Portraits of Leadership

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency confronts COVID-19

Hyperakt’s interview series hands the mic to nonprofit and cultural leaders around the nation as they guide their organizations through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today we’re talking with Christopher Reardon, Head of Multimedia Content for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Established in 1950, the UNHCR works to ensure that everybody has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge, having fled violence, persecution, war or disaster at home.

From your vantage point, what stories are not being told about the impact of the Coronavirus?

There are so many stories worth telling, and telling in greater detail, about this pandemic. The ones that keep me busy center on refugees, who were already some of the most vulnerable people on earth. Imagine: You’ve been forced to flee conflict or persecution, endured poor living conditions, struggled to find work — and now you’re watching a deadly virus come your way.

Including refugees in national planning and ensuring their access to public services has always been common sense, and it’s crucial in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. But right now it’s a matter of profound urgency. Because the coronavirus doesn’t care about nationality or legal status, and until everyone is safe, no one is safe.

I worry that stateless people — the millions of people around the world with no recognized nationality — are falling off the radar too. Even before the pandemic, they were typically unable to obtain birth certificates, enroll in school, work legally, get married, or access health care. But it’s in every country’s best interest to make sure their prevention and response to coronavirus doesn’t exclude or overlook anyone. Absolutely everyone counts.

How have you needed to change how your staff works or the way you deliver services in order to meet the new reality?

Before COVID-19, we routinely deployed small multimedia crews to produce character-driven stories about individual refugees around the world. But with movement so restricted now, and the team I lead all working from home, we’ve largely turned to other formats.

We’re using less photography and publishing more articles that weave together brief dispatches from across the world around a given theme. Colleagues in seven countries contributed to a recent piece about the pandemic’s impact on refugee education. This is a key consideration because many young refugees have already missed out on months or years of schooling, and distance learning is not an option for those without internet access.

We’ve also been showcasing interviews with colleagues on how they are stepping up the public health response in crowded refugee camps and host communities and on the logistics of delivering lifesaving aid to remote locations when manufacturing and global transport are so heavily disrupted. At a time when societies are painfully rediscovering the value of experts and expertise, these interviews help us build trust and understanding.

We’re using humor too. Playing off the Zoom video craze, we featured a call between actors Ben Stiller and Cate Blanchett and author Khaled Hosseini, three of UNHCR’s Goodwill Ambassadors. The tone was light-hearted, but it delivered a serious message about how the private sector can support refugees during this global health crisis.

We’ve also seized the opportunity to engage new audiences. Our TikTok account, just a few months old, is rapidly nearing half a million subscribers. We’ve taken part in the handwashing challenge and shared short videos about resettled refugees manufacturing ventilators in Canada, refugees volunteering their time to bring groceries to older people in Switzerland, and refugees in Jordan who built a LEGO robot that dispenses hand sanitizer.

User-generated content is also playing a bigger part in our mix. Our “Youth with Refugees Art Contest”, for example, invites people 12 to 25 years old to draw a picture or a comic reflecting the message that everyone counts, including refugees, in the fight against coronavirus. The best submissions will be animated and shared on our global social media accounts.

What gives you hope in this moment?

So many things. The frontline health workers everywhere who are selflessly stepping into the unknown, demonstrating leadership and courage while putting their skills to use in our greatest hour of need. The humanitarian workers who are staying and delivering for displaced and stateless people in challenging locations, like my dedicated UNHCR colleagues in places like Bangladesh, Syria, South Sudan, Colombia, and Yemen.

And, of course, the many refugees who have joined the response to COVID-19. They include nurses, pharmacists, and physicians like Dr. Saleema Rehman, a 28-year-old Afghan refugee I met in Pakistan in February — the last time I traveled. Despite the pandemic, she continues to treat patients and deliver babies. In Peru, refugee psychologists are providing counseling through video sessions to help displaced Venezuelans cope with mental health challenges made worse by lockdowns and financial hardship. In Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees are serving as community outreach volunteers, sharing vital information about health and hygiene.

Meanwhile, refugees in Kenya, Niger, Germany, and Malaysia are sewing face masks. And here in Geneva, where I live, refugee volunteers are delivering groceries to older people who can’t risk leaving home. These people inspire me. They give me hope that together we will beat this thing.

Dive into The Refugee Agency’s work at UNHCR.org and on YouTube. Read more interviews in the Portraits of Leadership series.

Hyperakt is a purpose-driven design and innovation studio that elevates human dignity and ignites curiosity. We believe in design’s power to build a future filled with courage, optimism, and honesty.

Are you a leader in the nonprofit, cultural, or design space? Want to share your perspective on confronting COVID-19? Please fill out this Google Form.

Hyperakt crafts transformative brands and digital storytelling experiences for clear-eyed champions of social justice and creativity.

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