“At the United Nations, determination are 2 worlds: Headquarters and the field. United Nations Headquarters successful New York is our mothership. In iconic rooms specified arsenic the General Assembly Hall and the Security Council Chamber, our Member States marque decisions that impact radical crossed the globe. Meanwhile, the tract is wherever those decisions are felt astir acutely. It’s wherever you find our peacekeeping missions, our captious humanitarian operations, our mediators engaging successful shuttle diplomacy.
In the summertime of 2021, I was profoundly enmeshed successful the satellite of Headquarters. As Director of Communications and Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly, it was my occupation to archer the property and nationalist what was going connected successful the Organization’s astir antiauthoritarian body. My absorption was connected resolutions, declarations and high-level meetings. I was surrounded by words—but not seeing first-hand if oregon however those words were really improving people’s lives.
Abu Khair M Jamil Alam
United Nations unit subordinate Brenden Varma successful Kirkuk pursuing meetings with electoral authorities and civilian society, 25 August 2021
Deployed to a divided country
Around that time, I happened to stumble crossed a movie astir Sérgio Vieira de Mello, a United Nations leader who mislaid his beingness pursuing a shocking onslaught successful Iraq successful 2003. I had joined the Organization soon earlier that onslaught and ne'er forgot the interaction that it had connected my colleagues and me. The United Nations was abruptly a target. The tract seemed similar a overmuch scarier spot astatine the time.
But astir 2 decades later, I didn’t consciousness fearfulness erstwhile I watched the film; I was inspired. Sérgio could person spent his United Nations vocation successful solid skyscrapers and air-conditioned league rooms. But helium chose to spell to the field—to beryllium person to the radical the United Nations is meant to serve. It had been years since my past tract posting, and I wanted to spell back.
What I didn’t cognize astatine the clip (since my absorption was connected the General Assembly) was that the Security Council had conscionable adopted a caller solution concerning Iraq. Resolution 2576 (2021) of 27 May 2021 welcomed the petition of the Government of Iraq for enactment for its 10 October 2021 elections—and called for a United Nations strategical messaging run to amended and pass Iraqi voters connected predetermination preparations, arsenic good arsenic related United Nations activities.
With little than 5 months betwixt the transition of that solution and the elections, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) needed to get a communications squad connected the crushed immediately. That’s erstwhile I was asked to deploy to Baghdad.
Of course, it’s 1 happening to consciousness inspired aft watching a movie and different to really determination to a spot that the United Nations classifies arsenic a unsafe hardship work station. But it didn’t instrumentality maine agelong to decide. After discussing it with my family, I said yes to UNAMI.
From a nonrecreational standpoint, I felt ready, but I soon learned however hard it was to enactment connected a state record without really being connected the ground. For example, portion inactive successful New York, 1 of my archetypal tasks was to travel up with a hashtag for our caller electoral communications campaign. I chose #Vote4Iraq to promote Iraqi voters to enactment their state supra immoderate different affiliation. But the Kurdish-speaking nationalist unit successful UNAMI advised maine to see different options arsenic well.
They told maine that invoking the sanction of the state would alienate Kurds. It wasn’t until I visited the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) 3 months aboriginal that I genuinely understood what they meant. In and astir Erbil, the determination capital, I often saw the Kurdish emblem flying—but not ever the Iraqi flag. I realized that not each Iraqi citizens saw themselves arsenic Iraqi, and our communications would request to instrumentality that into account.
United Nations unit subordinate Brenden Varma looks connected arsenic Iraqis ballot successful Baghdad connected Election Day, 10 October 2021.
Adapting to ‘mission life’
At the United Nations, radical often notation to “mission life”, arsenic if each missions were beauteous overmuch the same. But that’s not the case. When I worked successful Jerusalem and Pristina, I had my ain flat successful town. I could conscionable my caller section friends successful restaurants and parks. On the different hand, successful Mogadishu successful 2013, I was confined to the United Nations compound.
I slept successful a tiny, thin-walled instrumentality with nary backstage bathroom. Food was lone disposable successful the bare-boned messiness hall. Inadequate Wi-Fi work made it pugnacious to support successful interaction with household backmost home. It was mean to perceive gunfire astatine night. And portion we had entree to a beach, swimming was discouraged owed to sharks, riptides and pirates.
My Baghdad acquisition was determination betwixt that of Jerusalem/Pristina and Mogadishu. All United Nations personnel—whether they worked for UNAMI oregon the agencies—had to unrecorded connected the compound. Leaving the secured Green Zone wasn’t imaginable without a information escort. While the corporate accommodations were large for intra-United Nations camaraderie, the ambiance could often consciousness claustrophobic. Time outdoors had to beryllium constricted owed to the aggravated regular temperatures of 46 degrees centigrade. I understood wherefore unit were entitled to 1 week of remainder and recreation (R&R) aft each 4 weeks of service.
But I couldn’t kick astir my surviving conditions successful Baghdad. My flat had a modern bathroom, room and television, and the compound had a gym, pizzeria and barbershop. There were adjacent facilities wherever unit could play tennis, shot and ping-pong.
United Nations unit subordinate Brenden Varma successful Baghdad
Focus connected the people
Before arriving successful Baghdad, I had drafted a communications strategy focused connected 1 of the precedence areas of the Department of Global Communications (DGC): “human-centred storytelling”. UNAMI enactment wanted our run to absorption successful portion connected convincing Iraqis to enactment successful the elections.
So, with a squad of videographers, I acceptable retired to amplify the voices of Iraqi citizens who planned to vote. Iraqis whitethorn oregon whitethorn not perceive to the United Nations, I thought, but surely they would beryllium inspired by each other. I imagined a video successful which a pistillate walks past a rundown infirmary successful her neighbourhood and says, ‘I’m going to ballot due to the fact that I privation amended healthcare.’
But again, my Headquarters assumptions were confronted by realities connected the ground. First, determination was fear. Given the information constraints, it was already pugnacious to find mean Iraqis to speech to, and erstwhile we did, galore were reluctant to person their faces shown connected camera.
They feared repercussions if the incorrect radical saw them speaking retired connected what could beryllium perceived arsenic a governmental topic. There was besides a wide distrust of the authorities. Many Iraqis felt that determination was nary constituent successful voting due to the fact that fraud and a flawed strategy would conscionable instrumentality the aforesaid aged politicians to power.
Our connection was that, though these elections were Iraqi-owned and Iraqi-led, the United Nations was lasting with Iraq each measurement of the way.
United Nations vehicles gathered astatine the Victory Arch successful Baghdad earlier transporting United Nations monitors to polling stations connected Election Day, 10 October 2021
In the end, we did negociate to archer immoderate Iraqis’ stories, but the scepticism I sensed among the radical made maine absorption connected different UN communications precedence country arsenic well: sharing close accusation to combat fake news. We started producing videos and holding dialogues that took the rumours we were proceeding and countered them with facts. We explained however the upcoming elections would beryllium antithetic from past ones—and however method enactment from the United Nations would assistance guarantee a credible process.
For the archetypal time, UNAMI started livestreaming property conferences by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for Iraq. We enlisted section artists to overgarment pro-voting murals passim the country. We besides worked with Iraqi societal media influencers to scope the country’s youth, since 60 per cent of the colonisation was 25 years of property oregon younger.
As the elections drew nearer, further United Nations unit started arriving to show the polls, and our main extremity became to summation their visibility. All United Nations monitors, galore UNAMI unit and adjacent the SRSG started regularly wearing United Nations caps and vests arsenic we moved astir the state truthful that Iraqis would spot america and consciousness reassured that the United Nations was connected the crushed and assisting. Our connection was that, though these elections were Iraqi-owned and Iraqi-led, the United Nations was lasting with Iraq each measurement of the way.
In the end, predetermination time came and went. The elector turnout wasn’t peculiarly precocious oregon low. But successful a state wherever a important fig of voters I spoke to told maine they would similar having a monarch, it was important to retrieve that, arsenic the United Nations, our relation was a supporting one.
Ultimately, it was for the Iraqi radical to determine what benignant of strategy they preferred and whether they wanted to enactment successful it. On the agleam side, we were blessed to spot that the elections had proceeded smoothly, had featured important method and procedural improvements, and could service arsenic an important stepping chromatic for the future.
While successful Iraq, speech from my work, I started a purely idiosyncratic project. I decided to usage my ain Instagram relationship to amusement my followers what the state truly looked like. Because astir radical could not spell arsenic tourists to galore of the places I was visiting, their cognition of Iraq was astir apt based connected what they saw connected the news, which was mostly demolition and despair.
The Iraq I was experiencing didn’t lucifer up with that perception. I saw bohemian cafés successful Baghdad, trendy rooftop restaurants successful Duhok and Erbil, and beauteous stream views successful Basra. I met young Iraqi artists, filmmakers, musicians, and entrepreneurs. I bought streetwear from section designers and smiled erstwhile I saw Iraqi hipsters who looked similar they had been plucked disconnected the streets of Brooklyn.
The United Nations had sent maine to Baghdad to counsel connected electoral communications, but it had besides fixed maine the accidental to get to cognize a state that remains mysterious to overmuch of the world. I knew that I was lucky. Lucky to turn and learn. Lucky to beryllium a portion of thing bigger than myself. And fortunate to service successful the field.”
This nonfiction archetypal appeared successful UN Chronicle