Melissa Fleming is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Global Communications – taking up her functions as of 1 September 2019 – and oversees operations in 60 countries and platforms that reach millions of people in multiple languages.
From 2009 until August 2019, Ms. Fleming served UNHCR as Head of Global Communications and Spokesperson for the High Commissioner. At UNHCR, she led global media outreach campaigns, social media engagement and a multimedia news service to distribute and place stories designed to generate greater empathy and stir action for refugees.
Ms. Fleming is a frequent interview guest on international media platforms and her talks are featured on TED.com. She is author of the book, A Hope More Powerful than the Sea, and host of the award-winning podcast, Awake at Night.
Ms. Fleming joined UNHCR from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), where she served for eight years as Spokesperson and Head of Media and Outreach. Prior to IAEA, she headed the Press and Public Information team at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Earlier still, she was Public Affairs Specialist at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich, having started her career as a journalist. From 2016 to 2017, she also served as Senior Adviser and Spokesperson on the incoming United Nations Secretary General’s Transition Team.
Ms. Fleming holds a Master of Science in Journalism from the College of Communication, Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts in German Studies from Oberlin College.
In a recent interview for the Awake at Night podcast, Ms. Fleming sat down with Education Cannot Wait Director Yasmine Sherif to learn more about the mission of the UN’s global fund for education in emergencies, and ECW’s movement to reach the world’s most marginalized children and youth.
Please find below ECW’s new, compelling and inspiring interview with Melissa Fleming.
ECW: You have dedicated your life to bringing awareness to the world of those left furthest behind – refugees and other forcibly displaced populations. You have worked around the globe reporting on their challenges and the need for compassion, you created and manage an award-winning podcast “Awake at Night” to share the work of UN officials in crisis-affected countries and you are leading the United Nations public information efforts to advance multilateralism and solidarity under the UN Charter. Please tell us what inspired you and keeps inspiring you to take this path in life?
Melissa Fleming: We spend most of our waking hours working for a living. From the start of my career, it was important for me to also live for the work I am doing. The best way I could find to use my talents to contribute was to communicate – not just in facts and figures, but in stories. And not just stories of suffering and death, but of resilience and hope. There is a saying – ‘statistics are human beings with the tears dried off.’ If we are going to build bridges of compassion to people who need our help, we need to stir hearts, produce wet tears and inspire giving.
ECW: Prior to COVID-19, the estimation of children and youth with their education disrupted amounted to 75 million. As a result of COVID-19, the estimation is today 128 million. In other words, the number of children and youth deprived of a quality education in crisis is rapidly growing. Why do you consider education or SDG4 such an essential service among all SDGs to those who suffer from forced displacement, armed conflicts and climate-induced disasters?
Melissa Fleming: It is deeply traumatizing for anyone to have to flee their homes, leaving the safety of their homes, the comforts of their community and the foundations of their past for a scary unknown. But for children, also being forced to leave their schools and friends and teachers behind is a calamity. That is why emergency schooling is so critical – not just so children can continue to nurture their minds, but also to give them a place of healing and hope.
ECW: You are also a staunch supporter of the UN-hosted Fund Education Cannot Wait, which is dedicated to those left furthest behind. ECW’s investments to date have reached millions of children and youth in crisis, and the Fund has dedicated 50 per cent of its investments to those forcibly displaced from their homes and countries. Could you please elaborate on your belief and trust in the Education Cannot Wait Fund and its positive influence in serving those left furthest behind and the United Nations mission?
Melissa Fleming: I served for 10 years at UNHCR and it pained me to see that education programs for refugee and displaced children were acutely underfunded. Not funding refugee education, I felt, was not just shortsighted, it was also dumb. During my visits to refugee camps and settlements, I have always thought, ‘If they knew them, they would care and if they cared, they would increase funding.’ What if they met Hany, a Syrian refugee teen who – when given only minutes to decide what to take with him when he had to flee – chose his high school diploma? A talented young man who was on track to go to university and become an engineer, who realized that certificate held the key to his future. Who, after two years living in a shack in a muddy field in Lebanon, told me: ‘If I am not a student, I am nothing.’
The Education Cannot Wait Fund is clearly filling a critical gap, so refugee children no longer have to languish, but can return to learning and heal from their trauma at the same time. I believe such investments in refugee children are also a strategic investment in a future of peace. That Education Cannot Wait is hosted by the UN system is also an illustration of how the United Nations moves with speed, delivers quality and with real results.
ECW: The United Nations Secretary-General, António Gutteres, the United Nations Deputy-Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, as well as the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, consider education a foundational right and priority for the United Nations and work in partnership with the World Bank, the European Union and the African Union, among others, to achieve SDG4 as a means of achieving all SDGs. How can you, as the Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, help advance the United Nations ambitions and outreach among UN Member States and the private sector to achieve greater awareness and commitment to increase financial resources for education for refugees, internally displaced and other crisis-affected young people?
Melissa Fleming: Hearing about mass suffering and the millions of children out of school can generate shock and concern. But it can also cause people to shut off. When the problem seems too big to contemplate, it can make big refugee crises feel impersonal, and take away the sense that something can be done. The key to generate compassion and donations is to make this crisis relatable. What if this were your child? What does education mean to you? We universally love children and we instinctively want to protect them. What is effective for fundraising is relatable storytelling that connects to a potential donors’ own experience, with examples of the transformation that a contribution to education will bring. It is also inspiring to invite people to join an incredible coalition of Education Cannot Wait’s existing donors, advocates and partners.
But refugee crises are not just about numbers. They are about human beings.
ECW: You are the author of a very compassionate, highly successful and most relevant book in today’s world: A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival. You are a role model for all UN staff, and also an example of one of our most creative and empathetic women leaders in the UN. Please tell us a bit more about your book. What is your message and what can we all learn from it?
Melissa Fleming: I met so many remarkable refugees in my work, but there is one who, for me, is a real-life hero: Doaa Al Zamel, who survived one of the worst shipwrecks on the Mediterranean Sea. 500 of her fellow passengers, including the love of her life, her fiancé, drowned in front of her eyes. And when she was rescued, after four days and four nights on just a child’s swim ring floating in the middle of the Mediterranean, she had managed to save a little baby. I first told that story at the TED stage and then I wrote it in detail in a non-fiction account. And, my proudest moment was when I saw it first in print on a bookshelf in Barnes & Noble, at Union Square in New York City, which was the first stop of my book tour. Now it is optioned for a film, all a sign that people are hungry for individual human stories of remarkable survival, resilience and hope. There are millions of refugee stories that have these elements. They just need to be told.
ECW: Any final comments or inspirational words from you?
Melissa Fleming: I often think of this quote by Maya Angelou as an inspiration for our communications:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”