Interview | Sanaa Kareem | Associate Public Information Officer, UNAMI, Baghdad
15 May 2022
Welcome to the United Nations Career Journey podcast brought to you by the UN Secretariat and the UN Development Programme.
In this series, we interviewed colleagues from around the world, working for the United Nations in many different ways. We asked about their career paths, and how they got to their current positions. But we also explore what career satisfaction means to them…what keeps them inspired and motivated in their daily work.
My name is Kate Doyle and today we’ll hear from Sanaa Kareem, an Associate Public Information Officer based in Baghdad, at the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, also called UNAMI. UNAMI is a political mission that provides advice and assistance to the government and people of Iraq, on advancing political dialogue, reconciliation efforts, elections, human rights, gender equality, and much more.
Welcome, Sanaa, and thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you Kate for having me.
So to get started, could you share a bit about yourself with our listeners?
Yes first of all, my name is Sanaa Kareem. I have the Iraqi nationality. And I live in Iraq, working for the United Nations, UNAMI since July 2010. When I joined the UN in 2010, I started as an Information Technology Assistant. And then I moved after finishing my degree in translation, I applied for another job with the UNAMI in the political office. I worked (there) also for two and a half years until I joined the public information office as an Associate Public Information Officer, in addition to my other duties as the UNAMI Youth Advisor since 2012.
So you’ve had very different roles over a relatively short amount of time in the past 10 or 12 years. Before I ask you more about your various roles I wonder if you could share a bit about your own personal background. I know you’re from Iraq, which is a beautiful country that has also seen a lot of strife in recent decades. I’m curious, what was it like growing up there?
I was born in 1981. The first thing I remember was the Iraq-Iran war. I left with my family — we left the country when I was a baby. We left to the UK for my father to finish his PhD degree in psychology so for five years. I still remember when we came back in 1990, the other war started. So, I’ve lived in Baghdad ever since. Growing up in Iraq- in Baghdad particular — has a mix of good and bad memories.
The difficult situation was like you have to grow up and get used to that you have been from one war to another. And you don’t know what you what’s going to happen at any moment. So you don’t know… we were just living our life day by day. The security situation was tense at that time and still is and other things and what I have remembered about my childhood memories….the good part is the family gatherings…playing in the streets. Which is not the case right now because girls are getting harassed more than before. This might side this might sound odd, but when the 1990 war started, we left Baghdad toward other provinces despite the sound of bombings and bad news, but as children we really enjoyed our gathering and long nights together.
And what I still remember that it was near the Hemrin mountains. And every day, we sit together from morning. And because we don’t have studies…we don’t have any other commitments…and we were children. So we were just having fun not thinking about the war that much. While our families and parents were like, living day-by-day… tense, thinking what’s going to happen, what’s next, not like us.
And how did the wars affect your parents’ ability to raise a family and keep jobs?
At that time, we were seven girls in our family and one boy only. And we were still young. And my father was the only one working. My father is a college professor with a PhD degree in psychology. And he worked at the university — like his entire life. But the money that he gained was not enough for him to feed the family for a week. So he had to leave the country for two years to work in Libya, as a college professor there. But after 2003, when he came back there was a wave of assassinations of academics. And my father was targeted three times. In two of the times, he lost his deputies. And the third time he got injured and lost one of his security guards. And I still remember one of the times they came to our house and they tried to break in and to kill my father.
Oh my goodness, that sounds absolutely terrifying. I’m so glad that he’s okay? He’s in good health today.
Could you tell us about how your personal history might have shaped how you see the United Nations and your career there?
So, growing up in Iraq, made me see so many things that made me who I am. That was before joining the UN. But during the 11 years working for the UN, it changed me to a better person — my personality and career-wise — especially working as the Youth Advisor. I met so many people with different backgrounds, from different countries. And at the same time in my role as the youth advisor, I used to meet Iraqi young people outside. So to many other people, especially the females, I was a role model to them. I didn’t know about that, until they told me like, three or four girls told me that you are our role model, we want to be like you when we grow up. So I always imagined myself working something that suits my personality — which is the case right now, I mean, working as the Youth Advisor — getting to interact with other people, young people and working in the media section.
It sounds like your role as youth advisor and becoming a role model for young women there has been really meaningful for you. Could you tell us a little bit more about that? What is involved in your role as Youth Advisor today?
So before talking about my role, we have to understand that the Iraqi population- half of it is more than more than half of it consists of the Iraqi youth. So the post-war affected the young people in a very bad way. UNAMI has in its in mandate to support the Iraqi youth. So in this position, my role was to advocate, support and pass their voices to the senior management. And I also advise senior management and other forces within the mission on youth issues. So we worked on many projects, having good engagement in the political process, social cohesion and other things related.
I’m really happy to be part of this. I created a group working with the UNICEF… it’s called the Friends of UNICEF. It’s a volunteer youth group. So I tried to attract as much as female as possible and to be part of this volunteer group. And I worked with them like more than four years before handing them over to UNICEF. I was really, really excited to work with the females and the males as well. But, but when they see me doing things that they were shy, or they were like, they don’t have the courage to do it. I was happy to be that person that who supported them and show them that I can lead and you can follow. We can be all a team together as well. And I’m still in contact with the young people. So every year we have a gathering and each one has now their own career. I hear about several young females and what they did in life. I’m satisfied about it. But I have a lot to do more.
Today you are an Associate Public Information Officer for UNAMI, What does your average day look like?
I do a media monitoring report that covers the news in Iraq… all over Iraq…we usually do two a day, one in the evening and one day in the afternoon. A very thorough, a very detailed media monitoring report. At the same time, we respond to emails, we have an account — UNAMI has an account, to respond to emails from the Iraqi community, or anybody that sends any kind of questions or queries to the UN. And we post on social media accounts: Twitter, Facebook… so social media accounts — we take care of them, do the kind of translations when necessary, from Arabic to English, or English to Arabic. In addition to the things that I mostly like…is going out for outreach activities are being invited to activities with the young people, then writing a story, a web story. Several web stories I wrote have been posted on our social media accounts and on our UNAMI web site as well.
And which achievements in the last few years would you say that you’re most proud of?
I joined the Committee on writing the Youth Peace and Security handbook. I was nominated…contacted by FBA — the Folke Bernadotte Academy to be part of this committee. I’m really proud to be one of them. It will be delivered to the YPS — the Youth Peace and Security advisors and to support their work in their missions or agencies…with all the details that have to support them and all the details about the Youth Peace and Security agenda and also the Security Council resolution on youth.
When you faced times at work, in which you’re not feeling so motivated, or engaged, we all have those times. What do you do to help yourself when you’re going through that difficult period?
There were times I really gave up on myself, especially at the beginning. To be honest, I’m a positive person…I try to be optimistic all the time. But sometimes you just get fed up. I mean, we have these accumulated memories of war after war, security situations, tense kidnappings, assassinations… everything. So I tried as much as I can so this will not affect my daily life and my work. I tried to put each one in a different corner. So… my friends and family were there to support me. So also, knowing that this is not the end of the world and everything in life has a solution helped me motivate myself…to keep looking for more challenges in life. Going out with friends, having dinner gatherings, try to have fun as much as possible. These are the these are the things that helped to support me on a daily basis in difficult times.
And would you say as a woman, it’s even more difficult to navigate one’s career, especially the low points?
Unfortunately, yes, it’s really difficult for a woman — me as an Iraqi woman. But at the same time, me working for the UN, we always support female candidates to apply. It’s written in the job title and the job vacancy, sorry. So but at the same time, what I do is like when they whenever there’s a job vacancy open, I asked my female friends, I tell them apply, apply, you have to apply. You can see so many women in so many positions in the UN, within the mission, with the UN country team and even in the other governmental institutions. Things are changing slowly but in a positive way.
Now, I’m curious, where would you like to be career wise in the future, say in the next five years or so?
I actually I have two dreams that I want to fulfill in my life. I haven’t done it yet, but I will. One of them is working in an international position to help those in need, not just the people in my country. I want to gain knowledge from other people from other countries and pass what I learned in life, in the past 20 years living here in Iraq, and show them that you’re not alone, we are here to support you. So this is one of my dreams is to go for international posting in these countries.
I would love to work in Turkey. This is one of the places… I’ve been there several times. I’m trying to learn their language. The other country that I want to work in is South Africa. I want to see the people there. I’ve heard many stories…so about the people, about the landscape and everything.
My other dream, which is not related to the UN, but having my own specialty cafe, which is operated by females.
I like the smell of coffee. It really moves my senses. It’s makes me relax all the time. I was thinking about having this cafe a couple of years ago, once I entered a cafe in New York. And the minute you enter that café — so it was a florist and a cafe at the same time — the minute you enter, you get disconnected from the outside world, the smell of the flowers, and green, green atmosphere and the smell of the coffee. This is what I want. This is what I want to think about every single day when I walk into my cafe. I want people to feel the same when they come. And I will tell you that last year when there was a lock-down and we working we were working from home. I learned how to make coffee — to be a barista. I asked one of my friends — he’s a barista at one of the cafes in Baghdad — I told him I need you to teach me how to do that. So I used to go like once a week, every Friday. I’d go to the cafe early in the morning. And we were following the steps one by one… I really, really enjoyed it. And I want to pass these senses and feelings of relaxation to other people here in Baghdad.
It sounds like you have very specific dreams and they’re very different from each other. But they both involve a foray into a new country or a new business and being part of a community there and helping others. I love that you trained as a barista during the pandemic — that sounded like a lot of fun. My last question for you Sanaa — what makes you proud about working for the United Nations?
Its diversity. You can see people from all over the world. It’s a mini global place to work in. I mean, people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, all working together. They have one cause — one thing to do is to support the country that they are working in and to support their roles as United Nations staff. They are there knowing that they have the ability to make a change in the countries that they are operating in. It’s not much, but at least it’s step by step they’re taking. and this is what I want to do in the future. So its diversity in the main place, first position…and I would like to work with people like who are really open-minded to accept each other and this is what I found in the United Nations.
Well, so thank you so much for having this interesting conversation with me today. I really appreciate it and I learned a lot as well. And let’s keep in touch.
I hope that as well. Okay, thank you for having me. We’ll keep in touch inshallah.