A Lifetime of Humanitarian Efforts: The Work of Karen Koning AbuZayd

“I encourage young women to be open to all possibilities, to recognize how much they can achieve by being willing to accepting challenge that come their way.” -Karen Koning AbuZayd

Senses Cultural is honored to discuss Karen Koning AbuZayd, an incredible champion of developmental causes for over 30 years, as the next feature of our Women of Change series.  Tata Monfared has dedicated the next installation of the Enduring Power exhibition to Ms. AbuZayd and her work, and the answer to why is clear:  Karen has woven the commitment of motherhood in among the unparalleled list of humanitarian assignments that she successfully executed for many years.   While Ms. AbuZayd humbly describes her time with the UN as being “in the right place at the right time”, it is clear that her own talents led to an outstanding and remarkable career.  Senses Cultural is honored to have her support.

With a life path that began as a nurse in public health, Karen AbuZayd earned a master’s degree in Islamic Studies from the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal.  She began her humanitarian career in Sudan in 1981, working with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner, dealing with Ugandan, Chadian and Ethiopian/Eritrean refugees.  For five of those years, she also worked with the Office of the Sudanese Commissioner for Refugees, which she describes as, “busy and rewarding times”.  Prior to these years of service, she first taught Middle East Politics for 10 years at Makerere University in Uganda and University of Juba in southern Sudan. In 1989, she began running the repatriation program in Nambia, and by 1990 she was managing Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone.

Ms. AbuZayd also took on the role of mother and wife during the early years of her exceptional career, meeting her Sudanese husband at McGill University.  She gave birth to her first son in Montreal, and her second in Sudan.

The 1990’s were a busy time for Ms. AbuZayd, as she notes, “I was called to UNHCR HQ in Geneva, first to work on the continuing emergency in the Horn of Africa, then to head the program for the return of South African refugees, finally to head the HQ ‘desk’ for Somali refugees in Kenya.  In 1993, I was approached to go to Sarajevo as the Chief of the Bosnian mission.  I stayed there nearly two years, ensuring the physical and protection needs of the Bosnians under siege–a departure from UNHCR’s usual mission for refugees or displaced persons.  I returned to HQ in 1995 to become the Deputy Head of the Programme Section, and a year later became the Chef de Cabinet to High Commissioner Sadako Ogata.”

In August of 2000, Karen was asked to take her expertise to Gaza as the Deputy Commissioner-General for UNRWA. She fondly remembers, “I was delighted, as Palestine had been one of my ’causes’ since graduate school. The question was asked in the summer of 2000, the year of the Camp David talks.  Peace seemed to be on the horizon.  I arrived in Gaza in August, full of excitement and anticipation of seeing Palestine become an independent state.”

However, soon after her arrival the Second Intifada broke out followed by two ‘wars’ in Gaza and the prospect of an independent Palestine receded.  In 2005, Karen became the Commissioner-General and Under Secretary General, overseeing public services and emergency response in Gaza, West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

Her talents brought her back to the United States, where she retired from the UN in 2010.  Since September 2011, she has been a Commissioner on the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. She travels to Geneva several times a year to lend her expertise to the Human Rights Council.  She has a B.Sc., an honorary Doctorate, and is a recipient of the McNaughton medal for public service from Depauw University in Indiana, She also received the Spanish UN Association/Catalonia Peace Prize in 2010 and the Austria Golden Medal with Star for Service to The Austrian Republic in 2011.

Karen AbuZayd’s wish for Senses’ supporters is simple yet profound.  She says,

“I expect Senses supporters already have some appreciation of the needs of refugees, displaced persons and those suffering from war, conflict and human rights abuses, not only in material terms (though these are many), but also for solidarity, emotional and political support.  Working with these groups, one is repeatedly asked why the world has forgotten them.  Reaching out to those affected is so very important and even the smallest offering or contact is hugely rewarded as it will be multiplied many times by the resilience of the recipients.”

We hope that readers heed this advice, reminding us to strive for more peaceful communication between cultures and people wordwide.

She is an incomparable role model for any young woman who has an interest in Middle Eastern studies or a passion for repatriation.  She “encourages young women to be open to all possibilities, to recognize how much they can achieve by being willing to accepting challenge that come their way.”

Senses Cultural is proud to have her involvement in upcoming projects, as she is a powerfully incomparable Woman of Change.

By Silvana Gargione