spokesperson, who needs an update on unrest in the Masisi region of Zaire. With every bit of new information coming in from Geneva or the field, our job is make sure all the other relevant people across the street in the U.N. Secretariat get what they need, so that they can make policy recommendations with refugees' needs in mind.

By 9:30 a.m., we have decided which of the myriad of morning U.N. meetings we will attend. We pick three. They deal with landmines, sanctions, and cooperation with non-governmental organizations all critical areas for UNHCR operations worldwide.

Who is going to undertake the painstaking task of de-mining in the Eastern Slavonia region of Croatia? Who is going to pay for it? At a meeting of the U.N.'s top military and political officers, Blatter flags UNHCR's biggest concerns in the region. UNHCR has been the lead U.N. humanitarian agency in former Yugoslavia since late 1991.

One floor below, Pirkko Kourula, the deputy who has worked in the New York office for the past five years, is briefing a U.N. colleague on the best way to navigate the bureaucracy in order to get key humanitarian supplies through a sanctions regime. Kourula should know. Aided by assistant Lili Soden, she has shepherded countless lists of Yugoslavia-bound humanitarian goods through the Sanctions Committee established by the Security Council.

I attend the third meeting of the morning. It is convened by the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, a relatively new department whose creation in 1991 to coordinate the humanitarian operations of the United Nations has added a new dimension to the work of our office. On this day, we have been asked to brief some NGOs on coordination arrangements in former Yugoslavia.

Back at the Liaison Office, Jennifer Rose and Jerusalem Eyob are working out the details of a symposium on post-conflict resolution which the High Commissioner is organizing at Princeton University.

While we were across the street, Tsegereda Assebe, LONY's able assistant, made that sure we met an important noon deadline to get UNHCR's input into the Secretary-General's report on Liberia to the Security Council. We report on the exodus of people fleeing the fighting in Monrovia by boat and its implications in the region.

Our office in New York may help refugees only indirectly, but we are certainly in the business of trying to ease the lives of UNHCR staff in the field. Much of that work is done by Kathy Papparizos, a 30-year veteran. Before lunch on this day, Papparizos tracks down the missing shipment of yet another staffer being transferred from one remote corner of the world to another and tries to help an American field officer sort out his U.S. income taxes.

Afternoons at LONY can be quite hectic. A contingency planning meeting on Burundi, a special session of the General Assembly gathering to vote on the newest member for UNHCR's Executive Board, and discussions to decipher the just issued programme for this summer's session of the Economic and Social Council in New York are just part of the activities.

At the end of a day like this, we can't forget to "phone home." Long after most U.N. staff have left for the day, LONY still is abuzz; reporting the day's highlights to Geneva, huddling to discuss tomorrow's agenda, doing a telephone interview with a radio station in Australia. The activity never seems to stop.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)