As one might imagine, or at least hope, the people who work for the United Nations (UN) are an exceptional bunch. There are a few jerks in the mix, there always are, but overall, many of the people who seek out careers with the UN are wonderful, idealistic big-hearted souls. The mission of making the world a better place is one that we must embrace to succeed inside the belly of the bureaucratic beast.
Following nearly twenty years of service to the UN, I encountered many such individuals who started as colleagues and ended up as friends and one of our common bonds was, without fail, the desire to do good.
If we could improve, or possibly save, a life even once in our career, it would all be worth the challenges and sacrifices along the way.
A few of these amazing people I was lucky enough to befriend were Sheila, Maria-Solange, – nicknamed Pido which is Italian for flea – and Flora.
Sheila and I first met a decade ago in Yemen at a UNICEF regional workshop on HIV and then again when I joined her in South Sudan, where she was based at the time. We started in Juba but then wound up in Rumbek where I generated one of my fondest memories from the trip. We were housed in tricked out safari camp style tents where I spent an entire night arguing with a frog. As soon as I was quiet the frog, who was trapped in my tent, would hop around trying to escape. As soon as I got up to help it find the door, it went silent and hid. We went at this for hours until I finally left part of the tent open and he eventually made his way out.
In subsequent visits with Sheila in New York or elsewhere, we always giggled about the frog. Seems she’d shared her tent with him as well from time to time and it was a nice diversion from the otherwise discouraging work topic of trying to reverse the AIDS pandemic.
Pido and I worked together at UNICEF Headquarters in New York City and, as luck would have it, we were also neighbors and saw each other socially outside of the workplace. Pido’s wit and brilliance were tempered only by her, shall we say, lack of coordination – she was known to fall off treadmills on a regular basis. But her generosity was unrivaled. Anyone who ever spent time with Pido, I’m certain, feels that they were special in her eyes.
Flora and I actually met when I was consulting, between full-time UN gigs, during an extended contract I had in Albania. During my time there, Flora – perhaps unknowingly – became one of my most important friends as I was, at that point, in an unhealthy marriage and my time with her and another Albanian colleague became my lifeline.
Years later, Flora and I met again in the US when I was living in New York and she’d been evacuated from New Orleans during hurricane Katrina. She’d been awarded a Fulbright scholarship and was doing her MPH at Tulane. She stayed with me off and on and we rekindled our friendship. Eventually she returned to Albania and later was hired by UNFPA and, yet again, our paths aligned in our work for the UN on public health.
These three friends make up only a tiny portion of the people I miss since leaving my full-time work with UNICEF at the end of 2011. What sets them apart, however, is that I will never see them again.
In the midst of trying to save the world, we forget that our own lives may also be at risk and the duration is never guaranteed.
Two years ago on May 27th, Sheila died from malaria. She’d spent much of her adult life living and working in Africa and, as such, exposed herself to health issues that we in the States probably don’t even consider as serious. She helped countless children in her life, and adults, including myself, through her kindness and thoughtful manner, and yet, ultimately, she was taken too young by one of the worst killers known to man – malaria – one of the many diseases she dedicated her life to fighting.
On June 3rd, Pido would have turned 40, but a little over seven years ago, she died following a brain aneurism. While I cannot in good conscience say that the stress of the work killed her, I can’t either say that it wasn’t a factor. She consistently worked long hours and went far beyond the call of duty in her job at UNICEF headquarters. She was a planning officer in our division of Human Resources, and in the midst of trying to streamline the functionality of our office, and juggle her personal life at home, she collapsed outside of her apartment and never came to. She was kept on life-support for another five days and finally died on February 17, 2007. I was the last person with her before her aneurism and I carry those moments with me still, like a fragile butterfly in my heart.
Flora too has passed on, as you’ve certainly already surmised. Just over a year ago, still in her early 40s, Flora died of breast cancer. She’d been diagnosed while still in New Orleans and had much of her early treatment in the States but the cancer was too much and so, tragically, she too is gone. Like a flower as she was so aptly named, Flora made any room brighter when she’d flash her gorgeous smile.
Today, as on many days, I’m thinking of these three women and how much better my own life is because I had them as friends. I miss them all. They each changed the world in their own way and made this planet a better place to live, for me, but also for countless others.
Sheila, Pido and Flora, I miss you. I love you. I hope you’re resting well.