Carrying her mission to the end

LONG INTERVIEW | CHANGE-MAKERS

Flying bullets, chemical warfare protective suits and emptied cities - intrepid Singaporean Janet Lim has seen them all. The assistant high commissioner for operations at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who has a front-row seat to the world's biggest humanitarian crises, gives a rare interview to Susan Long.

MS JANET LIM Yuen Kheng was in the front line coordinating relief efforts when one million Rwandans fled their homes and crossed into Zaire in 1994.

In the late 1990s, she was caught in the crossfire at the peak of the Sri Lankan civil war. Bullets flew into her refugee camps and she had to negotiate with the warring parties for safe passage.

She has played a role in tackling many major humanitarian crises in recent memory.

They range from the Rwandan genocide, war in the Balkans, the first Gulf War, and different phases of the conflict in Afghanistan to civil war in Sri Lanka, East Timor, Liberia, and Ivory Coast. There were also natural disasters like the Boxing Day Tsunami, Myanmar's Cyclone Nargis, floods in Pakistan and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

At 63, the Singaporean is in charge of operations at the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), where she has been assistant high commissioner, the organisation's second-highest rank, for the past five years.

If it's ironic that one of the top honchos of the world's refugee resettlement agency hails from Singapore, which routinely turns away refugees from its shores, the straight-talking woman doesn't dwell on it.

She pulls no punches that she doesn't buy Singapore's land constraints as an argument why it can't let in refugees. She feels her country can do much more "burden sharing" and show more "international solidarity" in the world refugee problem, but stops - diplomatically - there.

She's not in favour of public denouncements, which she deems "unhelpful", preferring persuasion and leading the way in her own personal capacity instead.

In the 33 years she has worked with the organisation formed by the United Nations General Assembly after World War II to help the uprooted and stateless, she has made it a point never to say "no" to any assignment given to her.

That has led to a textured life, woven with highs and lows and grand adventure. She has survived on field rations for weeks on end. She has shared a room with 20 colleagues, taking turns to sleep. She has got lost in a landmine-filled Western Sahara desert on a reconnaissance trip to identify return routes for Saharawi refugees in 1998.

It has also been a life of juxtapositions - being received in resplendent residences of rulers and officials and sitting by the bedside with refugees in cramped tents.

One epic adventure has been leading an emergency operation to Syria. She was flown into Damascus, along with gas masks and auto-injectors in case of chemical warfare, just before the airspace closed with the First Gulf War in 1990. There, she helped to set up camp, in anticipation of a massive outflow of refugees from Iraq.

It didn't happen. Instead, over a million Kurds in northern Iraq fled to the mountains of south-eastern Turkey following Iraq's suppression of a Kurdish uprising. Hurriedly redeployed to Silopi, a Turkish border town, she hitched rides in American military helicopters to locate refugees scattered all over the mountains and deliver help to them.

Afterwards, she returned to Geneva to improve UNHCR's emergency response capacity based on her Gulf War experience.

Mr Daniel Endres, 56, director of external relations at UNHCR, says the system she set up became an organisational pillar in the following decades. It was based on "solid analysis yet very practical" - and covered all aspects of emergency staff mobilisation, infrastructure support and financial management.

Dr Noeleen Heyzer, 66, Undersecretary-General at the United Nations, who is the highest-ranking Singaporean in the UN, credits Ms Lim's success to her "no-nonsense working style". "She always gets to the heart of the problem and comes up with practical solutions," adds Dr Heyzer.

Flea bites and dung cake

THE eldest of three children of a clerk and housewife grew up in the rough-and-tumble Chinatown. She learnt how to tread carefully and avoid being roughed up by kids at Keppel Primary. After that, she went on to the more genteel CHIJ (Victoria Street) from Primary 5 till pre-university. But she never forgot her early exposure to "that range of society where life is difficult".

At 17, she scored an all-expenses-paid exchange programme to the US, where she lived with an American family and attended high school in Long Beach, California. Her first exposure to an "international setting" taught her to want more and ask for it.

She returned here, "much more assertive", and pushed on with her plans to read sociology and social work at the University of Singapore, despite family opposition at its limited prospects.

They need not have worried. Upon graduation, she was recruited to the government's elite Administrative Service. She began serving out her bursary bond at the Ministry of Finance in 1975 but paid it back with her wages just 11/2 years later, after she won a scholarship to Germany.

That led to six months of German language training in Blaubeuren, then a master's in development studies at the University of Bielefeld. She chose to do her field research on women peasants in rural Egypt. This involved travelling 90km out of Cairo in an old boneshaker taxi, pressed up against up to 20 locals, who were hanging out of its windows, the boot and on the roof.

In the village, she slept in a mud hut visited by roaming animals and blanketed by fleas. From dawn to dusk, she followed the women as they made buffalo milk and dung cake. "I could only stand it for about a week maximum because I would be covered with flea bites. Then I would go back to Cairo to clean and scrub myself and apply creams. When the bites went down, I was ready to go back again." She repeated this for three months.

Finding her calling

HER scholarship was extended to cover her PhD in Germany in 1979. Soon after, she was transfixed by the stream of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees fleeing from Indochina wars, often drowning in leaky boats.

She found her thesis topic - and calling - when she volunteered to help out at a refugee reception centre in Dusseldorf. Using Mandarin, Hokkien and Cantonese, she helped resettle the traumatised, mainly ethnic-Chinese refugees into Germany.

Her research work took her to refugee camps all over Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, to trace their journey. But when she tried to interview harried UNHCR officials on the field, she was rebuffed.

In a huff, she wrote to the UNHCR offering herself for hire. To her surprise, she landed a short-term contract job at its Geneva headquarters in 1980. Her plan was to just spend three months gathering information for her thesis.

But in Geneva, the desk officer in charge of UNHCR's biggest refugee programme in Thailand suddenly quit. "They had nobody to cover that big desk, so they said, 'Why don't you go and sit there and do whatever you can?' That got me running around, asking everyone else how to do my job," she recounts.

When her three-month stint stretched to two years, she gave up her PhD, since "the whole intention of studying was to eventually be able to do work like this".

Afterwards, she was sent to Thailand to oversee border camps hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees. This was followed by field assignments in Malaysia, Syria, Turkey, Western Sahara, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

After that, she headed the Asia Bureau from Geneva before being appointed to her current position as Assistant High Commissioner (operations) in 2009.

What powered her on was seeing the real-life impact of her work in the front lines, the adrenalin rush of cutting through bureaucracy and the sheer variety of landscapes and issues.

"You never feel like you're doing the same job," she muses.

Today, there's very little left on her bucket list left undone, unvisited, or unlived. She honestly cannot think of anywhere in the world she wants to go to that she's not yet been.

The woman who speaks English, German, French, Mandarin and a little Arabic is now looking forward to retirement. She wants to spend it sharing her experiences in international humanitarian work and nurturing an interest in international affairs among youth.

The plan is to keep a dual base in Singapore, where she has been visiting family every two years, and her current home in Versonnex, France, across the border from Geneva.

She also hopes she will finally fall in step with her German husband, Dr Udo Will, 68, an ethnomusicology professor at Ohio State University, with whom she's had a long-distance marriage for almost 30 years. They catch up whenever they have a break, wherever they are in the world. They have no children.

Dark nights of the soul

MEANWHILE, no rest for the intrepid. As UNHCR's head of operations, supporting its staff of 10,000 (about 80 per cent of whom are out in the field in inhospitable places), her job presents many dilemmas and dark nights of the soul.

Today's humanitarian crises take place in a complex and volatile environment, where access to the displaced is often a challenge. UNHCR often has to navigate through multiple layers of conflict and speak with all sides - not just governments, but non-state actors such as insurgents or militia groups - in countries where law and order has broken down.

Humanitarian workers are also no longer seen as neutral but routinely targeted, often to bring attention to a cause. Just last month, Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for planting a bomb on a UNHCR convoy of cars in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.

This has sharply driven up the cost of doing business for UNHCR. "It means having to use armoured vehicles in war zones. It means having blast-proof windows, bunker rooms and T-walls in our residences," she laments, while absorbed with finding new ways of mitigating risks for her colleagues.

It also means heart-rending decisions as to whether staff should go to safety or stay with the refugees, when violence escalates. "Some of my most harrowing experiences are when I have to make this kind of judgment call," she shudders.

Today, her "Singaporean" pragmatism drives her as much as her strong protective instinct for the refugee carrying his bare possessions on his back.

"I've become more realistic. When I first joined UNHCR, I thought I could help make the world a better place. Obviously the world is not becoming a better place.

"But what has always stayed with me is that, even if we're dealing with a mass situation, it's ultimately the individual that we are helping. I try never to forget that.

"Plus one refugee helped helps to prevent one more problem in the future that may be more difficult to fix."

Janet Lim on...

Singapore's position on refugees

"Singapore is very well-known for its position that we are too small a country, we cannot afford to have a floodgate of refugees. But if you are small, you can do things in smaller proportions. Quite frankly, the refugee phenomenon is worldwide. There needs to be a lot of international solidarity and burden-sharing. We don't expect every country to carry the same burden, but I think it is important to show solidarity. Finally, it is also about preserving human values."

How refugees are misunderstood

"There is a tendency to think of refugees as people who would be a burden. This stereotypical image is often reinforced when they are confined to living in refugee camps and forced into a situation of dependency. In fact, when given a chance, refugees would rather be self-sufficient, find their own livelihoods and use the skills they have brought with them."

Reflecting on her own life

"I am always glad that whenever I felt I had to do something, I just did it there and then, rather than waited. There are things in life that you will never do once the moment is past."

Her ability to survive all conditions

"I have a high tolerance. You just go through it and you will find ways to survive. First, you have your own capacity, then there are also resources in your environment that you can mobilise. Finally there is my belief that things can always be done."

suelong@sph.com.sg


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