Sunday, April 18, 2010
Visit by the High Commissioner
One of the enjoyable aspects of my current position is the ability to meet and interact with interesting people from all over the world and at different levels in the food chain. This past week, the Tanzania refugee operations received a visit by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres. First of all, who UNHCR? It is the massive UN agency that deals with refugees and other displaced people from around the world, currently in over 110 countries. In Tanzania our organization works with a number of other organizations under the umbrella of (and a good deal of funding from) UNHCR.
As to who is Mr. Gutterez, he's actually a pretty interesting guy. He was the Prime Minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002 and was appointed High Commissioner for Refugees by Kofi Annan in 2005. His visit to Tanzania, his first since 2006, was to last less than a week but he would cover a lot of ground. He started off meeting with the TZ Prime Minister among other important government people. It's always important to start off with such visits, not only as a matter of courtesy but it's also good to sort out some of the sticky issues. It's obvious that with an organization who is overseeing thousands of people living in a foreign/host country, there will likely be something to talk about. Gutterez later said that the topic foremost in the minds of the government was the presence of 36,000 Burundians who are refusing to return to Burundi. It's been foremost in my mind over the last three years as well.
On Monday night I was invited to drinks and dinner at a nice restaurant in Dar es Salaam to meet Mr. Guterrez and mingle with some other important folks. I hadn't seen the guest list but I'd assumed it'd be a large crowd. As it was, I was wrong. Only 12, including Guterrez's small entourage, would be in attendance. Very cool indeed. It was a rare opportunity to chat with the EU Ambassador (Head of Delegation), Guterrez himself and several other important people. Topics ranged from the refugee situation to some amazing and creative work being done with the disabled to the history of the Portuguese colonial effort. With Guterrez I took advantage of the situation to impress upon him that we need to re-start primary education in Mtabila camp, something that has been stopped for a year (two years for some of them). Not only is this a good idea for these kids, it happens to be one of those things we call a human right. I knew basically what he was going to say (it's complicated and delicate topic) and he knew that I knew. I still felt I had to say something.
After the dinner, we walked out towards the parking lot. One attendee asked me where my driver had parked. Though I enjoy the use of a driver while in the field, I am my own driver in Dar. I smiled, humbly pulled the keys to my Toyota out of my pocket, and drove the short distance home.
The next day we had a formal meeting. It was most of the people from the night before with at least a dozen others who are all stakeholders of some kind in refugee operations. When it was my turn to give a small briefing, I yet again mentioned the education-deprived children in my description of what our organization does (or wished it was allowed to do). I thanked him for the good collaboration our organization has with his (which is true) and told him that I looked forward to continued partnership with them in finding durable solutions for the remaining refugees. I refrained from mentioning that I appreciated the Tanzania team providing snacks at the meeting (rare for them) and that they finally got their air conditioning functioning. He should visit more often.