Awake at Night podcast

What does it take to be a United Nations worker in some of the world’s most difficult and dangerous locations?

How are health workers, humanitarians, human rights advocates and peacekeepers working to protect people and helping them to thrive?
Stationed in remote locations and witness to suffering and atrocities, how are they coping themselves?
To find out, Melissa Fleming meets them.

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"There are people who are dying un-necessarily because they don't have access to the vaccine [...] It's a have and have-not situation." - Maria Van Kerkhove

Full podcast available here




Season Four

Maria Van Kerkhove looking at her young son through a window.

What is a day like in the life of the epidemiologist heading the global response to COVID-19? 

For the past 21 months, WHO COVID-19 Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove has been working around the clock with thousands of scientists to try to keep all of us safe.

In this personal and insightful episode, Maria shares her memories of the first moment she became aware of COVID-19 – before most of the world knew it existed – and then she takes us behind the scenes of WHO’s early steps to tackle the crisis. 

Maria also talks about what, throughout the entire pandemic, motivates her every day to get out of bed and care for others, at the expense of her family life.

“When I went to China in February 2020… he [my child] was really scared. So, he thought I wasn't coming home and I think everything changed for him. You know, it was this mysterious new virus. Everything was shutting down. People were scared, there was an ominous nature about it and he thought I wasn't coming home. So, for him, that was really scary,” she says.

:: Maria Van Kerkhove interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Melissa Fleming and David Gressly in the recording studio of Awake at Night

“I've seen horrible things. I've seen massacres. Human suffering. These are not easy sights to see. The best way I found to deal with that is just to be determined to fix it in some fashion.”

UN Humanitarian Coordinator and Resident Coordinator for Yemen David Gressly has seen some of the worst of man's inhumanity to man during a career of more than 40 years in peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and development. In this episode, he talks with podcast host Melissa Fleming about what has driven him to devote his life to helping the most vulnerable in some of the most fragile places on earth.

With more than 20 million people in need of assistance and a seven-year ongoing war, Yemen is among the world's worst humanitarian crises. But it’s not just conflict that threatens the Yemeni people. As David explains, every three days someone is injured or even killed by landmines or unexploded ordnance. During this eye-opening conversation, David shares his concerns about the dire situation in Yemen and the likelihood of being able to sustain the humanitarian response in the year ahead. 

:: David Gressly interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Ilias Chatzis and two colleagues sitting under straw shelter

"We're talking about children sometimes, about babies… We're talking about women at very vulnerable ages. We're also talking about men that desperately seek employment and find their hands into criminal gangs that would exploit them for sexual purposes to any other purposes."

Ilias Chatzis heads the team fighting human trafficking and migrant smuggling at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In this episode, he joins podcast host Melissa Fleming to talk about how a man who grew up on a Greek island came to have a burning sense of justice and a crime-fighting career of more than 25 years.

In this conversation, Ilias describes how reports about online abuse of children and sexual predation of women have surged during the COVID-19 pandemic and how criminals are always adapting to new technologies to exploit their victims.

:: Ilias Chatzis interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Sam Mort poses for a photo with children

"We took around seven children back to the UNICEF compound here in Kabul… there was a little boy called Mudares [... Mudares] said 'when I go up high, I feel I can reach the stars and I want one from my mother.' It was a reminder for us all just to keep going for the children of Afghanistan -- because if Mudares can look to the stars, we can all look to the stars and do better.” 

Sam Mort, UNICEF’s Chief of Communications in Afghanistan, speaks to Melissa from Kabul shortly after the Taliban’s takeover. Sam, along with other UN colleagues, has remained in Afghanistan to help the country’s people as they face a worsening humanitarian situation. She tells stirring stories of loss, reunification and reaching to the stars for hope.

“I see a bravery in Afghanistan's girls and women that I haven't seen anywhere else, because the fears and the threats are real and they acknowledge it. And they move forward,” she says. 

:: Sam Mort interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Ingrid sits at a table with a woman and a man whilst in close discussions.

"We know that whenever you have these sort of atrocity crimes that happened here [Bosnia and Herzegovina], they're often preceded by hate."

Ingrid Macdonald is the UN Resident Coordinator in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She is tasked with spearheading the UN’s efforts to support development in a country still deeply scarred by ethnic divisions and the legacy of war and the 1995 genocide at Srebrenica. Ingrid, who was raised in a small New Zealand mining town, has a long record of working in humanitarian, development and human rights jobs around the world.

Since relocating to Sarajevo in early 2020, just as COVID-19 was taking hold across the world, Ingrid has been focused on finding ways to bring divided communities together as well as tackle hate speech and genocide denial, just 26 years after Bosnian Serb forces massacred 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. In this episode, she talks about the challenges she faced in many of her roles and her vivid memories of trying to advocate for the vulnerable, including her time helping women in Afghanistan.

:: Ingrid Macdonald interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Eddie in his wheelchair at a class with children behind him

“When I could no longer pursue the dream of being an artist because my hands became too weak to hold a pencil, I needed [...] a new dream [...] that is, in itself, a gift to be able to [...] change direction and ask yourself, what else? That I still have my spirit. I still have my mind and I still have a deep desire and yearning for an extraordinary life. And I still want to be of service to humanity and the world.” 

Eddie Ndopu is an award-winning disability activist from South Africa and one of 17 UN advocates for the SDGs. Diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy and given only 5 years to live, he is now 30 and has dedicated his life to ensure that the voices of those at greatest risk of being left behind are being amplified and heard worldwide. 

Eddie recounts his difficult daily challenges, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how his mother sacrificed so much to make his life possible. He talks about his big dream: to be the first physically disabled person in outer space and to address the UN from there. 

:: Eddie Ndopu interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Nada al-Nashif is on stage with a croud.

“The women and the girls of Afghanistan have earned the right to be heard, to take their place in society openly, as they have done behind the scenes for decades, if not centuries." Nada Al-Nashif, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, has been serving the UN for almost 30 years.

Nada experienced one of the darkest days in the UN’s history. On 19 August 2003, a truck packed with a tonne of explosives blew up the UN’s headquarters in Baghdad, killing 22 colleagues, including the UN’s Special Representative for Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello.

“It's hard to accept but you need to because you cannot keep asking ‘Why was I there? Why me? Why not me?’” she says. Nada explains how her own injuries act as a constant reminder of human vulnerability and the blessing of having survived to tell the story. 

:: Nada Al-Nashif interviewed by Melissa Fleming
DiPoppo is pictured in the Vienna International Centre Rotunda

“Going to space will become like taking a plane today; working in space, living in space, having a one-week holiday in space.”

Simonetta Di Pippo is the Director of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs. Trained as an Astrophysicist in her native Italy, Di Pippo was the first female director of the European Space Agency. Since then, her work has been integral in using space for our common wellbeing here on Earth - from monitoring soil and water through meteorological data so farmers can grow healthier crops to tracking climate change using satellites. Simonetta shares her passion for space being preserved as a global common benefiting all humanity and on the importance of ensuring peace in outer space.

:: Simonetta Di Pippo interviewed by Melissa Fleming

Season Three

Phumzile dressed in bright traditional African clothes is surrounded by African women holding up signs.

"If anything works for women, in any country, it is most likely to work for most people. If you want to address the majority of the people who really need you, target women."

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is the Executive Director of UN Women. Phumzile shares anecdotes about her friendship with Mandela and describes the formative issues behind her leadership of women’s rights and drive for investment in gender equality that culminate in the Generation Equality Forum. These insights inform the combination of innovative alliances across generations, feminist and youth movements, civil society, philanthropy, governments and the private sector that promise accelerated change for the women and girls who need it most.

"I mean, I always say I remember, as a young person, I used to have a T-shirt, which said, ‘victory or death.’ And I think about it now I'm like, ‘What was I thinking?’ "

:: Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Michelle Bachelet sitting at the head-table of a conference room

"I understand the people I speak to in my current job, because I've been in their shoes: I've been arbitrarily detained. I've experienced enforced disappearance.”

Michelle Bachelet was the first female President of Chile for the Socialist Party of Chile (2006–10; 2014–18). She is now the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Michelle shares the harrowing stories of how she and her mother were taken to a clandestine detention centre; her exile in Australia and East Germany; her motivations to study medicine and return to Chile and why, despite everything, she remains a prisoner of hope.

"We may not be all responsible for the past, but we are responsible for the future."

:: Michelle Bachelet interviewed by Melissa Fleming
A tablet, with Rabbi Arthur Schneier on view, is leaning against Marc Chagall's colorful stained glass window at UNHQ.

"I could have gone on a Kindertransport to London, where the British were ready to receive 10,000 Jewish children. But I'm the only child, [and my mother is a] widow. She said, ‘No, we’re going to stick together’. So it was a matter of trying to find ways to get out of hell. [...] And strangely enough, at that time in 1938, Hitler just wanted the Jews out. But there was no place to go. At the Évian conference, we heard many, many nations saying, ‘We cannot afford to take in so many refugees’"

Rabbi Arthur Schneier is a Holocaust survivor and a human rights activist. He shares harrowing memories of his childhood. Many of his family members were murdered. Yet, through his daily life, his diplomatic work, and his Appeal of Conscience Foundation, Rabbi Arthur Schneier is working hard to make the world a better, more tolerant place. He has dedicated a lifetime to promoting peace, reconciliation, and inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue. He fights for remembrance but also for religious freedom and human rights.

UN Secretary General António Guterres has called him "an inspiration for the world and for the United Nations."

:: Rabbi Arthur Schneier interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Yasmin is pictured inside a vaccine manufacturing plant. She stands between 2 large COVID vaccine containers.

“What we're seeing is the desperation out there in the hospitals [...] At the same time [...] a group of young doctors have set up centres where they run oxygen therapy [...] hotels have been converted into oxygen wards for people who need that to be able to breathe properly.”

Yasmin Ali Haque has worked for UNICEF for almost 25 years and is now the UNICEF Representative in India. She describes the current situation there: COVID is bringing communities together, but it is also driving some of the world’s poorest families back to negative coping mechanisms such as a returning rise in child marriage.

“I think it's really about how do we all together ride this wave? Because already there's been talk about India being hit by a third wave. We're not even over the second wave yet. ”

Yasmin also worked in Sri Lanka when the devastating tsunami hit in 2004. She shares her memories of that event and of growing up in a repartition camp in Bangladesh during the Indo-Pakistan war in the 1970s.

:: Yasmin Ali Haque interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Pramila Patten speaks at the podium surrounded by advocates.

“I returned from Bangladesh...and sent all of my dresses for dry cleaning. I have not worn these dresses again. I can't wear them. There's too much pain...because I came out and I was wet with all the women crying. I like to open the wardrobe and remind myself of the survivors at all times. They are my moral compass and I have to keep fighting for them. This is what keeps me going.”

Pramila Patten, the Secretary-General's Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, is working tirelessly to advocate on behalf of the victims for accountability and justice.

"When you talk to Yazidi women, they tell you they want justice and reparations, in addition to support services [...] Whether it is Iraq [...] Nigeria [...] Somalia or Sudan [...] And for me, that is very frustrating that so far, for example, where sexual violence is used as a tactic of terrorism, no single person belonging to Boko Haram or ISIS has been prosecuted for sexual violence. They are getting prosecuted under the counter terrorism legislation, but not for sexual violence."

:: Pramila Patten interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Paul Heslop is on his knees working on deactivating a mine.

“[There are] two iconic images of the 20th century: Diana walking through the minefield in body armour and then with a little girl who lost a leg to a mine. I was proud to...highlight the incredible work that's been done by deminers around the world by hosting that visit.”

Paul Heslop is the Head of the UN Mine Action Team in Afghanistan and has been clearing mines in conflict zones for nearly 30 years. He shares the remarkable progress deminers have made in removing explosive devices across the globe with Mozambique (his first post back in ‘94) declaring itself mine-free 2 years ago. Paul also recounts his time as a field officer for the Halo Trust when Princess Diana came to visit a minefield in Angola where he was working back in 1997. He recalls that epochal moment and how his quick thinking led to the non-profit gaining huge worldwide exposure through the iconic photographs of the trip.

:: Paul Heslop interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Aboubacar is crouching amidst a group of children. All are holding their hands up.

"And then they shipped me over to Buchanan, which was completely rebel controlled areas. No government, no army over there. And we were, we were actually guarded by child soldiers."

Aboubacar Kampo is UNICEF’s Director of Health Programmes but he has also worked as a physician and surgeon in some of the world’s most complex emergency zones: Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan... In one instance, at a time when he was working in the ER wards of Chad, the government was forced to share beds between the rebel forces.

"Initially, we thought we could separate them between the different rooms. But then we also had females in one of the rooms... we can't kick them out just because of them. So they had to share beds, then you realise, you know, most of them, they actually know each other! You can see them talking among themselves."

:: Aboubacar Kampo interviewed by Melissa Fleming
An officer from the Indian army is on a rooftop with David Shearer. The officer is pointing left and both men are looking in that direction.

"She was held at gunpoint and taken away and we were told that unless a certain amount of money was going to be paid or a certain number of jobs were going to be allocated, they were going to shoot her."

David Shearer is UN Secretary General's Special Representative for South Sudan and head of UNMISS. He's also served in other crisis areas. David shares his career stories from the nerve-wracking negotiations to release his wife from gunpoint in Somalia, to his incredible work entering behind Sri Lankan government lines to deliver exam papers to its schools.

On COVID in South Sudan he said "if you take the experience of Ebola in West Africa a few years ago, Ebola killed about 11,000 people in West Africa. But [...] what they found was that far more people died of other diseases: malaria, diarrhoea, tuberculosis, whatever, because they weren't being treated in the health centres [...] so the invisible death rate was way higher than the very visible death rate from Ebola. So one of the things that we were determined to do here was to make sure that the health centres continue to function."

:: David Shearer interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Two men pulling Jens Tranum Kristensen on a stretcher from the rubble of MINUSTAH

"I was at Minustah’s headquarters, Hotel Christopher, and was sitting preparing myself for a meeting the next day, just before five. And there was a shaking rumble as if a large truck was driving by outside [...] I realised it was an earthquake and the shaking stopped, maybe for a couple of seconds. I decided to hide under the table to protect myself against falling debris. There was a very loud noise and the next thing I remember was that I was lying on my back, pitch dark, not a sound. I could not move out of this coffin where I was confined. I had maybe 5cm on each side of my shoulder and about 5-7cm above my nose. I was lying with bent knees so maybe a metre and a half a leg or something like that."

It’s been over ten years since Senior Civil Affairs Officer, Jens Kristensen found himself trapped in the earthquake that hit Haiti’s Hotel Christopher. Jens recounts his harrowing experience of being confined in a dark coffin-like space for five days with no water or drink, not knowing when, or if, he would be rescued. He also explains his remarkable decision to return to work after just two days following the rescue knowing that "mentally and physically I was capable and still able to help."

:: Jens Kristensen interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Dr. Soumya stands for a photo op surrounded by health workers

"I often think about TB, because 1.5 million people die of tuberculosis every year, year after year. It's such a huge toll and yet, we only react when there's a pandemic, or an epidemic, where it's very dramatic [...] But to me, these new technologies now offer us the possibility to control diseases [...] through novel vaccines that we did not have before."

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organisation, shares her insights on how lessons from other infectious diseases, like tuberculosis and HIV, have shaped our response to the current COVID-19 pandemic. She explains the science of the chase after an evolving virus and stresses the global nature of it.

"We've seen time and time again that products developed in high income countries take decades to find their way to low income countries. This has happened with influenza pandemics. It's happened with HIV. It's happened with hepatitis B vaccines. It took 30 years for hepatitis B vaccines to get to developing countries and that's exactly the reason why the COVAX was set up."

:: Soumya Swaminathan interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Melissa Fleming and Alice Nderitu in the recording studios at the United Nations.

"I would go to the villages, and people will tell me, ‘On this day, we learned that we were going to be attacked [...] and then it happened.’ The question then became for me, ‘If people know that they are going to be attacked, and you don't have 911. You don't have ways of calling. The nearest policeman is 600 miles away. What do you do?'"

In this episode, we listen to the story of Alice Nderitu, the Secretary General’s Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide. Alice speaks candidly about her experiences mediating in areas of conflict and how her powerful storytelling techniques built a peace agreement between 56 ethnic communities that still stands today.

When she was a young girl, she had told her brother "'I'm going to be an elder, and I'm going to sit there and I'll make decisions.’ And my brother would tell me, ‘You’re a girl. Girls don't get to do that. Only men can do that.’ And so it's a joke between us."

:: Alice Nderitu interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Dr. Kalibata poses for a photo with a female worker in an milling plant.

"We all need to be convinced that we don't have a plan B. We only have one plan. And that one plan is to correct how we do business around our food systems and what our environment can handle. Our planet can take care of itself. It will eject us and move on. But is that where we want to be?"

Agnes Kalibata, UN Secretary General's Special Envoy to the 2021 Food Systems Summit, shares her remarkable story of growing up in a Ugandan refugee camp with her Rwandan parents. Her father, a trained doctor, was forced to retrain as a farmer after relocating. But his passion for learning drives his daughter and she’s admitted into the best girls' school in Uganda, receiving a UNHCR scholarship to support her studies.

Agnes discusses how an encounter during her Ph.D led to her becoming the former Minister of Agriculture in Rwanda and why it’s so important to build resilience around climate change at this year’s Food System Summit.

:: Agnes Kalibata interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Three adults and two children are sitting on the floor in a refugee makeshift home. The adults are talking and look concerned.

"No, you cannot have two metres apart from a family member who may show symptoms because it's only one room. No, you cannot wash your hands regularly because there is no tap water and the children of the woman will have to go 5 kilometres away to get some water. No, you don't wash your hands because between buying a bit of rice and soap, you choose the rice. And no, you don't stop going out to beg on the street or to have one of those daily meagre wages from daily work because the money you get in the morning is the money which allows you to buy lunch. [...] Yes, the Western world worries about the coronavirus. Yemen cannot even afford to worry about the coronavirus because we have malaria, chikungunya, cholera and dengue fever. All that. Plus, there is a famine," said Jean-Nicolas Beuze, Representative of the UN Refugee Agency in Yemen.

In a deeply personal interview about his career helping refugees and victims of torture, Jean-Nicolas describes being driven by the “denial of their human rights” and that “injustice was something I could not accept”. He also reveals fearing for the first time for his own loved ones who face the dangers of COVID-19 back home.

:: Jean-Nicolas Beuze interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Inger smiles at a line of girls who are smiling back.

Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, warns that climate change poses an existential threat far greater than COVID-19. "[P]eople understood COVID because it was imminent," she said. Yet, "it's a fact that COVID is [...] a small overture to what will happen if we do not take action on climate."

Inger describes UNEP as ‘the environmental conscience’ of the world. "Our job is to tell the world honestly, without scaremongering, what science tells us and then to support countries [...] so that they can implement what it is that we are telling them needs to get done."

Science, in Inger's words "has to make its way to the dinner table, to the voting booth, to the school playground, into the boardrooms. Science needs to be understood so there is not something that only some people in a high ivory tower can deal with. But that anyone gets."

“You have more than 30 countries in Africa that have a degree of plastic bans. [...] If they can do it, then why can't we in the wealthy world? When we respect nature, and our planet, we are respecting ourselves. And when we fail to, we are in fact disrespecting ourselves, or certainly the next generation and their life."

:: Inger Andersen interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Photo of Sarah holding her son, Issac, as they pose for a photo in a park

"Five months after losing my son in the #BeirutBlast I have decided to start writing about my experiences of grief and trauma. I can't promise it will be eloquent, or even make sense, and it certainly won't be pretty. But I hope this process is cathartic for me."

On August 4th 2020, as Sarah Copland was working and preparing for the arrival of her second child, Ethan, she and her family were tragically caught in the vast explosion that caused devastation across Beirut.

Isaac, Sarah’s first born son, was killed.

Trying to understand her grief, Sarah started writing a blog, and in the process, her words have resonated with others experiencing loss.

Sarah Copland is a UN Officer working on women's rights and gender equality in the ESCWA Centre for Women.

:: Sarah Copland interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Richard Ragan meets with village leaders

"Maybe that's what attracted me to this kind of work as well, because there isn't a script, you know, no one really tells you when you're in the middle of a crisis, what's right and what's wrong. You know, a lot of it is instinctual. A lot of it is based on sort of your principles as a human being."

Richard Ragan, the Country Director of the World Food Programme in Bangladesh, says a sense of adventure drew him to working for the UN and it also fuels his passion for outdoor sports. He says he functions better in environments, where you have to think on your feet. But with his line of work comes enormous responsibility:

“I don't want one person that I'm responsible for to be hungry. And you know, that, that keeps me up at night, for sure. But the thing that scares me, probably more than anything, and, you know, there's no vaccination for it, is climate change. ... It's like the waves or the mountains, it doesn't care."

:: Richard Ragan interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Yasmine Sherif speaks to young girl

"And he rushes up to embrace his mother. At that moment, I just said, thank you. This is what happiness is, I want to do this all my life. I just want to repatriate refugees for the rest of my life."

This week’s guest is Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait, which delivers education in humanitarian crises through funding investments for UN agencies and civil society organizations. Yasmine describes herself as a pragmatic idealist, who was taught by her mother not to look for success in life, but to seek to serve. Before her current role Yasmine worked for UNHCR resettling refugees.  She says that her mission now is crucial to helping people overcome crises and rebuild their lives:

“If you invest in the children, give them the tools, the education, so that they are no longer disempowered, that if you and I cannot change the world, they can do it.”

:: Yasmine Sherif interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Martin Griffiths visits a locally displaced Yemeni woman

"Days go by. And you know that every single day is a day of somebody losing their lives, or their livelihoods. And so you say to them, no more time!" 

Martin Griffiths is the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Yemen, a country that has been devastated by civil war, and which is experiencing one of the world's worst humanitarian crises with famine, very little medical care, and now the coronavirus pandemic. Working to end the six-year conflict there is only the latest challenge in his long career as a mediator and humanitarian worker,  and while he admits to being impatient for results, he also describes himself as an optimist, even if only 10 percent of mediation efforts ever succeed: 

"But that priceless moment, which I can only really associate with mediation, is to die for."

:: Martin Griffiths interviewed by Melissa Fleming
One UN official interviews another in front of the cameras.

"This is why exile, refugee exile is so devastating, because it is the admission to oneself, that home is not safe anymore. There are very few decisions that a human being can make, that are as difficult as choosing the path of exile. And this is what displaced and refugees do.”

Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is recovering from Covid-19, and says it's given him a sense of the fragility of life. He says the socio-economic effects of the epidemic, including  rising poverty, are especially dire for refugees and displaced people.

"We believe, for example, that 50% of the refugee girls who used to go to school before the pandemic, may not ever go back to school afterwards, because their families are too poor to support their education. They'll go to work. But it could be even worse. They could go into early marriage, they could go into exploitation and worse."

:: Filippo Grandi interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Photo of Melissa Fleming interviewing Funmi Balogun in the UNHQ studios

"So what we try to bring to the top level, and then at the advocacy level is that all of those things are important because they do impact on the way that women and men, boys and girls access those resources and services [...] they cannot be gender neutral, because their lives are not gender neutral. That's not how people live their lives. "

Funmi Balogun is the head of Humanitarian Action at UN Women, supporting some of the world’s most vulnerable women and girls - people who are displaced or refugees. She works to make sure that the humanitarian response does not perpetuate gender inequality.

"[M]en usually do not leave those camps [...] they stay in those camps as a security net, but the women and children have to go out, they have to look for food. So the women become very vulnerable to violence to all sorts of abuses. At the same time, they are not leading in those camps. They are not the ones who speak about what type of food, they're not the ones who are consulted, about what types of housing, they are not the ones that are consulted in everything."

:: Funmi Balogun interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Dr. Natalia Kanem makes notes. Various people are standing around her.

"And now you have a lockdown in your country, and you don't know where to turn and nobody's there when you call the hotline. This is something that is a crisis. Even the death of a woman [...] has increased during this year of 2020 with the coronavirus pandemic [...] girls are not in school. They're accessible to random people who are in their environment..."

Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), is working to deliver a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person's potential is fulfilled.

“You really see… how important it is to have peace in the home and the ability for girl child in particular to be able to scream at the top of her lungs if she feels that something wrong is happening to her.”

:: Natalia Kanem interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Mark Lowcock, speaks to displaced women.

"One of the things I hold on to is most people on the planet have escaped from those problems, as the generations have passed. And when you're confronting the next bleak, horrible event, holding on to the fact that it's possible to escape…is invaluable.”

Mark Lowcock, Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), leads global humanitarian relief efforts for the UN. Mark's optimism has sustained him throughout his 30-year career delivering aid to people suffering from war, poverty and famine.

:: Mark Lowcock interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Winnie is wearing a beautiful pink head-wrap and is seated, leaning forward, as she listens intently with children seen in the background.

"...[P]eople living with HIV need to go to the clinic to collect their ARVs. Now many are afraid because they think they're going to catch Corona there. Others are prohibited because lockdowns include restrictions on movement. So we had to move in quickly to help governments to know how to apply public safety measures that don't take away the opportunity for people living with HIV and are vulnerable to seek their treatments. Then there's also human rights, that when public safety measures are applied evenly and forcefully that certain groups of people whose human rights are contested tend to suffer even more. So you found gay people, you found sex workers, you found people who inject drugs, transgender people, facing particular difficulties, more discrimination, more stigmatisation in the context of Corona."

Winnie Byanyima recently became the Director-General of UNAIDS, the UN organization leading the global effort to end HIV AIDS as a public health threat by 2030. Having been appointed in February, the start of her journey has been full on with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic.

:: Winnie Byanyima interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Boris Cheshirkov carrying a refugee child on a stretcher with the help of another person.

As we mark five years after Europe’s refugee crisis, we revisit our episode with Boris Cheshirkov, who worked for UNHCR as a spokesperson in his native Bulgaria when thousands of refugees were arriving at the border. It was an extremely tense time, testing European solidarity to its limits - bringing out the best of humanity and also the worst.Anti-refugee feeling was running high. In Bulgaria, an asylum seeker was shot dead at the border. But when Boris spoke out against the violence, he himself became the target of a virulent online hate campaign. The threats were so severe he had to leave his country. Boris now serves in Greece, where refugees remain in limbo. 

“There were others who were saying ‘Now we’re coming to kill you. We’re organizing. You will not find a safe place in this country.’ There were others that were just wishful thinking: ‘You will get cancer and die tomorrow. Your family is cursed. We will find you. We will make you disappear’.”

:: Boris Cheshirkov interviewed by Melissa Fleming
A woman wearing an ear protection headset looks out of an aeroplane window

"But doctors are afraid too, for their health. So I follow the same protocol of the country [...] it was the time for me to see if the system I helped to put in place is working. So I received the team at home they came to decontaminate my house. They programme me in the same way that they programme all other positive COVID cases, I received the psychological support too and I receive also social support, they bring me water and soap to wash my hand so I stay home waiting for the test [...] and I stay in bed. But I continue working. I was participating in all the teleconference because I didn't want to be cut off from what was doing in the country, because this time, it was very high number of cases. So we had to adapt everyday our strategy"

Marie-Roseline Bélizaire, a doctor and epidemiologist with WHO, is helping fight COVID-19 in the Central African Republic. Marie speaks about her upbringing in Haiti and how the lack of scientific and medical rigour motivated her to study medicine. She also recounts her experiences on the frontlines of Ebola.

:: Marie Roseline Bélizaire interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Ms. Bangura walks with two women and looks at the camera with sad eyes.

"I grew up with the pain of poverty, with the humiliation, with the psychological and emotional impact it has to you; the lack of self-confidence. [...] So for me, poverty is one of the strongest things I'm very much concerned about because I know how it feels to grow up in poverty."

Zainab Hawa Bangura, Director-General of the UN Office at Nairobi, began her career as a women's rights campaigner in her home country of Sierra Leone. Her reasons were personal: at age 12, her father wanted to marry her off to an older man. Her mother refused and so her father threw them out. Sacrificing her own marriage for her daughter's future, she insisted on education. In this episode, we hear about Ms. Bangura's journey to personal freedom from her own abusive marriage, and about how she came to conclude "I need to be there where the decisions are made. I have to be on the table because if you are not part of the agenda, you will be part of the menu."

:: Zainab Bangura interviewed by Melissa Fleming
A helicopter transports a wounded health worker and others, while Dr. Michael Ryan helps tend to him.

"[T]he SOP was if the if the bombs start dropping, wrap yourself with as much of this as you can and, and move. So I spent a few weeks sitting, you know, laying in my bed [with a broken spine] looking at this lightweight plaster cast beside me wondering how the hell I was going to get wrapped up in this in time to be able to get away from whatever was happening."

Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the Health Emergencies Programme for WHO, speaks about giving up on dreams of becoming a trauma surgeon after breaking his spine in a car crash in Iraq. He was held hostage there while working in a hospital during the first Gulf War. That experience set him on the path to WHO, with a specialism in infectious diseases. "[Y]ou were either a surgeon or a good infectious disease doctor, because that seemed to be the two things a doctor could make a difference with, in many developing country environments." Today, he is leading the team responding to the international containment and treatment of COVID.

:: Mike Ryan interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Dr. Moeti does an elbow shake with a man wearing a vest that says "WHO"

"[O]ccasionally being naughty with my friends, we would stop in town and roam around and sort of walk around and I was less than 11 years old, but with other friends. And we were very clear that if there's a white kid coming, walking in the opposite direction on the curb, you don't get out of the way for this person. So those kinds of small defiances. So by by the time I was 11 leaving South Africa, I knew there was something very wrong with the society we live in." Dr. Matshidiso Moeti talks to Melissa about her childhood in Botswana and aparthied South Africa, and her fears about the effect of COVID-19, especially on women ”The impact economically is going to make them even more vulnerable to many things, not just to COVID itself."

Dr. Moeti is the first female Regional Director for Africa for WHO. Now she’s the face of the COVID-19 fight in Africa, but she says facing the pandemic is easier than where she started her career as a doctor - fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s.

:: Matshidiso Moeti interviewed by Melissa Fleming
A group photo of the team working on the interview. Neil Walsh and Melissa Fleming are at the front of the photo.

Neil Walsh, Chief of Cybercrime and Anti-Money Laundering for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, describes the horrific surge of criminals exploiting and abusing children online while they are in lock-down and what he is doing to stop it. He speaks about his belief that “COVID-19 is the great reset button.” He also describes the scene he witnessed of a deadly terrorist bombing as a child in Belfast, Northern Ireland and how “that was the moment where I decided I’m going to do something to stop this stuff.”

He also speaks candidly about his continuing 14-year battle with bowel cancer and why he is so vocal on social media about his struggle with the disease. There were four occasions where he was told by a doctor, ‘you may not survive tonight.’

:: Neil Walsh interviewed by Melissa Fleming
David Beasley inspects a storage facility with colleagues at hand.

In this opening episode for Season 3 of Awake at Night, host Melissa Fleming speaks with David Beasley, Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme*, about his own experience being sick with COVID-19 and why people should listen to the science. He also explains why the pandemic is causing an spiraling epidemic of hunger. In Mr. Beasley's words, should the world fail to come together and invest in people everywhere, we may face "famines of biblical proportions."

From his home in South Carolina, to Yemen, to Sudan and Ethiopia, Mr. Beasley shares candid moments of his journey in the world of humanitarian work, and his thoughts on why the UN is needed now more than ever.

*UN WFP is the 2020 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

:: David Beasley interviewed by Melissa Fleming

Season Two

Adiba Qasim visits Lalish, a Yazidi holy site in northern Iraq, in 2016 with Hani and Evan, whose fathers were killed by ISIS fighters.

"I went to a rehabilitation centre, supporting and helping the women who had been sex slaves and who managed to survive with their children [...] They had just managed to escape. I’m coming and holding all this pain with them, and they were physically and mentally sick. And we had to take them to the hospital." Adiba Qasim is from the Yazidi minority in Northern Iraq. In August 2014, her village was stormed by Islamic State militants who killed and enslaved thousands of Yazidis. Adiba and her family managed to escape just before the militants arrived. She was 19 years old.

:: Adiba Qasim interviewed by Melissa Fleming
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett meets a Syrian refugee mother and daughter living at an informal settlement in Lebanon in May 2015. ©UNHCR/Jordi Matas

"Often for people who get on boats, it’s not the first point of trauma. They’ve experienced starvation. They have been shot at. They have travelled miles without any medical aid. Their children are at their wits’ end, already traumatized, when they get on the boat. These are not ill-informed, unintelligent, reckless individuals. They are doing this, because they are thinking profoundly about their children’s future. They are the people who are being washed up on the beaches. Just think about that, as you’re drifting off to sleep, you know." Cate Blanchett reflects on how meeting refugees has profoundly altered her perception of human suffering and the capacity to hope.

:: Cate Blanchett interviewed by Melissa Fleming
In January 2016, Boris Cheshirkov was working on the shores of Lesbos island in Greece, helping the refugees who had just crossed the short but dangerous stretch of sea from Turkey. Over 67,000 people reached Greece by sea that month alone.

“There were others who were saying ‘Now we’re coming to kill you. We’re organizing. You will not find a safe place in this country.’ There were others that were just wishful thinking: ‘You will get cancer and die tomorrow. Your family is cursed. We will find you. We will make you disappear’.” When Boris Cheshirkov spoke out against the shooting of an Afghan asylum seeker in the border between Turkey and Bulgaria, on Bulgarian territory, he himself became the target of a virulent online hate campaign. The threats were so severe he had to leave his country.

:: Boris Cheshirkov interviewed by Melissa Fleming
While visiting Afghanistan in May 2002, Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh engages with members of the local community. At the time, she was working for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and travelled frequently to Afghanistan.

"Maybe I say that now, as a nearly 50-year-old, but I think we underestimate maybe the importance of making the children part of the process that you’re going through as a parent, when you’re going into exile." Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh, an effective and tireless advocate of human rights, a lawyer who holds a senior position working on refugee protection, carries in her heart the legacy of her own experience as a refugee when she was just 10 years old.

:: Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh interviewed by Melissa Fleming
At Salamiya IDP camp near Mosul, Iraq, Bruno Geddo consoles a boy who was harassed by his peers due to a disability. The photo was taken in July 2018, just days after the city’s liberation. ©Courtesy of Bruno Geddo

"There is a level of need, which goes well beyond our standard ability to deliver psychosocial counselling. So as a protection agency, we have been facing this dilemma: How far can we go to make a meaningful contribution, beyond the individual compassion that you feel and you show and you share when you meet these persons?. " Even in the middle of a war zone, Bruno Geddo manages to light up the room, make people smile. He may sound like he’s just been on a long and magical holiday, but Mr. Geddo has been helping the victims of conflict in the world’s most dangerous places; his most recent posting: Iraq.

:: Bruno Geddo interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Melissa Fleming, head of UNHCR’s Global Communications Service and Spokesperson for the High Commissioner, interviews Monique Sokhan, UNHCR’s Assistant Representative for Protection in Lebanon, for the second season of Awake at Night.

"You hear the stories. And it is this 'survivor guilt' that you feel when you go back." Monique Sokhan fled from the terror of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s, when she was just a child. Many family members who stayed behind did not survive. "I felt like having a responsibility somehow to do something that would make them proud of me." It’s that feeling that drove Ms. Sokhan to work for refugees. But her first job for UNHCR was in Thailand, as a Protection Officer in camps for Khmer Rouge refugees – while the Khmer Rouge were the very people responsible for the killing of family and friends.

:: Monique Sokhan interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Melissa Fleming, head of UNHCR’s Global Communications Service and Spokesperson for the High Commissioner, interviews Fabrizio Hochschild, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Coordination, for the second season of Awake at Night.

"And then, I plucked up my courage, because I was so ashamed of how I was feeling, I thought I was literally going crazy and felt full of self-recrimination, and I saw a British Forces doctor, who told me that, yes, I had post-traumatic stress disorder, and that was the first time I heard of it." Fabrizio Hochschild felt invulnerable and impervious to danger, but the savagery he experienced in the 1990s during the Bosnian war brutally stripped away all his mental defences. Rising to the position of UN Assistant Secretary-General, he is now committed in helping others to fight the stigma of mental health problems.

:: Fabrizio Hochschild interviewed by Melissa Fleming

Season One

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Khaled Hosseini meets Melissa Fleming in Palo Alto, California thirty years after arriving in the USA as a teenager and an Afghan refugee. © UNHCR/Elena Dorfman

"I remember one night we had, we were a few months in the US, and we had friends over and there was a knock on the door and we opened the door and this these boy scouts and this guy from the Salvation Army rolled in with canned food and clothes and gifts and a tree. And we were all kind of bewildered. What was going on and they came in and they put the tree and they wished us merry Christmas and give all they gave us gifts and so on. They were grateful, but it was also so strange that there roles are reversed now. I remember going to the grocery store with my mom and she would pay for food with food stamps and that was so mortifying for her."

:: Khaled Hosseini interviewed by Melissa Fleming
In Greece, Alessandra Morelli served as UNHCR’s senior Emergency Coordinator and here she talks with Vice Admiral Giannis Karagiorgopoulos in the port of Mytilene during a visit to assess UNHCR operations on the island of Lesvos. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavalli

"So I was in the car I was reading, I was preparing my mind intervention with the Minister of Foreign Affairs I remember, and at a certain moment an incredible bang! The car rocked right and left and like like a ball of fire in the air… the car stopped. Smoke started coming into the car and with my colleagues, because we were four, I said “Are you all alive? Are we all alive?” And we had this, we were incredible readiness, if you want, to position ourselves into the brace position when you go “Brace, brace” and to realise to touch ourselves if we had all our pieces in the right place [...] Everywhere, everywhere one can touch. I tell you the truth. To check if we had blood, and checking on each other. But then this smoke started to come in the car and the car could not move."

:: Alessandra Morelli interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Felipe Camargo, UNHCR Regional Representative for Southern Europe, tells UNHCR Chief of Communications Melissa Fleming about the most challenging aspects of his humanitarian career for the podcast “Awake at Night.” © UNHCR/Susan Hopper

“[S]omebody said to me once to be a real humanitarian you need to be a bit of a lawyer, a bit of a cowboy, a bit of a nun, and a bit of a nurse. And I really think that is true you know because you cannot be just a charity person. You need to be strong enough and stay solid enough and look after yourself as well in the middle of crisis to be able to respond. But of course globally it is traumatizing. You know we are in the 21st century, we’re getting into the 22nd century whatever it is, time passes and the atrocities that you see in war, the numbers of refugees around the world it is something that still shocks me.”

:: Felipe Camargo interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Giles Duley photographed refugees and asylum-seekers in an informal camp near Idomeni in northern Greece during 2015. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

“I always say that the doctors, the surgeons, the nurses, they saved my life physically [...] My family was there to support me. But everybody, everybody questioned me whether I could work again. Nobody believed it. I was supported to finally go back and do the story in Lebanon of the Syrian refugees [...] They didn’t look at me and think 'he can’t do his job'. They trusted me with their stories [...] When that work was published is when people started commissioning me again to work. So I always say it was those Syrian refugees [...] They were the ones that gave me my life back [...] without them I would not be able to be a photographer.”

:: Giles Duley interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Sajjad Malik, UNHCR Country Representative in Syria, speaks to UNHCR Chief of Communications Melissa Fleming for the podcast series “Awake at night.” © UNHCR/Susan Hopper

“What keeps me awake is my staff that they will perhaps suffer more than what they have suffered so far. The Syrians that have gone through this, may have to go through more pain and more suffering. [...] It has to stop somewhere. We have been saying enough is enough, but even enough for Syria has a new definition. What is that enough? And these thoughts make me angry, make me sad because at end of the day I see people dying in Syria. People are losing their lives in Syria.”

:: Sajjad Malik interviewed by Melissa Fleming
Fatima Mohammed, UNHCR country Representative in Liberia, speaks to UNHCR Chief of Communications Melissa Fleming for the podcast series “Awake at night.” © UNHCR/Susan Hopper

"I’ve worked in worse situations, for example in Sri Lanka and in Somalia but maybe this time around because I am part of that community, it was really so difficult for me – and we’ve been trained as humanitarians to try and control your emotions so that you could be able to think clearly and be able to give support. But in this situation I actually began to doubt myself."

:: Fatima Mohammed interviewed by Melissa Fleming
In December 1996 Vincent Cochetel was Head of UNHCR’s sub-office in Vladikavkaz, southern Russia. In this photograph he is monitoring a repatriation movement from the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, via Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia.

“[I was] handcuffed to a metallic cable that is tied to a bed so that gives me little margin of movement around the bed on one side of the bed. Enough to make four footsteps and you get used to that. It was dark. Darkness was more difficult to cope with than limited freedom of movement. Darkness is something that is oppressive.”

:: Vincent Cochetel interviewed by Melissa Fleming