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UNHCR mourns loss of refugee advocate, Mary Diaz


UNHCR mourns loss of refugee advocate, Mary Diaz

Staff of the UN refugee agency pay tribute to Mary Diaz, former Executive Director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, who died of cancer last week.
18 February 2004
Burundian refugees returning from Tanzania through the new Gisuru border crossing point.

GENEVA, Feb 18 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has joined the humanitarian community in mourning the death last week of refugee advocate Mary Diaz.

Diaz died of cancer last Thursday (February 12) at the age of 43. The American refugee advocate had been Executive Director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children since 1994, visiting refugees and displaced women and children in hotspots like Afghanistan, Angola, the Balkans, Haiti, Pakistan and Tanzania.

She left behind her mother and four siblings, as well as long-time partner Tom Ferguson and many devastated friends and colleagues.

"All of us at UNHCR are deeply saddened by the passing of Mary," said High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers in a condolence message to her family. "She was such a special part of us and she has left a void in the refugee and humanitarian world, where she touched many lives. We share your sorrow and offer our heartfelt sympathies at this great loss to the family. May God bless her and may her soul rest in peace."

Diaz was a well-loved and respected figure in UNHCR. The refugee agency's Regional Representative in Washington D.C., Kolude Doherty, first met Diaz in the mid-1990s, when UNHCR was tasked with looking after up to half a million Rwandan refugees in western Tanzania.

Doherty recalls, "I was told that someone from the 'High Commissioner for Refugee Women and Children' was passing through Dar es Salaam and would like to say hello. Given the 101 things I had to see to that day, I was in two minds to pass her on to one of my colleagues. But curiosity prevailed: 'High Commissioner for Refugee Women and Children?'"

"Mary walked into my office that day and I was happy that I met her," Doherty continues. "Elegant, fragile, with a twinkle in her eyes as she allayed all fears that she was not just another 'High Commissioner' but someone who also felt the pain and anguish of the refugees, and the particular and inherent problems faced by women and children especially in this particular refugee crisis. The one hour I spent with Mary revealed a great mind and compassion for the human condition. It was the beginning of a strong admiration and respect for this remarkable human being."

Joyce Mends-Cole, UNHCR's Senior Coordinator for Refugee Women/Gender Equality, remembers Diaz's "passionate and informed advocacy, an ability to connect deeply with the refugee women we met [in Tanzania] as well as to win over those needed to support the women, and a great sense of humour."

Christina Linner, UNHCR's Senior Coordinator for Refugee Children, adds, "Her gentle, soft-spoken, yet articulate and uncompromising approach when advocating for refugee children's right to protection and care was truly remarkable. She was as at ease helping a young refugee girl develop confidence to speak on a panel as she was delivering a powerful statement to world leaders at the UN General Assembly Session on Children."

Tsegereda Assebe, UNHCR's Reproductive Health Officer, recalls, "Mary and I worked closely over 10 years on a variety of issues concerning women and children. I came to respect and admire her not just as a staunch advocate for refugee women and children but as a wonderful human being. I consider Mary a friend and will deeply miss her."

"Mary was not just great at her work, she was a caring, kind, intelligent and funny friend. It is impossible to imagine that a woman so full of life and vigour is gone. I miss her," shares Katharina Samara, Executive Assistant at UNHCR's Inspector General's Office.

Comfort Lamptey, UNHCR's Senior Advisor for Refugee Women/Gender Equality, met Diaz over seven years ago in New York. She reminisces, "Mary was young, beautiful, dynamic, committed and extremely humane. I came to trust and confide in her on a number of important professional decisions. Throughout, I was deeply touched by the unflinching support and encouragement I received from her, and count myself lucky to have known and been influenced by such a wonderful woman."

Summing up Diaz's legacy, Doherty says, "Mary, rest in peace and be reassured that the tasks you left behind will continue to be tackled with the same sense of urgency, humility and compassion that you showed during your short but fruitful life."

"She leaves behind a deep sense of loss," Linner adds, "but also a strong sense of inspiration to carry forward her vision and commitment to the many issues through which she touched so many of our lives."

A memorial service for Diaz will be held in New York this Saturday. Her family has requested that donations in her memory be made to the Mary Diaz Fund for Refugee Girls. Donations may be sent to the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, 122 East 42nd Street, New York, NY 10168-1289, USA.