Awake at Night podcast

What does it take to be a United Nations worker in some of the world’s most difficult and dangerous locations?

How are health workers, humanitarians and peacekeepers racing to protect the most vulnerable populations from the threat of the COVID-19 virus?
Stationed in remote locations and far from family, how are they coping themselves?
To find out, Melissa Fleming meets them.

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Interview with Dr. Matshidiso Moeti — Teaser

How are health workers, humanitarians and peacekeepers racing to protect the world's most vulnerable populations from the impact of the COVID-19 virus? Dr. Matshidiso Moeti talks to Melissa about her childhood in Botswana, apartheid South Africa, and her fears about the effect of COVID-19, especially on women.

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Season Three

David Beasley inspects a storage facility with colleagues at hand.

In this opening episode for Season 3 of Awake at Night, host Melissa Fleming speaks with David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, about his own experience being sick with COVID-19 and why people should listen to the science. He also explains why the pandemic is causing an spiraling epidemic of hunger. In Mr. Beasley's words, should the world fail to come together and invest in people everywhere, we may face "famines of biblical proportions."

From his home in South Carolina, to Yemen, to Sudan and Ethiopia, Mr. Beasley shares candid moments of his journey in the world of humanitarian work, and his thoughts on why the UN is needed now more than ever.

:: David Beasley interviewed by Melissa Fleming
A group photo of the team working on the interview. Neil Walsh and Melissa Fleming are at the front of the photo.

Neil Walsh, Chief of Cybercrime and Anti-Money Laundering for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, describes the horrific surge of criminals exploiting and abusing children online while they are in lock-down and what he is doing to stop it. He speaks about his belief that “COVID-19 is the great reset button.” He also describes the scene he witnessed of a deadly terrorist bombing as a child in Belfast, Northern Ireland and how “that was the moment where I decided I’m going to do something to stop this stuff.”

He also speaks candidly about his continuing 14-year battle with bowel cancer and why he is so vocal on social media about his struggle with the disease. There were four occasions where he was told by a doctor, ‘you may not survive tonight.’

:: Neil Walsh interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Dr. Moeti does an elbow shake with a man wearing a vest that says "WHO"

"[O]ccasionally being naughty with my friends, we would stop in town and roam around and sort of walk around and I was less than 11 years old, but with other friends. And we were very clear that if there's a white kid coming, walking in the opposite direction on the curb, you don't get out of the way for this person. So those kinds of small defiances. So by by the time I was 11 leaving South Africa, I knew there was something very wrong with the society we live in." Dr. Matshidiso Moeti talks to Melissa about her childhood in Botswana and aparthied South Africa, and her fears about the effect of COVID-19, especially on women ”The impact economically is going to make them even more vulnerable to many things, not just to COVID itself."

Dr. Moeti is the first female Regional Director for Africa for WHO. Now she’s the face of the COVID-19 fight in Africa, but she says facing the pandemic is easier than where she started her career as a doctor - fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s.

:: Matshidiso Moeti interviewed by Melissa Fleming
A helicopter transports a wounded health worker and others, while Dr. Michael Ryan helps tend to him.

"[T]he SOP was if the if the bombs start dropping, wrap yourself with as much of this as you can and, and move. So I spent a few weeks sitting, you know, laying in my bed [with a broken spine] looking at this lightweight plaster cast beside me wondering how the hell I was going to get wrapped up in this in time to be able to get away from whatever was happening."

Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the Health Emergencies Programme for WHO, speaks about giving up on dreams of becoming a trauma surgeon after breaking his spine in a car crash in Iraq. He was held hostage there while working in a hospital during the first Gulf War. That experience set him on the path to WHO, with a specialism in infectious diseases. "[Y]ou were either a surgeon or a good infectious disease doctor, because that seemed to be the two things a doctor could make a difference with, in many developing country environments." Today, he is leading the team responding to the international containment and treatment of COVID.

:: Mike Ryan interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Ms. Bangura walks with two women and looks at the camera with sad eyes.

"I grew up with the pain of poverty, with the humiliation, with the psychological and emotional impact it has to you; the lack of self-confidence. [...] So for me, poverty is one of the strongest things I'm very much concerned about because I know how it feels to grow up in poverty."

Zainab Hawa Bangura, Director-General of the UN Office at Nairobi, began her career as a women's rights campaigner in her home country of Sierra Leone. Her reasons were personal: at age 12, her father wanted to marry her off to an older man. Her mother refused and so her father threw them out. Sacrificing her own marriage for her daughter's future, she insisted on education. In this episode, we hear about Ms. Bangura's journey to personal freedom from her own abusive marriage, and about how she came to conclude "I need to be there where the decisions are made. I have to be on the table because if you are not part of the agenda, you will be part of the menu."

:: Zainab Bangura interviewed by Melissa Fleming
A woman wearing an ear protection headset looks out of an aeroplane window

"But doctors are afraid too, for their health. So I follow the same protocol of the country [...] it was the time for me to see if the system I helped to put in place is working. So I received the team at home they came to decontaminate my house. They programme me in the same way that they programme all other positive COVID cases, I received the psychological support too and I receive also social support, they bring me water and soap to wash my hand so I stay home waiting for the test [...] and I stay in bed. But I continue working. I was participating in all the teleconference because I didn't want to be cut off from what was doing in the country, because this time, it was very high number of cases. So we had to adapt everyday our strategy"

Marie-Roseline Bélizaire, a doctor and epidemiologist with WHO, is helping fight COVID-19 in the Central African Republic. Marie speaks about her upbringing in Haiti and how the lack of scientific and medical rigour motivated her to study medicine. She also recounts her experiences on the frontlines of Ebola.

:: Marie Roseline Bélizaire interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Boris Cheshirkov carrying a refugee child on a stretcher with the help of another person.

As we mark five years after Europe’s refugee crisis, we revisit our episode with Boris Cheshirkov, who worked for UNHCR as a spokesperson in his native Bulgaria when thousands of refugees were arriving at the border. It was an extremely tense time, testing European solidarity to its limits - bringing out the best of humanity and also the worst.Anti-refugee feeling was running high. In Bulgaria, an asylum seeker was shot dead at the border. But when Boris spoke out against the violence, he himself became the target of a virulent online hate campaign. The threats were so severe he had to leave his country. Boris now serves in Greece, where refugees remain in limbo. 

“There were others who were saying ‘Now we’re coming to kill you. We’re organizing. You will not find a safe place in this country.’ There were others that were just wishful thinking: ‘You will get cancer and die tomorrow. Your family is cursed. We will find you. We will make you disappear’.”

:: Boris Cheshirkov interviewed by Melissa Fleming

Season Two

Melissa Fleming, head of UNHCR’s Global Communications Service and Spokesperson for the High Commissioner, interviews Fabrizio Hochschild, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Coordination, for the second season of Awake at Night.

"And then, I plucked up my courage, because I was so ashamed of how I was feeling, I thought I was literally going crazy and felt full of self-recrimination, and I saw a British Forces doctor, who told me that, yes, I had post-traumatic stress disorder, and that was the first time I heard of it." Fabrizio Hochschild felt invulnerable and impervious to danger, but the savagery he experienced in the 1990s during the Bosnian war brutally stripped away all his mental defences. Rising to the position of UN Assistant Secretary-General, he is now committed in helping others to fight the stigma of mental health problems.

:: Fabrizio Hochschild interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Melissa Fleming, head of UNHCR’s Global Communications Service and Spokesperson for the High Commissioner, interviews Monique Sokhan, UNHCR’s Assistant Representative for Protection in Lebanon, for the second season of Awake at Night.

"You hear the stories. And it is this 'survivor guilt' that you feel when you go back." Monique Sokhan fled from the terror of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s, when she was just a child. Many family members who stayed behind did not survive. "I felt like having a responsibility somehow to do something that would make them proud of me." It’s that feeling that drove Ms. Sokhan to work for refugees. But her first job for UNHCR was in Thailand, as a Protection Officer in camps for Khmer Rouge refugees – while the Khmer Rouge were the very people responsible for the killing of family and friends.

:: Monique Sokhan interviewed by Melissa Fleming
At Salamiya IDP camp near Mosul, Iraq, Bruno Geddo consoles a boy who was harassed by his peers due to a disability. The photo was taken in July 2018, just days after the city’s liberation. ©Courtesy of Bruno Geddo

"There is a level of need, which goes well beyond our standard ability to deliver psychosocial counselling. So as a protection agency, we have been facing this dilemma: How far can we go to make a meaningful contribution, beyond the individual compassion that you feel and you show and you share when you meet these persons?. " Even in the middle of a war zone, Bruno Geddo manages to light up the room, make people smile. He may sound like he’s just been on a long and magical holiday, but Mr. Geddo has been helping the victims of conflict in the world’s most dangerous places; his most recent posting: Iraq.

:: Bruno Geddo interviewed by Melissa Fleming
While visiting Afghanistan in May 2002, Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh engages with members of the local community. At the time, she was working for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and travelled frequently to Afghanistan.

"Maybe I say that now, as a nearly 50-year-old, but I think we underestimate maybe the importance of making the children part of the process that you’re going through as a parent, when you’re going into exile." Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh, an effective and tireless advocate of human rights, a lawyer who holds a senior position working on refugee protection, carries in her heart the legacy of her own experience as a refugee when she was just 10 years old.

:: Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh interviewed by Melissa Fleming
In January 2016, Boris Cheshirkov was working on the shores of Lesbos island in Greece, helping the refugees who had just crossed the short but dangerous stretch of sea from Turkey. Over 67,000 people reached Greece by sea that month alone.

“There were others who were saying ‘Now we’re coming to kill you. We’re organizing. You will not find a safe place in this country.’ There were others that were just wishful thinking: ‘You will get cancer and die tomorrow. Your family is cursed. We will find you. We will make you disappear’.” When Boris Cheshirkov spoke out against the shooting of an Afghan asylum seeker in the border between Turkey and Bulgaria, on Bulgarian territory, he himself became the target of a virulent online hate campaign. The threats were so severe he had to leave his country.

:: Boris Cheshirkov interviewed by Melissa Fleming
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett meets a Syrian refugee mother and daughter living at an informal settlement in Lebanon in May 2015. ©UNHCR/Jordi Matas

"Often for people who get on boats, it’s not the first point of trauma. They’ve experienced starvation. They have been shot at. They have travelled miles without any medical aid. Their children are at their wits’ end, already traumatized, when they get on the boat. These are not ill-informed, unintelligent, reckless individuals. They are doing this, because they are thinking profoundly about their children’s future. They are the people who are being washed up on the beaches. Just think about that, as you’re drifting off to sleep, you know." Cate Blanchett reflects on how meeting refugees has profoundly altered her perception of human suffering and the capacity to hope.

:: Cate Blanchett interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Adiba Qasim visits Lalish, a Yazidi holy site in northern Iraq, in 2016 with Hani and Evan, whose fathers were killed by ISIS fighters.

"I went to a rehabilitation centre, supporting and helping the women who had been sex slaves and who managed to survive with their children [...] They had just managed to escape. I’m coming and holding all this pain with them, and they were physically and mentally sick. And we had to take them to the hospital." Adiba Qasim is from the Yazidi minority in Northern Iraq. In August 2014, her village was stormed by Islamic State militants who killed and enslaved thousands of Yazidis. Adiba and her family managed to escape just before the militants arrived. She was 19 years old.

:: Adiba Qasim interviewed by Melissa Fleming

Season One

In December 1996 Vincent Cochetel was Head of UNHCR’s sub-office in Vladikavkaz, southern Russia. In this photograph he is monitoring a repatriation movement from the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, via Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia.

“[I was] handcuffed to a metallic cable that is tied to a bed so that gives me little margin of movement around the bed on one side of the bed. Enough to make four footsteps and you get used to that. It was dark. Darkness was more difficult to cope with than limited freedom of movement. Darkness is something that is oppressive.”

:: Vincent Cochetel interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Fatima Mohammed, UNHCR country Representative in Liberia, speaks to UNHCR Chief of Communications Melissa Fleming for the podcast series “Awake at night.” © UNHCR/Susan Hopper

"I’ve worked in worse situations, for example in Sri Lanka and in Somalia but maybe this time around because I am part of that community, it was really so difficult for me – and we’ve been trained as humanitarians to try and control your emotions so that you could be able to think clearly and be able to give support. But in this situation I actually began to doubt myself."

:: Fatima Mohammed interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Sajjad Malik, UNHCR Country Representative in Syria, speaks to UNHCR Chief of Communications Melissa Fleming for the podcast series “Awake at night.” © UNHCR/Susan Hopper

“What keeps me awake is my staff that they will perhaps suffer more than what they have suffered so far. The Syrians that have gone through this, may have to go through more pain and more suffering. [...] It has to stop somewhere. We have been saying enough is enough, but even enough for Syria has a new definition. What is that enough? And these thoughts make me angry, make me sad because at end of the day I see people dying in Syria. People are losing their lives in Syria.”

:: Sajjad Malik interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Giles Duley photographed refugees and asylum-seekers in an informal camp near Idomeni in northern Greece during 2015. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

“I always say that the doctors, the surgeons, the nurses, they saved my life physically [...] My family was there to support me. But everybody, everybody questioned me whether I could work again. Nobody believed it. I was supported to finally go back and do the story in Lebanon of the Syrian refugees [...] They didn’t look at me and think 'he can’t do his job'. They trusted me with their stories [...] When that work was published is when people started commissioning me again to work. So I always say it was those Syrian refugees [...] They were the ones that gave me my life back [...] without them I would not be able to be a photographer.”

:: Giles Duley interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Felipe Camargo, UNHCR Regional Representative for Southern Europe, tells UNHCR Chief of Communications Melissa Fleming about the most challenging aspects of his humanitarian career for the podcast “Awake at Night.” © UNHCR/Susan Hopper

“[S]omebody said to me once to be a real humanitarian you need to be a bit of a lawyer, a bit of a cowboy, a bit of a nun, and a bit of a nurse. And I really think that is true you know because you cannot be just a charity person. You need to be strong enough and stay solid enough and look after yourself as well in the middle of crisis to be able to respond. But of course globally it is traumatizing. You know we are in the 21st century, we’re getting into the 22nd century whatever it is, time passes and the atrocities that you see in war, the numbers of refugees around the world it is something that still shocks me.”

:: Felipe Camargo 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 Zavalli

"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 [...] 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."

:: Alessandra Morelli interviewed by Melissa Fleming
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Khaled Hosseini meets Melissa Fleming in Palo Alto, California thirty years after arriving in the USA as a teenager and an Afghan refugee. © UNHCR/Elena Dorfman

"I remember one night we had, we were a few months in the US, and we had friends over and there was a knock on the door and we opened the door and this these boy scouts and this guy from the Salvation Army rolled in with canned food and clothes and gifts and a tree. And we were all kind of bewildered. What was going on and they came in and they put the tree and they wished us merry Christmas and give all they gave us gifts and so on. They were grateful, but it was also so strange that there roles are reversed now. I remember going to the grocery store with my mom and she would pay for food with food stamps and that was so mortifying for her."

:: Khaled Hosseini interviewed by Melissa Fleming