Voices: Head first into another culture

“I have always wanted to work internationally in places where I felt I could make a difference. Copenhagen, Palestine, Somalia and now New York: one of the things I love most about life abroad is the opportunity to become immersed in a completely different culture. Being in a foreign country for an extended period widens your perspectives so much, even if you didn’t think they were that narrow beforehand.” - Cecilia Smith, Associate Portfolio Support Officer, Peace and Security Cluster

​As a member of the UNOPS Peace and Security Cluster in New York, I provide administrative, human resources, procurement and finance support to the team that manages our Mali portfolio. Beyond being limited to traditional 'mine action', the Mali portfolio is a good example of the evolving Peace and Security Cluster, where many programme activities are focused on security sector reform, including stockpile management, training UN Peacekeepers and civilian staff on improvised explosive device disposal, and improving civilian protection. I've learnt so much in the short time that I've been with UNOPS, especially when it comes to using such great project management tools that give our work more structure.

The work environment is really positive and I get the sense that everyone really cares about what they are doing. I also like that we are so close to our partner, the United Nations Mine Action Service, who has the same objectives as we have in the cluster. Prior to working with UNOPS, I worked with non-governmental organizations in Palestine and Somalia, and one of the things I found challenging was finding that middle ground between what the donor wants and what the beneficiaries need. 

I think having both the field and the headquarters experience has helped me develop a broader understanding of development work as a whole. For example, when I worked with the United Nations Development Programme in Copenhagen from  2008 to 2010, I remember waiting for some documents from our Liberia office. After having sent a few kind reminders to my colleagues I discovered that the tents they had been working in were totally flooded out and all our files were damaged or gone. It really brought to my attention how challenging the environment is out there compared to the headquarters context.

Living and working in the field also expands your horizons. I have collected so many wonderful memories and stories during my time abroad. During my two years in Somalia, I would be out shopping for new hijabs with my local colleagues and on several occasions, a stranger would call out "Svenska?" which means "Swede" in Swedish. It turned out that these Somalis were repatriated refugees who had lived and studied in Sweden before returning to Somalia for a fresh start. They told me how grateful they were for everything that my country had done for them. The most curious thing about these interactions was that the locals guessed my nationality from the way I walked. I had thought that if I wore the full head cover, socks and gloves, I could walk in Mogadishu and no one would recognize me, but I discovered that it only took a split second to spot that I was foreign because of my gait.

Now, I'm trying to adapt to life in New York, which is actually taking me longer than it has in other places. I think it's more difficult to find your city within the city, because it's so overwhelming. It's a welcome change from the intensity of Somalia though.