2021 Year in Review: Celebrating UN values in action
Conflict, health crises and the climate emergency may have dominated headlines this year but, behind the scenes, countless unsung heroes were working tirelessly to put the values of the UN into action. Here are some of the inspiring personal stories we featured on our UN News pages during 2021.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continued into a second year, many of the exceptional people we featured in 2021 were, unsurprisingly, health workers putting themselves at considerable personal risk to ensure members of their communities survived the pandemic.
‘We pray to God to save us from famine’
These risks are compounded in conflict zones where workers continue to provide health services against great odds.
In Yemen, Asia El-Sayeed Ali and her family had to flee their home in Aden and move in with relatives. Today, she works at a health clinic supported by the World Food Programme (WFP), where she cares for children, and their mothers, suffering from malnutrition.
“When a mother brings in a child suffering from malnutrition, I provide nutrition treatment, and advise her to bring them back the following week”, says Ms. El-Sayeed Ali. “When she returns, and I see the child has gained weight, and is looking healthier with filled out cheeks, I feel relieved.
“I love working in the clinic. My heart aches when I see children crying from pain or hunger, but I can make a positive difference, helping the mothers, and put a smile on the face of the children.”
Staying to help the Afghan people
In Afghanistan, following the take-over by the Taliban, Dr Khali Ahmadi* told UN News in an exclusive interview from the Afghan capital Kabul in August, that he and other healthcare workers are continuing to work despite the lack of security and ongoing instability in the country and called on the international community to carry on supporting Afghanistan.
Dr. Ahmadi was in Kabul to provide health care for the thousands of people who had streamed into the city to escape fighting. “Our workday is very long and hard”, he told us. “I start at around 7am and can sometimes work until midnight which means, as a team, we can treat up to 500 people a day.
Sometimes, the security situation means I will stay at home. If there are reports of gunfire or other disturbances as well as roadblocks, the team members decide is too dangerous to work. It can be very tense on the streets.”
*Real name withheld to protect identity
‘I thought about my own children’
Throughout the year, UN News spoke to many other people choosing to work in countries where the security risk is high. Among them was Fezeh Rezaye, a 26-year-old mother of two, and a member of a 19-strong, all-female demining team, honoured in April for their efforts to rid the Afghan province of Afghanistan of mines.
“I had known several people from my village who have been injured or killed by mines in Bamyan” she recounted. “Even our landlord lost his leg in a landmine accident. But it was the death of seven children, all from the same family in our village, that really affected me.
“They had been together in the mountains when they were all killed by a mine explosion. I thought about my own children, that this could have happened to them.”
I have to be on my A-game’
For the soldiers, or ‘blue helmets’, who are part of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali - for some years now, the most dangerous UN posting in the world - every patrol could be their last.
Trooper Jack Drake, a young soldier from the UK, is a driver with a military reconnaissance team tasked with protecting civilians in trouble spots in northeastern Mali. “I really have to focus on picking the best route for the vehicle and knowing when to put my foot down to avoid getting stuck”, he explained.
“Mali is a dangerous place right now, so I really have to be on my A-game on patrol. It’s important to recognize any threats and stay switched on the whole time. You rely on the other members of your crew to stay safe.”
‘Peacekeeping is a human enterprise’
Since being deployed in the Darfur region of Sudan in 2019, Kenyan Military Gender Advisor, Major Steplyne Nyaboga, has worked diligently to promote the rights of women and girls, organizing campaigns and workshops for staff and civil society activists.
In recognition of the excellence of her work, the UN awarded Major Nyaboga with the 2020 UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award. “Peacekeeping is a human enterprise”, she responded. “Placing women and girls at the centre of our efforts and concerns, will help us better protect civilians and build a more sustainable peace”.
Major Nyaboga took charge of gender education for other military peacekeepers during her deployment, training nearly 95 per cent of UNAMID’s military contingent by December of last year. She also advised the force on how to better identify the needs of vulnerable men, women, boys and girls, and improve the way the peacekeepers protected them.
Championing the Earth
In the year that the postponed COP26 in Glasgow, the most important UN climate conference since Paris in 2015, finally took place following a pandemic-related postponement, the climate crisis and the work of grassroots activists gained added attention.
From August until the end of October, the UN featured 10 young activists, engineers, and entrepreneurs, showing how we can all make a positive change, in our hit podcast series, No Denying It.
The change-makers include Nzambi Matee, a Kenyan entrepreneur who makes sustainable low-cost construction materials made of recycled plastic waste and sand. Her company, Gjenge Makers, has financially empowered over 112 individuals, through the supply and pre-processing stages of the production process.
Greek activist Lefteris Arapakis founded the first fishing school in his country, and has convinced fishermen to haul in plastic from the ocean. In this episode of No Denying It, Mr. Arapakis explains that he founded the school after hearing from his fisherman father that, despite Greece’s economic crisis, there was a lack of labour for fishing boats.
Thanks to the school’s initiatives, fish stocks and the ecosystem are recovering, plastic waste has been returned to the circular economy, and fishermen in his community have an added source of income.
Many of the activists featured in No Denying It have been identified as Young Champions of the Earth by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) which announced its latest Champions in December.
This year’s cohort, all women, include Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados, who was honoured for being a powerful voice from the global south, arguing for a sustainable world and consistently raising the alarm about the vulnerability of Small Island Developing States.
The fight for rights
Human rights of all kinds continued to come under attack in 2021, and many brave individuals fought back to protect them.
UN News shone a light on the 30-year struggle of Brazilian activist Joenia Wapixana to secure land rights for the country’s indigenous population in Brazil.
In 2018, at the end of a long campaign, financed at the grassroots level by crowdfunding, she became the first indigenous woman elected to Brazil’s federal parliament and was awarded the UN Human Rights Prize
In a special interview, Ms. Wapixana called for more resources for the fight against institutionalized discrimination. “Society needs to understand that discrimination against the indigenous has always existed in Brazil”, she explained.
“I believe that when a person has suffered racial discrimination, or is suffering from racism, it is necessary to protect them with the fullest extent of the law. Report the incident, even if nothing comes of it. It is important for us to create a record of this phase that we are going through.”
‘Poverty is both the cause and the consequence of disability’
Eddie Ndopu, an award-winning disability activist from South Africa, lives with spinal muscular atrophy, and faces many dailychallenges. Now in his late 20s, Mr. Ndopu says that his parents were told at his birth that he would not live beyond the age of five.
Mr. Ndopu told the UN that he has overcome his barriers to travel the world advocating for others with disabilities. “Poverty is both the cause and the consequence of disability, and the overwhelming majority of people with disabilities live in poverty, he says in an interview, taken from an episode of the UN’s Awake at Night podcast.
“I think we don't talk about disability because we insist on perfection. And I think disability reminds people that actually, imperfection is more intrinsic to all of us than perfection.”
UN News features the inspirational stories of exceptional individuals in our First Person strand. You can find them in our archive, here.
Listen again to the UN climate action podcast, No Denying It, featuring the voices of 10 young change-makers, here.