I arrived at UNICEF on a bus, and by accident at that!
As a ragged-trousered kid from a children’s home, I had sweet talked my way into university without the pre-requisite qualifications and funded my studies by selling jackets in Camden market in North London. In addition to being entrepreneurial, I was idealistic and had been campaigning for the rights of people like me (from state care) since the age of 16, my heroes were Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. I had a vague, unclear notion of wanting to contribute to a better world. That has stayed until this day!
At the time, the wars in Bosnia and Croatia were raging and stories and images of families, children, elderly people under siege or fleeing as refugees were headline news. I signed up for a summer volunteer programme for refugees in neighbouring Slovenia and set about raising funds for the trip, even convincing the local BBC radio station to provide a portable radio recorder to do stories from the trip. I wrote to UNICEF in advance to request an interview on psychosocial work with war-affected children. They asked for my details and said they would try and help.
Those were the days before low-costs flights. The bus from Victoria Station to Zagreb in Croatia may have been ten times longer, but it was also 3 times cheaper! The trip was spent with migrant workers, returning students and endless conversations. It was the perfect introduction to the region.
Upon arrival I called the UNICEF office What happened next was bizarre, and in some ways life-changing.
A heavy-accented French voice on the end of phone breathlessly whispered ‘Benjamin…we have been waiting for you. When can you start?’ I knew how to adapt to a sudden-situation change and I replied….breathlessly…’when would you like me to start?’
To this day, I don’t know if I was mistaken for someone else, but I was not going to miss the opportunity. We agreed that I could complete my volunteer programme and then join the Area Office working on a one-day-a-week contract helping out with English language writing in the communications office. For that miserly contract, I worked seven days a week, around the clock. I knew this was the chance of a lifetime. I wanted to be indispensable.
Working for UNICEF was exhilarating and like nothing I had ever seen before. The work and the people were so inspiring. The capability to impact on the health, schooling and protection of children in the worst of circumstance-at scale was remarkable. I felt this was exactly the place to combine idealism with action. After a couple of months of working my socks off , I got a full-time contract and decided to take a year out from university. Halfway through the year I had a few months covering as the head of a small field office in central Bosnia, distributing humanitarian assistance to those caught between the fighting.
Upon completing a masters a few years later, I rejoined UNICEF and have served over 20 years including in Afghanistan during the massive back to School programme in 2002, in India after the Tsunami and Georgia during the 2008 conflict. I came full circle and back to the Balkans as a Rep in Montenegro and North Macedonia and now to New York. I also returned to the issues that moved me in the first place: children deprived of parental care, child poverty, neglect and mental health-issues now central to UNICEF’s global advocacy.
There has never been a better place for someone like me to work than UNICEF, though of course it can drive you crazy. If you have three UNICEF people working on a task there will be six ideas on how to do it. We have meetings about meetings about meetings. yet the results UNICEF delivers are like almost no other organisation. With a focus on children-the legacy never ends. We work for a world where children are safe from disease, hunger and violence and where they can positively flourish-in every corner of the world.
It has been and remains an incredible journey and most days I still cannot believe how lucky I am to be here. Despite all the frustrations, if I had my time again I would still get on that bus from Victoria Station!