Improving the Lives of Displaced People

Shadi Sheikhsaraf with a refugee child

“I’m a child of war,” says Shadi Sheikhsaraf, MA SID/COEX’17. She grew up in Iran during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, which raged throughout her childhood. “The trauma is still with me. But that was motivation for me to work on humanitarian activities and conflict prevention and post-conflict healing, for the betterment of people’s lives.”

Today, she’s doing just that at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as an associate reporting officer in Erbil, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The country hosts about 252,000 refugees, primarily from Syria, with more than half in Erbil. Additionally, about 3.4 million Iraqis are internally displaced. UNHCR provides protection services, shelter, core relief items and basic-needs assistance, as well as camp management services for refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).

“It’s very emotional work — you need to be very strong. It’s not easy to see that you have limited power to solve all the issues you see every day,” Sheikhsaraf says. But she’s motivated by her motto: “Helping one person might not change the world, but it could change the world for one person.”

Shadi Sheikhsaraf with Angelina Jolie
Shadi Sheikhsaraf with UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie

In her role, she visits the six IDP camps and four refugee camps regularly, checking in on the various sectors on the ground, including protection, community-based activities and education, to collect data for monthly reports on their activities. She works closely with different units in the field office, in the camps and with partners to make sure they are reporting their indicators accurately. Additionally, she’s uncovering and highlighting stories from the camps for social media.

Her work today reminds her of her own childhood, when she was internally displaced in Iran. She recalls a bomb going off near her primary school and being let out into the streets in utter chaos.

So how does an Iranian who grew up during a war with Iraq end up working in that country?

It all started with her Heller connections. Sheikhsaraf chose to come to Heller after several years of working with UNHCR and the UN Population Fund in Iran. She wanted broader perspective and knowledge to continue with her humanitarian work.

At Heller, she met people from Iraq for the first time.

“When you’re at war, you do not see the other side. It’s not easy. But I started talking to my classmates from Iraq. We became friends and understood that the fear we experienced was the same,” she says. “Having classmates from all over the world helps you to get rid of some of the biases you have.”

She was able to attend Heller because of a fellowship. "I’m honored and grateful that I was the first recipient of the Public Policy and Coexistence Fellowship at the Heller School and Brandeis." 

At Heller, she continued her work with refugees, co-founding WorkAround with Wafaa Arbash, MA SID/COEX’17, and Jennie Kelly, MA SID/MBA’17, which provides economic empowerment to refugees through online employment.

After graduation, she worked with Cynthia Cohen, director of Brandeis’ program in Peacebuilding and the Arts, but always wanted to return to the field. When the opportunity at UNHCR in Iraq came up, she decided to go for it.

The best part of her job is visiting the children, Sheikhsaraf says. “I use my basic knowledge of Arabic and sign language and play with them to provide some happy moments. Even if I can’t solve all of their problems, at least I can follow the mission of my name, which means happiness, and make them smile.”

Shadi Sheikhsaraf with internally displaced children in Iraq
SHADI SHEIKHSARAF, MA SID/COEX’17, WITH INTERNALLY DISPLACED IRAQI CHILDREN IN ERBIL, IRAQ.

Cover of Winter 2019 Heller Magazine

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 Heller magazine