Interview Conducted by Samantha Hubner
March 30, 2016
This past February, fraternity headquarters featured Karen Koning AbuZayd as its Leading Woman of the Month. An alumna of the alpha chapter, where it all began at DePauw University, AbuZayd’s career with the United Nations is every bit the example of transformative leadership we saw in our four founders 100 years ago. Her experience resolving various refugee crises across the globe is especially relevant now, as the international community navigates the shared burden of the Syrian refugee crisis.
Inspired by the piece put forth by Nationals, I reached out to the Middle East Policy Council, where AbuZayd now serves on the Board of Directors, in an effort to learn more about this leading woman. Fortunately for me, she was gracious enough to set up a time to chat on the phone later that day.
Samantha Hubner: Throughout your career, you’ve worked with both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as well as the United Nations Relief & Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees. (UNRWA) Where did your path begin?
Karen Koning AbuZayd: I actually began as a nursing student at DePauw. But my interest was piqued in political science and international relations, which was the reason I decided to start to take evening classes at Roosevelt in Chicago to be able to move on from nursing. I enjoyed studying the Middle East because it was more unusual and I found it very interesting. After that was when I decided to go to McGill and get my Masters, (in Islamic Studies) and that was actually where I met my husband, who is Sudanese. We both left McGill to teach at Makerere University in Uganda…he in Islamic Studies, I in political science. When my husband was called back to Sudan as Secretary General and later Vice-Chancellor at the new University of Juba in south Sudan, I followed him to join the university teaching political science and Middle Eastern politics. After two years there, I went out to Khartoum and spent the summer volunteering to help out at UNHCR, where she worked to send Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees to American University in Cairo. At this point in time Sudan itself, mainly because of famine, was host to a million refugees that had made their way out of Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and returnees from Uganda and into Uganda. During that time in the Sudan, I learned a lot. My husband was a friend of the South, so it was interesting. While we were there, I found an opportunity to put politics to work, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since. From Sudan, I moved to Namibia for the repatriation, followed by Sierra Leone for the Liberian influx, and afterwards to cover Kenya/Somali and the Horn of Africa from Geneva Headquarters, before I went to Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, which erupted in the early 90s. Later on, I was assigned to posts in Washington and Geneva until I retired in 2010. But a year after I had retired, I was asked to become a Commissioner on the UN Human Rights Council’s mandated Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights Violations and Abuses, which I continued to work on until January of 2016, when I became the Special Advisor to the Secretary General on the Global Summit for Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants.
SH: We have all seen and felt the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis. What insights can you offer as someone who has addressed refugee crises all over the world for so many years? What can we do to help?
KKA: In the midst of conflict, it is very difficult. We have no defense. People are risking their lives there, and we have to pull out if it gets violent. So when it comes to helping, the best thing you can do is to donate to organizations that will directly affect those efforts. Donating directly (to UNHCR or other organization such as UNWRA) is a really good way to do that.
SH: What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing a career with the UN?
KKA: You’ll definitely want to look into getting a Masters, and when it comes to the Middle East learning one of the critical languages is always a huge advantage. The more you can specialize yourself and what you do, the more competitive you’ll be.
SH: Did your time in undergrad as a Theta have any impact on your success?
KKA: I always found Theta to be such a supportive and encouraging environment, and I do think that was crucial at that time in my life. I have to say it was the ‘sisterhood’ that was so important as a support to our working through all the years, from the beginning to graduation, especially for those of us in nursing, who were off campus for two years. Three of us in nursing were Thetas, which was great for all of us — plus knowing we had a big group of ‘sisters’ back on campus, who kept us informed and part of campus life.
This leading woman has clearly demonstrated a lifelong commitment to making a difference in this world. How lucky are we to share with her the common purpose to leave a legacy of the widest influence for good?