UNHCR’s most senior woman talks about what keeps her up at night

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A compelling account from UNHCRs most senior woman

A compelling account from UNHCR's most senior woman

Deputy High Commissioner for refugees, Kelly T. Clements, UNHCR's most senior woman, explains what keeps her up at night and how she dreams of a world that is "not broken up, at war."

Supporting the most vulnerable people 

Kelly's experience (in 1992 with UNHCR) working with Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar has perhaps had the most impact on her in her entire career to date.

"People had come across from Myanmar in considerable numbers," explains Kelly. "It was very crowded, quite chaotic. We had near riots at some points in terms of food distribution. We had to change the system to ensure that the most vulnerable were in fact getting fed. I remember people standing for hours in the sun, with black umbrellas. It was overwhelming at times."

"There was one family, a woman with three or four very young children. In the melee, she had lost her food ration card. And she had not been able to feed her kids for over two weeks. She was in tears when we talked. It took a long time but we were able to get her another card. Going back on a repeat visit, she heard I was in the camp and she came and found me. I remember her face quite vividly. She had tears and she said, “These are tears of joy.” And she said, “I’m not sure what I would have done without UNHCR.”

Dedicated to providing relief

Kelly has recently returned to Bangladesh to see, first hand, the work that UNHCR is doing with refugees. "It was quite emotional for me to go back. So many people have come, not just in this emergency, but in the last 25 years. It was emotional to see colleagues still dedicated to protect them and to provide relief."

"Before this emergency began, I think there was a real hope that UNHCR could work itself out of a job in Bangladesh, but this, of course, changed everything. How do we equip people to be able to help themselves?

A resolve to really make a difference

"It’s easy to feel despair and to be quite frustrated," comments Kelly. "Particularly in the last couple of years when things have become so difficult and borders are closing and policies are becoming more restrictive and people are treated as inanimate objects as opposed to human beings. That makes me angry. But then there’s resolve to really make a difference. I’m a rather optimistic person. I try to live to see the silver lining."

"We will see solutions. We will see the possibility of people returning or rebuilding their lives. I was in Guinea in 2003 when Liberians were returning and I met this young mother and her newborn baby, who were about to return. The joy on their faces was just remarkable and it really stayed with me."

Kelly Clements UNHCR

Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly T. Clements plants a tree to mark her visit to Nakivale settlement, Southwest Uganda. © UNHCR/Frederic Noy

Hope for the future

"We are incredibly stretched as an organization. When we can’t get the funding, the relief supplies and the people to an emergency situation fast enough, that keeps me up."

"I want a future for our children. And I want a world that is not broken up, at war, with people unwilling to talk to each other and not treating others humanely. It’s about how we prepare our kids to contribute to that peaceful world we need."

Join the UNHCR talent pool 

Talented and inspiring women like Kelly are vital. They ensure that UNHCR can deliver aid and support refugees in the world's most vulnerable areas. UNHCR is always looking for passionate, talented and dedicated individuals to join the talent pool; women and diverse candidates are especially encouraged to apply. Search for your next role with UNHCR and make a genuine difference to the lives of refugees. 

Main image © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell: UNHCR Deputy High Commissioner Kelly T. Clements meets Rohingya refugees during a visit to Kutupalong camp in south-east Bangladesh. 


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