With Melissa Fleming

I Will Always Hold Fast

by Alessandra Morelli | Interviewed by Melissa Fleming

In Greece, Alessandra Morelli served as UNHCR’s senior Emergency Coordinator and here she talks with Vice Admiral Giannis Karagiorgopoulos in the port of Mytilene during a visit to assess UNHCR operations on the island of Lesvos. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

15 OCTOBER 2018




Alessandra Morelli

I will always hold fast.

15 OCTOBER 2018

Alessandra Morelli

I will always hold fast

Alessandra Morelli has operated in some of the toughest places in the world. She is currently leading UNHCR operations in Niger and has previously worked in Afghanistan. She was on the ground in Greece when almost a million refugees and migrants trekked through that country. When Alessandra was working in Somalia she came under attack.

“I was in a car, in a UNHCR vehicle in a UNHCR armoured vehicle they call it the B6 which is a very armoured vehicle and I was escorted by 22 armed men … I remember, at a certain moment, the car stopped, an incredible bang! The car rocked right and left and like a ball of fire in the air the car stopped. Smoke started coming into the car and with my colleagues because we were four I said ‘are you all alive!? Are we all alive!?'”

+ Full Transcript

MELISSA FLEMING (MF): You see my daughter named after her and she doesn’t even know it.

Alessandra Morelli (AM): Yes. You know I do. I do.

MF: I know you know

Alessandra Morelli (AM): I know I know. Do you know what my name means? The name is very strong meaning.

MF: Say it again.

Alessandra Morelli (AM): It means protector of humanity. A defender of human defender.

MF: I have to tell her. And one day she has to meet you.

AM: Yes yes. Come and stay with me.

MELISSA FLEMING (MF): My daughter’s name is Alessandra but I didn’t know Alessandra at the time. But in a way, after I met Alessandra I said “Actually I like the fact that we that you share the name of my daughter because I wish I named her after you.” She’s somebody who I would love my daughter to emulate, although I’m not sure I would want my Alessandra in all the war zones that this Alessandra has spent time in. I think I would worry too much.

Alessandra Morelli (AM): What was going through my mind is “I’m dying”. If we can’t make it through the gate again we’re gonna, we’re gonna die here. We’re gonna to die in a UNHCR car and we’re gonna die in the full functions of my duty. And I was holding the hand of the person next to me. The driver saved our life.

MF: Alessandra Morelli’s life has taken her from a convent to the front lines.  She’s seen it all, and she’s a force of nature – one of the positive people I know.  Where does that drive come from?

I’m Melissa Fleming, and this is Awake At Night.

MELISSA FLEMING (MF): So hello Alessandra, thank you so much for coming into the studio during your short time here in Geneva. It’s great to see you.

AM: It is my pleasure. Thank you very much for allowing me to share.

MF: I know you just came here from your current posting in Niger, but I want to first ask you – you at one stage almost lost your life working on behalf of refugees, the displaced people, in Somalia, in Mogadishu. It was February it was 2014. What happened?

AM: Yes well Mogadishu 2014, a day just a day before Valentine’s Day, it’s very difficult to to forget. That that morning I decided to go and supervise the finalized security work in the compound in the U.N. compound where the UNHCR had an office and its accommodation.

MF: And just to picture what these compounds look like they’re…

AM: Fortresses in the middle of a city – Mogadishu being at very high risk. So after touring around and being briefed, I was satisfied with the work I was returning and at a certain moment I. There was enormous.

MF: You were in a car.

AM: I was in a car in a UNHCR vehicle in a UNHCR armoured vehicle they call it the B6 which is a very armored vehicle and I was escorted by 22 armed men. So I was in the car I was reading, I was preparing my mind intervention with the Minister of Foreign Affairs I remember, and at a certain moment an incredible bang! The car rocked right and left and like like a ball of fire in the air… the car stopped. Smoke started coming into the car and with my colleagues, because we were four, I said “Are you all alive? Are we all alive?” And we had this, we were incredible readiness, if you want, to position ourselves into the brace position when you go “Brace, brace” and to realise to touch ourselves if we had all our pieces in the right place.

MF: You really were touching yourselves to see if you had your body parts?

AM: Everywhere. Everywhere, everywhere one can touch. I tell you the truth. To check if we had blood, and checking on each other. But then this smoke started to come in the car and the car could not move. So the guards started shooting all around us to ensure that nobody would come close to the car, and we were asking for help. We were not far away from the entrance to the compound and people saw this, this ball of fire which was the suicide car. The suicide car hit the car went on our car.

MF: So the suicide car was actually…

AM: Driving against us, driving against us

MF: Driving into your car in order to blow your car up.

AM: Absolutely. They did do it. But the armoured vehicle did its job. The armoured vehicle really crunched itself on us almost. I mean resisted, but, the problem was that we could not, we could not start. So we were there for a couple of minutes really, there. In the U.N. compound they heard this noise and they said “Oh my God whoever is there is dead” Because this ball of fire a big sound. And then in a few seconds “But it’s UNHCR it’s UNHCR” And then even more “But it’s the rep it’s Alessandra”. So you went from “its UNHCR. It’s the Rep. It’s Alessandra. It’s Ale, it’s Ale that car”. So it was incredible how they…

MF: This was how they had recounted this to you.

AM: Yes. So from the very general to the person that was living in the compound. I was living in Mogadishu.

MF: What were you thinking at the moment when that ball of fire surrounded you?

AM: So I said to myself “Oh my god this is now happening to me”. You know you always read, you’ve prepared yourself.  But you know living in Mogadishu and working in Mogadishu, like it was in Afghanistan, like in every high risk environments, you always think it will never happen to you. But whenever there is a sound and you and you operate in these environments, you already associate it to an attack. So you know in that sense the sense of vigilance and readiness is always there.

MF: So when you knew what was happening to you. What was going through your mind?

AM: What was going through my mind is “I’m dying”. If we can’t make it through the gate again we’re going to die here. I’m going to die in a UNHCR car and we’re going to die in the full functions of my duty. And I was holding the hand of the person next to me. The driver saved our life.

MF: How did the driver save your life?

AM: Saved my life by trying to restart that car. He remained cold, you know focused. And that car started after a couple of minutes full of smoke as I said inside, and it moved at the chitty chitty bang bang, you know like this, and we arrived in the compound and there we had the care of of everybody. My reaction was I could not … The only piece of the suicide bomber I saw was a part of his arm. The rest was totally blown.  I looked at that arm and I entered into communication with that arm. I had to. And my answer was, my question was “Why did you do this?” You know “Why? Why did you do this?” What, you know. And what hurts me most, because of course I went into therapy, you know through the system called EMDR which is the eye movement. It’s it’s a tactic that helps you rehabilitate, like in a film like I’m doing here with you today. But today I am able to talk about it, before I was not. So the therapy helped me re-established the trauma and re-elaborate it and to put it back into that right dimension, that today is a memory that I am able to share and not something that is victimizing me. Or how do you say, blocking me blocking me. So it’s not as I say it’s a train that is passing by me and not a train that is passing inside me.

MF: It took several days if you recognized in yourself that you needed help.

AM: Yes we did not want to leave immediately. Well let me tell you that seven people died. The bypassers died and so when I elaborated the situation there there are two moments where I could not proceed anymore. One is, I left that compound. Somebody must have betrayed me. Somebody must have informed somebody that in that car, for that moment, there was a high profile I’m not a high profile person, but in that moment in that car there was something more juicy. If you want. Let’s put it that way. That hurted me, the sense of betrayal hurted me so I had to elaborate that and then moving moving ahead is the fact that UNHCR brings life – that day UNHCR car brought death. Because because of me passing because of the UNHCR car passing seven Somalis died, and seven Somalis were just being deported from Saudi Arabia. They were, because I was close to the airport when it happened so seven Somalis deported from Southern Arabia just standing in the street not knowing where to go.

MF: They had been migrant workers in Saudi. Yes. They had just been deported.

AM: Yes. Yes. Yes. I said yes. Next to the little coffee shops and tea shops wondering what next in my life? So I did not want to leave Mogadishu immediately for several reasons – one because I react by reconciling with the environment. If I left I would have probably never come back. And two, the sense of responsibility.  So I was the victim, but at the same time I was the incident manager at the same time so I had to manage the anxiety of others. “Oh my God the rep has been hit. She’s going she’s going to go now. What will happen with us?” This is how it is, you know, in the high risk environments working in high risk.

MF: A lot colleagues are national staff.

AM:Yes working in high risk environments the manager becomes a bit of everything for the staff. It’s not just their leader.

MF: So who were you to them?

AM: We were living together, eating together you know, fighting for challenges and overcoming challenges to get there, 24 hours a day even with a national staff. I think we were all not only me for them but we were a core was a very tight family. So I said “How am I going to manage this?” We will reconciled. I took all the affection of the people said “Let me get all the affection of the people in the U.N. compound”. It was a moment where everybody would come and hug you I said “Let let’s take this take all of this energy”. But then I was sitting seven hours a day in front of the car to reconcile to reconcile. And after I realized I needed to go because colleague throw a Coca-Cola can and, the can hit the ground and made a noise and I and I jumped and that I said “No. Now it’s time to go.” But it was the right time to go because I reconciled somehow. I went, I stayed three three weeks at home doing this therapy, to Italy for physiotherapy also because my back was hit and my back still suffers today. My vertebrae has collapsed.

MF: It was the impact of the explosion?

AM: Of course that of course of course. So both the passenger sitting in the front and myself were the ones hit him more than me him more than me and he was a little bit. He bears the consequences to day.

MF: Initially this was to get medical treatment, physical therapy. But then you realised you needed help for PTSD.

AM: Absolutely to avoid entering into PTSD.

MF: This was your own decision. Yes. You self diagnosed yourself that you had what’s called post-traumatic stress syndrome. What were the symptoms?

AM: Every noise would make me jump.  So when you start associating a noise and that noise triggers in you the sensation of fear, of freezing, when you freeze or you know anxiety. Then then then that noise is just not a noise, that you have to understand why that noise is bothering you. So well this is another thing, it’s 26 years I’m now with UNHCR and most of my career I developed it in war zones. So you do develop a self capacity to – you become a bit of a psychologist as well because I’ve grown in leadership line. Of course I’ve read. And of course I did some courses and of course I asked for help on how to manage a team in a high risk environment. So this I have to say with all honesty I have learned.

MF: A number of colleagues that I’ve met, I think maybe didn’t reach out for the help they needed – they look around and say “Others are suffering more. You know what happened to me is nothing compared”. And then they don’t seek the help. What made you decide that you really needed help?

AM: Because of the responsibility of my role as a leader. I had to put the oxygen mask on before putting it to others. If I wanted to come back to Mogadishu I had to be…

MF: And this whole time you were thinking I’m doing this because I want to go back to Mogadishu?

AM: But I hadn’t finished by SAL no!

MF: Your SAL you have to explain…

AM: My length of stay! I’m joking no but it was my. Yes. To return to Mogadishu because my place was still there.

MF: Alessandra did go back to Somalia. Just a few months later, she took a colleague to the spot where the attack happened.

MF: I think our listeners might be surprised actually after you were targeted for terrorist attack…

AM: Yes. Well of course I did not go back on my own. I was basically through consultations with the psychologist. Of course it was a consensus reaching I was ready to go back.

MF: And you think it helped you in some way to go back?

AM: It did it did did it did absolutely did. It’s like when you say, at least in Italian, when you fall off the horse you get on that horse again otherwise you risk not to to go. And since my life is dedicated to the safeguard of human dignity I mean if I it’s like a E.R. doctor, you know, then if you don’t go back to that then you’ll change. I say death to tease a little bit to bring a bit of so teasing on this. I – from post-traumatic stress to post-traumatic strength – you can go into that

MF: How?

AM: By being humble enough to try to go through this elaboration and this pause and then try and seek help to re re reassess a little bit. That image of what happened and put it in the right position. Yeah.

MF: Did you keep anything from a day to describe what it was?

AM: Well I have a picture of site and you can see how that suicide car or is now like like like paper mache, the car I can show you the picture. What I what I have with me is a piece of the armored iron and pieces of the window. It’s in a small little bag there and it’s a little bag. I’ve put it in a little bag Yeah. I had a little it was. It’s a bit more than that it was, it’s a little image of the Virgin Mary that my mom gave me, knowing that and that I was working in Somalia. That day I just brought it with me and didn’t know that I was going to go through that. You see every time I left my compound and my colleagues that I’ve been working or working in Somalia can understand. Every time I had to leave that compound with doing the same gestures everyday, take my flak jacket and put it on. And every time you put it on it’s because you’re going out there. And so it’s a moment of reflection. You say “I’m going” and that day I remember very well I had that image in my bag and I always have a picture of what symbolizes my dad on my wall and my dad is symbolized by an airplane taking off. So

MF: He was an executive at Alitalia 

AM: It’s that Italian air plane that carries his name. So for me has has a certain symbolism and a certain strength though that takeoff, you know, always above the clouds and go above the clouds and you know don’t stay into the nitty gritty. Just go above the clouds and you see things from a different perspective and easier to solve. So I just put my hand on it I said “OK I’m out of here”. God knows if those gestures you know, one one you know you want him you want to bring a little bit of magic around that right.

MF: You felt that they were protecting you and somewhere

AM: Somehow always do I always do.

MF: But ten months after her return to Mogadishu something terrible happened. On Christmas day 2014 – during a celebration lunch – a group of suicide bombers attacked their compound. That day, Alessandra was in charge. She and her team were under siege for 21 hours.

AM: Well indeed it was like you know the test if really I was ready to come back or not to know that period. I was even the officer in charge for security I was the DO. The third day in line.

MF: You’re in charge of that.

AM: I was the only one in Somalia in that moment I knew imagine and say it’s Christmas you know is going to be cool. Well 13-20. I still remember, Christmas lunch. We hear this noise is this shooting around us. I was moving with my plate to try to drop it at the kitchen, and the alarm goes off and I am literally taken by this big Fijian man and brought in to the command and control room, the place where I would had to manage that the crisis, the situation. So 21 hours under siege, with colleagues in bunkers who slept even in bunkers. 21 hours with almost, with seven suicide bombers in the U.N. compound. It is amazing.

MF: How did you deal with that situation?

AM: I dealt with I know how to deal. I mean, what you know, when in difficult situations, although I am known as very outgoing and joking and smiling I in in crisis I am boom. I am cold I am centered and ice. It’s like I, I know what. It’s like there is an instinct on what to do next. So I I I had advisers around me of course say I’m not alone.

MF: Where were the armed men in relation to you?

AM: They were not far away. Their plan was to blow up the containers where we had the U.N. had its gas and its fuel. But they did not succeed.

MF: Tragically, three African Union peacekeepers and a civilian contractor were killed before the siege ended. The UN staff were safe.

MF: You spent most of your life at UNHCR in war zones. Is there something, do you have a faith that has helped you get through these really difficult times? Things that you see. Is there anything that keeps you going?

AM: Yes – I am I am I believe that there is somebody that is the father and the mother together. Father and mother of us. I just can’t believe that beauty like we are just came like this (clicks fingers). There must be a design behind no? So yes I believe in that value. And I’m not somebody who goes to church every every Sunday. But but I feel that naturally these values of solidarity and respect are very strong because they come… Probably there where they come – I’ve discovered them within myself, and then they are a product and they are I think generated by the fantastic life I lived throughout my my my my childhood until now in different locations. That’s why I say my journey in the mist. I lived I was conceived in India in 1960 and since that day I have never stopped moving. One part because of life of my dad’s work. And then with the UNHCR.

MF: You did stop for a short period of time and you decided at one stage you had a boyfriend but you decided to leave him and you decided to become a nun.

AM: Yes this is true. How old were you and I was. I was actually going to get married even years. I threw everything out of the window as they say and I have Franciscan yes a Franciscan becoming I did not become 100 I was on my way to, but I lived certainly a life of meditation and silence and I think that if I’m able to handle situations today in UNHCR it’s because I had the opportunity to, yeah to reflect on life and who I am for 6 years in a monastery. Yes.

MF: You spent six years?

AM: I spent six years in a monastery. I left a monastery and joined UNHCR in 1992 like this.

MF: What made you decide to become a nun to join a monastery.

AM: It certainly it it’s this strong drive because I’ve been in different eyewear different different dresses different shirts if you want or different colors but the leitmotif is always the same in different dimensions. And it’s this very very very clear very clear the safeguard of human dignity. I think from a life always as a pilgrim, always itinerant, always in movement, I needed probably a few years where I stood still. And that’s where I think I really understood who I am.  You never understand who you are, but at least your values and what is guiding you, what are your anchors. By then this is a bit of a characteristic of me. After a while I feel that I may need another layer another another step and another step and another step it’s like it becomes too small it became too small I mean as I move I move.

MF: Tell me the story about how you transition into UNHCR.

AM: Well then I left the convent I left to the monastery. And of course I returned home and my parents were not really happy – not because I left the convent.. Actually they were very happy I left the convent. They were really not in agreement they said wow how could this happen? I mean I don’t come from a particular religious family and my father said to me fine what are you going to do now? And I said well find something to do. Don’t count on me. No I said I was watching TV and this 1992, 1991 the start of the former Yugoslavia war and I said “Yeah that’s that’s that’s where I’m going”. So I went to look at this you and UNHCR couldn’t find it. You went and I end up in the office in Italy and I said “Hi I’m looking for a job”. And they say “Well that’s not really how we recruit”. So this person gave me the forum where every UNHCR or U.N. candidate fills to present to support his or her CV. And they were kind enough also to advise me to show my face, to go to Geneva and show my face. You never know. So I asked my father who was working for the Italian airline, saying “Can you help me with the ticket?” and “What are you going to go what are you going to go and do in Geneva?” “Well there is this organization” and he said “You will never get it. I mean I you know how can somebody go alone to the UN?!” I enter the HR on my own asking, people were actually looking at me. And I meet a colleague working for the HR the human resources section at that time. And I can never thank her enough. She looks at me and said “What what is your skill what can you do?” Because she heard I was coming out of a convent and she said “What can an ex-nun bring to UNHCR?” And I remember my words were “You can place me in difficult and remote places. I will always hold fast.” That was the only thing I knew how to do actually! And I got a three month contract. And here I am 26 years later and I was very young.

MF: Where did they send you?

AM: To Croatia to Croatia on a front line dealing with one of the most difficult case loads we had at that moment, which was the evacuation from the detention centres in Prijedor, Keratem, Omarska. The most difficult we with the ICRC, the International Red Cross Committee, they would come to UNHCR transit centre – skeletons. You remember those skeletons behind the barbed wires on the Time magazine in 1992/1993? That was my first project.

MF: And you saw them for yourself.

AM: I lived with them. Sixty thousand people were resettled coming out of detention with family reunification and resettled to a third country. Interesting 26 years later I’m in a similar context with the evacuations we are having from Libya to Niger.

MF: So Alessandra there must be things that you know you’ve seen hell on earth you’ve seen one

AM: Rwanda

MF: You’ve seen Afghanistan you’ve seen Bosnia yes you’ve seen

AM: Sri Lanka. The tsunami in Indonesia

MF: Crimes against humanity. What makes you angry?

AM: What makes me angry is I quote I quote a thought from our High Commissioner [Filippo] Grandi. He said “We are no longer capable to consolidate peace. We are no longer capable to make peace. Therefore people are forced to flee.” I am angry that we don’t have leaders to devote to dedicate their time and their life to learn how to make peace. I mean I am angry because there is not this cap, we have lost this capacity

MF: Even though you’ve seen all of this band through all of this. And you’re angry that there’s so little peace so many more people forced to flee – what is it that keeps you going?

AM: What keeps me going is that if you discover yourself that you have this this call. And and you you you you you recognize that you have it, like a doctor in ER or a musician… If I would have turned away my back to this call that would have been a crime.

MF: Against whom?

AM: Against humanity quite frankly. In this sense that if you discover that you have a call to to live in the mist and to fight for human dignity and you just turned a page or you zap you up with your like for a TV channel remote control you were remote and you change your channel. I would have been angry with myself I probably wouldn’t have been the person I am now.

MF: You were one of the most empathetic people I’ve ever met. How does that affect you working with refugees who have lost everything not just their homes but also family members and community jobs.

AM: It well you know I think this is the empathy is there but there is at the same time, when I am in action I think it’s like like like a surgeon. There is something I don’t know how to explain it I’ll find it. You keep that keep that distance and I depersonalize, then a few days later when I am maybe sitting or relaxing then of course I go through it with with with different feelings. But on the moment I I have to take decisions, I react, I have to to guide a team.

MF: Alessandra these days what keeps you awake at night?

AM: What keeps me awake at night is this project that has started between Libya and Niger. These evacuations of persons of concern of UNHCR that have gone through detention and are still in detention. And what keeps me awake at night is we need to get them all out. But do we have the means?

MF: Is there anything from your past that keeps you awake at night?

AM: I have to say that despite having gone through difficult situations at work I have this incredible gift to be able to sleep really almost eight hours full. But if, But of course during the day something might remind me of something and, yes I remember in 1993 in the Kuplensko refugee camp where a tent got on fire and a kid lost its life… There’s many things, but there is this gift and this is why I’m saying I’m fit probably for this job – there’s this gift that allows me to take it, feel it, but allows me to carry on. I would say also with a sense of serenity and joy.

MF: Alessandra, thank you so much for coming into the studio. Thank you for talking to us on this podcast mind all bass. All day best wishes for your important work and stay safe.

AM: Yes I will. Thank you so very much. And I’m sure I will stay safe.

Alessandra Morelli at the Kara Tepe refugee site on the Greek island of Lesvos, during an on-site meeting between UNHCR High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, and local authorities. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

In 2015 Alessandra Morelli was UNHCR’s Somalia Representative. During that post she met internally displaced woman at a tailoring training in north-central Somalia at a project which empowers Somali youth and supports local integration for displaced people. © UNHCR/Carlotta Wolf

Next up: When Going Home Is No Longer An Option