'I have to live with the unpredictability - and I love it'
UNHCR has more than 11,500 staff, most of whom are based in the field. Meet Massoumeh Farman Farmaian, who coordinates on emergency responses.
Portrait of Massoumeh Farman-Farmaian, UNHCR Senior Emergency Interagency Coordinator.
© UNHCR/Susan Hopper
Name: Massoumeh Farman Farmaian. Born in Iran.
Job Title: Senior emergency inter-agency coordinator, based in Geneva.
Years at UNHCR: Fifteen, with deployments to more than a dozen countries.
Why did you become an aid worker?
I was born in Iran and I speak Farsi. I always wanted to work in Afghanistan. I wanted just to see, feel, smell and absorb the place for as long as I could remember. I got the opportunity to work there after the September 11 attacks.
I was working in the private sector in New York at the time of the attacks, and when the military went into Afghanistan, I thought to myself, ‘This is a good time to go and help these people. I need to be there and contribute somehow.’ I called several aid agencies and told them ‘I'm here, I speak the local language.’
I started working for UNHCR in Iran in 2003 and then I went to Pakistan in 2005 to help after an earthquake. From there I went to Afghanistan, where I finally got to use my language skills, as Dari is very close to Farsi. After a decade in the region, I went to Chad.
What is the most rewarding/challenging thing about your job?
When conflicts or political upheaval displace a population overnight, UNHCR is there to help. In emergencies, we must think quickly and act fast.
Our aid and experts are ready for rapid deployment anywhere in the world. We can launch an emergency operation within 72 hours, thanks to a global network of stocks and supplies, specialists and partners.
Your mind is always on standby. Sometimes I’m required to leave in less than three days and I am okay with it. I have to live with the unpredictability – and I love it.
When I am deployed – whether it’s to Greece, Uganda or Bangladesh – it's hard work because I don't usually take days off. How can you take a day off when you're in the middle of an emergency?
But I do enjoy the work. I love being in the field because of the experiences, meeting people from diverse cultures and having an opportunity to make a difference. The most rewarding bit is being able to see the impact of your work.
What was your best day at work?
More than 1 million people have fled South Sudan and sought safety in neighbouring Uganda since fighting erupted in 2013.
Probably one of my proudest moments working with UNHCR was when I was in deployed to Uganda in 2016, when thousands of South Sudanese refugees were arriving on foot every day through the bush, the vast majority of them women and children.
Within a few weeks of setting up the settlement for new arrivals we had thousands of people in school. It was wonderful to see children in classes and teachers planning their next lessons.
I also had quite an emotional experience in Greece, where I was called to a hospital that was caring for some children who had been rescued after a boat that capsized. They were injured and no one spoke their language. Nobody knew who they were.
So I went to the hospital and I was trying to figure out if they spoke Farsi and finally figured out their names. They were Iraqi Kurds. I also took their photos and shared them with colleagues from different locations of the operation – they were finally reunited with their parents.
What was your worst day?
I met an Afghan man in his late thirties who had just lost his family in a shipwreck. He had boarded a boat with his wife – who was eight months pregnant – and his two children, a two-year-old and a seven-year-old. When the boat capsized, his family didn’t make it to shore. After a frantic search in all the registration centres and hospitals, we started making the rounds of the morgues.
Eventually we found the bodies. He was completely distraught. He later said, ‘I’m going back to Afghanistan, where I want to die. Everything I have to live for is gone.’
This was the worst experience ever for me because there was nothing I could do for him. But what keeps me going is the thought of all we as UNHCR have been able to accomplish in the various emergencies across the world.
The UN Refugee Agency works in 128 countries helping men, women and children driven from their homes by wars and persecution. Our headquarters are in Geneva, but 87 per cent of our staff are based in the field, helping refugees. You can listen to a podcast discussing what it takes to be a humanitarian worker in some of the world’s most challenging locations here.