Akhtar’s Story


Akhtar in Luxembourg


When I first met Akhtar in 2009, he was dirty, hungry, disillusioned and scared.   He was then living in a squalid camp of flimsy cardboard boxes in Greece's western port city, Patras, along with 1600 other Afghan boys and men who, like him, had come with hope of finding a new life in Europe.

Destitute without food or the right to earn a living, hounded by the authorities and unable to either leave the country, or to legally stay, Akhtar, like those around him, had reached a dead end.   He told me "This is like living like animals … I think I've come to the wrong place". 

I was in Greece with cameraman, Sebastian Rich, to shoot a story for "21st Century" on Europe's migration issue, and, in this case, Greece's inability to cope with the influx of asylum hopefuls.  Akhtar's was the human face of this "problem".  The film, called "Dead End", was distributed in our series in 2009.  It would be four years before I would meet him again, when I shot a follow-up film with him, a long way from where we first met.

Amidst the sea of desperation in Greece, Akhtar stood out because of his gentleness, humility and intelligence.  Fluent in 5 languages, including English which he learnt while growing up in a UN Refugee Agency camp in Pakistan,  Akhtar had been threatened by the Taliban on his return to Afghanistan, which led him to believe his life was in danger.  Using family savings, he fled, paying traffickers to bring him on a hazardous, 2-month journey across Iran and Turkey, to Europe – where he hoped to find safety.  He also hoped to be allowed to study, to get a good job and to support his widowed mother in Afghanistan and his younger siblings' education. 

Akhtar was then just 18 – the same age as my daughter – and I was deeply touched by his courage and determination, and the burden of responsibility he carried at such a young age.   

Akhtar with Producer, Gill Fickling

But he never dreamed that his welcome to Europe would be such a cold one.  Desperate to get out of the impossible situation in Greece, each day, he would head down to the port where, with dozens of other boys, he tried to smuggle himself underneath trucks waiting to board the ferry to Italy.   Most boys were apprehended and turned back – but some died trying, crushed in their hiding places when rear wheels were lifted.

This was the start of what would turn out to be a long journey for Akhtar. 

When I left Greece, we kept in touch by email and the occasional phone call as he made his way from one European country to another, trying to find one that would accept him. But he always tried to evade the authorities which, by European law, would be obliged to send him back to Greece, his first country of entry into Europe.  Apprehended and detained in locked Detention Centers in Hungary and in Austria, he miraculously managed to escape both times once it became clear that he would be sent back to Greece.   Finally, after two years on the road fleeing from one country to the next, he arrived in Luxembourg in northern Europe where, he had heard, young asylum-seekers had a chance of being granted asylum.  It was his last hope.  At first, he believed he had a chance –  the Luxembourg authorities provided him with housing and the chance to go back to school.  He waited anxiously as his asylum application was reviewed.    But to both his and his lawyer's dismay, all his applications were rejected on the grounds that his life was not believed to be in danger in Afghanistan.  He was at this stage when I arranged to meet him again, in 2012, to film the follow-up on his story with UNTV cameraman Bernard Vansiliette.   The previous years had taken their toll – he was cleaner than when I first met him, but his spirit and hope were diminished.  He could not understand why he wasn't being given a chance – he felt he had so much to offer, and just wanted to live like a decent citizen in Europe.  Even the Luxembourg Minister for Immigration, who we interviewed, agreed that the immigration system needed to be addressed to avoid situation's like Akhtar's. 

But in December 2013, I received some good news from Akhtar.   It seemed the Luxembourg authorities had awarded him temporary leave of stay in the country in order to finish his studies.  He was thrilled, filled with plans of studying for a Bachelor's degree at university after he has graduated from high-school.   During the four years I've known Akhtar, the only thing he has ever asked from me is books for his studies; I hope that through that small gesture, and by highlighting his story in the international media, we may have in some way contributed to this happy ending.

See the film of his 4 year journey, called Akthar's Story, distributed to broadcasters in 2013


Filed under Uncategorized.

The Women Shepherds of Somaliland


by Francis Mead

We won’t forget Beerato. It’s a village in central Somaliland. Dust, sheep, goats, camels – and bold women, insisting on changing their lives – and knowing how to party – dancing, singing and clapping in the Sufi style. Cameraman Antonio Tibaldi and I arrived in a UN four-by-four. We had to bring eight armed guards in two more vehicles with us – UN rules – since there’s a danger of kidnapping.
















We travelled with Amina Souleiman, a Somali woman who gained political asylum in the UK during Somalia’s civil war in the 90s. She now spends half her year helping women in her homeland stand up for their rights. The UN Democracy Fund is financing her project. In my opinion it’s a remarkable initiative, though each step forward has to be patient and small, and is met by resistance. We met Sahra – an impressive, highly intelligent woman, a shepherd with no formal education and one of the leading lights in the village. Sahra is one of Amina’s protegés.
















Water is a central concern year round – and Beerato, when drought isn’t severe, is a major watering hole for the surrounding villages. We watched and filmed as camel herds and flocks of sheep and goats were brought in, lining up to take their turn, almost like aircraft taxiing on a runway. The semi-nomadic families here move their flocks and herds to new pastures several times each year:

Amina Souleiman (left, standing) with a woman and children from the village.

Life in Beerato is precarious. By the traditional division of labour, women look after sheep and goats, while men look after the camels. If women lose their flock to drought (which happens not infrequently) they effectively lose their right to graze the tribal lands and are often forced into exile to the capital Hargeisa. Then almost the only option is to labour in the markets. In the city, life is brutally tough, money is hard to come by, and home is usually a displaced persons’ camp or a shanty town.

Amina, Sahra and the village women are determined this won’t happen to them. Holding regular women’s circles, they are asserting their rights with the male village elders, and arguing for access to school and land. Already, they have installed five women teachers in the village school for the first time. Next they plan to build a hospital (money will have to be raised internationally by Amina). The hospital will provide jobs and improved health – many mothers die in childbirth. But there’s opposition all along the way – it took weeks of persistent requests before the women finally got the keys to the school office and generator.

Antonio and I were both inspired by Amina’s enthusiasm and determination – and her ability to bridge the huge cultural gap between two white Western guys with cameras, and rural women in a small village. She had the capacity to know and communicate fluently between both worlds. Antonio, who’s a film director in his own right when he’s not working for the UN, was also very struck by Sahra:



Fatima, already widowed, was forced by drought to leave her village for the city:



The full film can be seen here on the UN’s site.

A slightly longer version of the film here.

(Sufi dancing near the end of the film)




Filed under Uncategorized.

Risking Life and Limb in Afghanistan


by Mary Ferreira and Haris Kakar

Recently I had the pleasure of working with and mentoring a young journalist from Afghanistan, Haris Kakar, a participant in the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalists Fellowship Programme which ran for 5-weeks this year – one week in Geneva and four weeks in New York.

A total of 11 journalists (Radio/Internet/Print/TV) had the chance to work with UN staff and follow coverage of important events. At the end of the fellowship, each journalist had to finalize a project in their field of work. Haris, a print journalist, chose to write an article about humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan who risk everything to help the needy. Elizabeth Scaffidi from SCD assisted in the editing process. Here’s Haris’ story…

“United Nations, New York – For 30 years Mohammad Nabi has been delivering aid to his vulnerable countrymen and women in central Afghanistan, risking his life to help others get "better health and education".

Delivery of Supplies

As the security situation deteriorates, the conflict in the central Asian nation rages on. Aid workers across Afghanistan continue to worry about the humanitarian situation as well as their own lives.

Afghanistan faces a crucial moment: expecting to hold second major presidential elections next year as NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces pull out.

Fifty-nine year old Nabi is an aid worker for the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan in the central Wardak province. Forty kilometers from Kabul, Wardak has been a fierce battleground for fighting between Afghan government troops and insurgents.

"We are providing health and education services to people there with a half-million of the population benefiting from our aid", Nabi says.

But delivering educational and health supplies is not an easy task. Gunmen regularly target military and civilian vehicles along the highway. The roadside bombs, frequently used by the rebels as weapon of choice, often kill civilians along the highway, which connects Kabul to southern Kandahar province.

"Our security is a big challenge for us in this province. We are often stopped for hours by different insurgent groups," Nabi adds. He keeps close contact with tribal elders and community leaders for a worst case scenario.

"Tribal elders and villagers mediate our release when they [insurgents] arrest us while delivering aid." he asserts. Although Nabi is well known among Wardak villagers, for precautionary measures he must change his appearance, such as grow a beard, don traditional clothes and even wear a turban to disguise his identity.

"But people make any possible effort to help us and rescue us."

Armed men have frequently beaten Nabi and his colleagues. He has even been tortured, but declines to share that story.

Humanitarian agencies have been targeted by insurgents and extremists in the past. In August, five aid workers of the International Rescue Committee (ICR) were shot dead by unknown gunmen in western Afghanistan.

In May this year, suicide bombers stormed the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Kabul, killing and injuring several people. Days after an attack on an IOM compound, a suicide bomber killed a guard in an attack on a regional office of the International Committee of Red Crescent in eastern Afghanistan. A senior UN official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said aid agencies are continuously under attacks, spreading fear among the agencies and their workers.

Afghanistan is still considered a "high risk area" in the United Nations. Nadir Farhad, a spokesman for UNHCR in Kabul, says the country's security situation has been responsible for the delay in delivering humanitarian aid to Afghans. "It is a tough job to deliver aid to people in Afghanistan," lamented Mr. Farhad.

Andreas Stefansson, Swedish committee country director says being an aid worker in Afghanistan is "a tough and challenging job".
He says that his agency's workers are being arrested, mistaken for government employees by insurgents. For this reason, they rely on councils within local villages to protect their aid workers rather than security forces.

The future of the humanitarian situation is unclear – Mr. Stefansson says it depends on "internal politics and foreign countries contribution to stabilize or destabilize" the country. But Nabi remains committed to helping his people as he delivers textbooks to boys and girls to make a better future. "I am happy with my job despite its risk because I serve my people."

Filed under Disaster.

UN Special Rapporteur visits Uruguay


By Mary Ferreira

Montevideo, Uruguay – Covering the visit to Uruguay of the UN Special Rapporteur, Pablo de Greiff, led us to several places in Montevideo including the Supreme Court, the President's office, and the Office of Human Rights.

Pablo met with government officials and members of civil society, including ex-prisoners and relatives of the "detained disappeared". For videographer Joaquim Vieira and me, following the rapporteur as he visited various ministries and offices was quite challenging since we had to travel in a separate vehicle, timing precisely when the rapporteur would arrive at the next location.

We met several ex-prisoners who were eager to share their experiences during that tragic period – 1970s to 1980s – in their nation's history when "Plan Condor" was in operation across several South American countries. They said this was the first time that anyone showed so much interest in their story. We also had opportunities to visit relatives of "the disappeared" who continue to demand the truth some 40 years later.

When asked if he thought that more remains would be found of those who are still listed as "disappeared" and whether the truth would come to light he said, "Some legal initiatives have been taken. There is of course a question of whether each of those initiatives goes far enough to satisfy fully the rights that victims and society have in each of the different areas. But with respect to each of them there has been some legislative and executive action."

Here is a short clip highlighting some special moments with Pablo, victims, and relatives of the "disappeared". The full story will be released later.

Filed under Politics.

Haiti: Street Children live dangerously


by Mary Ferreira

Port-au-Prince, Haiti – The number of children living on the streets of Port-au-Prince alone doubled to 4,000 since the 2010 earthquake says UNICEF. They're everywhere – darting in between cars – trying to survive in a country mired in poverty.

They clean cars to survive. Anyone driving in the Delmas area can spot five to 10 of them at a time working hurriedly to catch the next car. Often most drivers prefer not to have their cars cleaned; others pay some 50 gourdes – just a little more than one US dollar – for a quick job. With that money, street children can barely buy a piece of bread and a plastic packet of water –essential items in the sweltering heat of this Caribbean nation.

We met 16-year-old Jean Leonel who has been a street child since the earthquake struck, killing both of his parents. It's a dangerous life but Jean Leonel believes there's no other choice for him. He said, "Imagine if I go to live with my grandmother, she's old and can no longer work. I have to stay here and work so that I can earn some money to care for her."

His reasoning is one held by most street children who are committed to helping their relatives. For boys like Jean Leonel, they opt to remain on the streets instead of registering at shelters designated for them where they're guaranteed hot meals, regular showers, and decent living. Jean Leonel says it's tough now due to the economic crisis but he continues working the streets of Port-au-Prince hoping that one day he'll be able to return to a normal life. Here's a short clip of Jean Leonel's story.

Filed under Disaster.

Haiti: Youth displaced by Earthquake


by Mary Ferreira

Port-au-Prince, Haiti – An assignment to produce a story about youth and democracy, supported by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), following the 2010 earthquake brought me back to Haiti with cameraman, Joaquim Vieira.

I first visited this Caribbean country in 2007 when there was a strict curfew in place for UN Staff. We had been advised to remain indoors after 6 pm.

Now, despite the earthquake, the country appears less tense. Of course, there is still the constant danger of kidnapping – especially for foreigners – so one needs to be vigilant and careful at all times.

This story took us to a place called Saint Marc, some 90 minutes from Port-au-Prince, the capital city. There we saw young people actively involved in sports, culture, and civic duty. They were passionate about the future of their country, encouraging others to participate in the reconstruction and political processes, especially exercising their right to vote.

One young woman, Lovely, travelled back to Martissant, Port-au-Prince, to show us where she lived when the earthquake struck, destroying her home, causing her to lose everything. Martissant is listed as a red zone district by MINUSTAH. A SWAT team from the Jordanian Battalion accompanied us to ensure safety while filming. Here’s a short clip of that coverage.

Filed under Disaster.

Empowering Women in Zimbabwe


by Mary Ferreira

Rosemary Marimo is a woman with purpose. She began prospecting for gold in Musowe, Zimbabwe with her husband 20 years ago. Now, 60 years old, she has been running the business alone.

I first met Rosemary when I visited Zimbabwe to produce a feature story on gender equality and women’s empowerment for 21st Century, UNTV’s news magazine series. Still full of life and enthusiastic about her work, Rosemary told me that her husband died 14 years ago, "He got very sick and passed away, and I carried on." For any woman in this southern African country, it's difficult to operate a business because of the lack of collateral. Most of the family's assets are usually registered in the man's name. Rosemary started her business through a bank loan her husband obtained years ago.

When he died, she almost lost everything she said, "I had to call my son back from America after he graduated as an engineer. I told him we must work hard because the bank wanted to take everything away from us." Rosemary's son returned and they managed to pay off the loan. Now he develops new equipment for the mill, which processes ore retrieved from the mine pits.

Today, it's much easier for women to get into the mining sector since the Government introduced the "indigenization" programme in 2010. This programme is geared to increase local ownership of the country's mineral resources. It's also helping to empower women and encourage their participation in this critical economic sector, which earns revenue exceeding two billion US dollars annually.

Now women are more likely to obtain loans from banks because of special measures adopted and offered to female business owners under the indigenisation act says Dr. Olivia Muchena, Minister of Gender Affairs in Zimbabwe, "Through various programmes a good number of our banks are opening windows or special facilities for women."

To further empower women and achieve gender equality, the government is also partnering with the United Nations Development programme, UNDP, to include a gender perspective in all of its economic plans.

Through UNDP's Gender & Economic Policy Management Initiative, GEPMI, some 34 policy makers – men and women – attended a weeklong workshop in late 2012 to learn how to create gender sensitive policies.

Now more than 10% of all mining operations are headed by women, an industry previously dominated by men. Rosemary is now a government consultant helping new women miners avoid the pitfalls she once experienced when she first started her operation.

Watch this short clip of Rosemary’s story.

Filed under Women.

Great Zimbabwe


by Mary Ferreira

3 December 2012 – After much flying time, we arrived in Ziimbabwe to film a story on Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment.

As part of the story, a workshop sponsored by UNDP, held in the town of Masvingo some 180 miles from Harare, was also covered. A group of 34 women and men who attended the workshop were fortunate to visit the ruins located minutes from the conference site.

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe represent a unique testimony to the Bantu civilization and the Shona people between the 11th and 15th centuries. The city was built from granite stones, layered to form walls within which huts were erected to house the city's occupants. It's important to note that no cement was used in the construction of the city and the stones were fitted strategically to allow air to penetrate the walls, cooling the entire city. UNESCO recognized these ruins as a cultural heritage site in 1986.

It's been said that the King ruling the city had multiple wives who resided on the opposite side of the walled city. At night he would go to the edge of the mountain and call the name of one of his wives. The chosen wife would respond by cackling, then travel by foot to spend the night with the King.

Here's a short clip of the ruins including a cultural performance by Shona women and men.

Filed under Looking back.

SOUTH AFRICA: From Victim to Victor



At the deserted end of a beach east of Cape Town, the waves crashing in front against a backdrop of the city's most famous landmark, Table Mountain, Oyama Mbopa danced. In her head, she sang the Brenda Fassie song "Memeza", about a woman's cry for help when she is attacked. Oyama, herself the victim of brutal sexual violence years' ago, is practicing for a one-woman show on violence against women which she hopes to take around the country. She comes to the beach to practice for economic reasons – she can't afford to rent a rehearsal space – and also because she feels free here – "Nobody judges me, nobody tells me I am right or wrong."

Being judged for who she is is a daily occurrence for Oyama – and as a black lesbian living in a township, the judgment is harsh. Women like her, she says, are targeted for their sexuality.

I was in Cape Town, with local cameraman Al Lyne, to make a feature for "21st Century" on what's known as "corrective" rape, the shocking crime of men raping gay women to "correct" their homosexuality. Sadly, in South Africa, it is a crime that is increasing, sometimes with tragically fatal consequences. And this in a country that already has the highest incidence of reported rape in the world.
We filmed in the townships around Cape Town where crowded, poor living conditions,scant opportunities and bubbling frustration have created an environment where violence is common, particularly against women. To ensure our safety while filming, the authorities allocated us a team of 10 police bodyguards.

But Oyama and others like her are not so priveleged – and have to take their chances alone.
Yet despite the brutality and frequence of these homeophobic attacks – some claim as many as 10 lesbians are raped per week in Cape Town alone – inspiring women like Oyama, and some men, are fighting back.
UN Women, which has as a priority the ending of violence against women, supported this feature.
See the feature "From Victim to Victor" on the UN's magazine series "21st Century".

Filed under Uncategorized.

A young man and a fearful mother on the West Bank


by Francis Mead

In the midst of violent conflict, one of the hardest things is to be a parent. At the best of times, in the most peaceful places, teenagers and young people can get into trouble. But in the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict, getting into trouble can mean being killed, maimed or jailed. That’s the fear of Sameeha Jibriyn, whose son Murad, now 24, has been jailed four times since the age of eighteen.

The conflict over land and security affects millions of Israelis and Palestinians, which anyone reporting from there needs to acknowledge – and this is just one family’s story. I travelled with cameraman Antonio Tibaldi to the small West Bank town of Tqoa. One curiosity we noticed quickly – sheep and goats in almost every basement. The families here are of Bedouin origin – this is one way they maintain their roots – buying and selling sheep and goats.

Murad’s arrests are all linked to his protests. He says that Israeli settlers have grabbed his family’s land. Many settlers say they have a right to land based on history and religion. Now Murad is not allowed to enter the disputed area – about 17 acres of land, mostly with olive trees, just outside the village – without permission from the Israeli authorities. But he persists in entering. The most recent incident came in May 2012 when he went onto the land with Israeli and international activists who made their own video (which can be seen in the full forthcoming piece).

























There is an upside to this story – a youth project which has encouraged young people like Murad to stand for elections to youth councils. Murad was duly elected – and now he and his fellow youth councillors are committed to improving the village. Antonio filmed them painting a school wall – in an atmosphere of amiable chaos.

























Kids across the West Bank are doing things like clothes distribution, creating new civic gardens, running road safety campaigns. It’s a small start – but it’s a significant start. The project is the brainchild of Ismail Njoum, the head of the Almawrid Teachers Development Center. For him it’s all about having a chance to experience a measure of control over your own life, to contribute, to engage.

The project is assisted by the United Nations Democracy Fund.

Here’s the full video.

Filed under Uncategorized.