Conversation with Shirin Pakfar, head of private sector partnerships for United Nations Refugee Agency


Photo credit: Maia Alvarez

By Noor Afshar

“Refugees are the most vulnerable people in the world,” Shirin Pakfar said. 

Pakfar is a tenacious female change-maker. She is a highly-skilled international civil servant who has been working for the United Nations since before I was born. She started her work in Afghanistan 18 years ago and worked her way through multiple jobs in different countries in the deep field of violence, as the UN calls it. Today, she unites her past experiences in international United Nations fieldwork with her private sector training from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Pakfar and learning about a typical day in the life of a United Nations member and what inspired her to begin her work. 

“There’s always someone awake,” Pakfar said. “ [There is someone] online needing something or something always needs to be responded to.” 

As Pakfar was explaining the high-pressure demands of her work, I realized how imperative it is for Pakfar to take care of her private life with her family. Her daily routine starts with seeing the kids in the morning, having breakfast, and going to the gym. She then gets to work around 9 a.m. and has meetings that last until 6:30 p.m. since she typically has anywhere between 10 to 17 meetings a day. Once her daytime meetings are over, she puts her children to sleep and then starts her late-night meetings since her job is global. These bedtime hours with her children are incredibly precious to her since she used to find herself only going home once a year.

Pakfar transitioned into telling me a specific story about two refugees that changed her outlook on how powerful her job is. 

“Even with all the trauma they had faced, they still managed to have business and dignity, and they were so elegant, even though they had been through so much,” Pakfar said. 

Pakfar then delved into this story, telling me about the fascinating work in her critical job. She told me about two twin sisters she met in Kenya who were refugees from Uganda. They had been orphaned when they were only seven years old, and then, they were trafficked and forced into doing a lot of bad things. Both girls bore a child during this period of abuse and sexual assault. Pakfar said that the UN protection made it possible for the twins to go to school and start their own supermarket.  

As a child of past generational refugees from Iran, I realize how important it is for vulnerable and forcefully displaced people to share their stories and experiences to ensure these horrible things don’t continue. It is also crucial to show the perseverance of these refugees and the life they made for themselves, whether it is starting a supermarket or moving my family to Switzerland as my grandfather did. My grandfathers from both sides of my family became refugees from the displacement of the new government in Iran, although they both found the most amazing ways to shape their lives. These actions and stories that refugees take allow the world to see how much hurt gets brought up and how much change is needed to stop this hurt.

Many people, including Pakfar and myself, believe that giving refugees access to education would put us one step closer to alleviating the pain and burdens they face. Therefore, Pakfar touched on education a few times during our interview.   

“It’s so simple to allow them to go to school and to be able to provide an education for them or to provide some teachings,” Pakfar said. “But even that has been very, very difficult to achieve.” 

Her story about the sisters demonstrates the power of education and why it is her most passionate cause. It is extremely frustrating to watch how children refugees continue to suffer the most. In many places she has served, such as Afghanistan, there are low levels of education. According to Humanium, today, only around 60% of Afghan children are sent to school, and according to the CIA World Factbook, Afghanistan only has a 37.3% literacy rate. All children deserve an education, and Pakfar and I will continue to passionately advocate for the education of refugee children.

Finally, I asked Pakfar what advice she has for young women of my generation, and without hesitation, she emphasized the importance of staying ambitious and not being afraid of trying new things. The possibilities for ambitious women have changed significantly in the last decades. Observing the careers of women around her, Pakfar describes stark generational differences in their lives. 

“I would say go for it. A lot of women came before me, and those women who had been in the UN longer — a lot of them were not able to have families. Ten, fifteen years ago, it had to be one or the other,” Pakfar said. “My generation is one of the first that can balance both having a family and a career of this type.” 

Pakfar said she is very excited about the possibilities for young women and the next generation. 

“Your generation is going to be the one that’s running a lot of these organizations. I think we’re just kind of pushing that glass ceiling, but I think when you guys come into it, you’re going to manage to do it,” Pakfar said. “Do it all, take over the reins and lead the organization. I’m optimistic about the next generation of women coming into this field.” 

Now, I would like to leave you with a question to ponder as it was in my mind during this interview: How must we evolve as a global power when strength and safety are not a reality for everyone?

Disclaimer: The Oracle made minor grammatical edits to this Letter to the Editor.