WWPR Content Committee co-chair Melinda Tolliver connected with Laila Mokhiber, director of communications for UNRWA USA, to talk about her international nonprofit work and how she got involved in communications.
Tell me a little bit about what you do and why.
I work for UNRWA USA, an independent American nonprofit that supports the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. I joined the organization about eight years ago and our work is focused on advocating for the humanitarian needs of Palestine refugees who lost their livelihoods and homes as a result of the Nakba in 1948. For seven decades, these refugees have needed assistance from the UN to access education, health care, and social services.
My work is really focused on building the brand of the nonprofit, communicating the plight of this refugee population in plain language, and using storytelling to win hearts and minds for the cause. We are focused on telling the stories of refugees and changing the narrative around what it is to be a refugee and the context that created their situation, with the ultimate goal of fundraising for the work we do.
As a fourth-generation American of Arab descent, I find it’s my responsibility as someone who has immense privilege and hails from that region to amplify the voices of the people outside the United States who don’t have the same access or ability to advocate for themselves.
How do you share the powerful stories of the refugees helped by your organization?
Pre-COVID, I would travel to the Middle East every year—a great privilege to see the programs in action and meet the people benefiting. While there, I interview refugees in shelters where they live or where they are receiving services, such as the UNRWA schools all over the region. It’s been really important for us to center these voices and make sure we’re always lifting them up in a dignified way.
When I can’t gain these stories in-person, I turn to an alumni group we created of people who graduated from the UNRWA schools, benefited from services or worked for the agency, since 90% of the staff on the ground are refugees themselves. Many of the Palestine refugees have found their way to North America because their education allowed them even greater opportunities. I find these people to be our best advocates, storytellers and validators because this was their lived experience and now they are your neighbors, doctors, and teachers. My team uses our blog, Voices of UNRWA, and a monthly live speaker series on Facebook, Let’s Talk UNRWA, to share their stories.
What’s one campaign you’re most proud of?
In 2018, the Trump administration had defunded UNRWA, which cut about $360M in annual funding. To bring attention to the issue and the plight of the Palestine refugees, I organized the Relay Run for Refugees, a 250-mile run from New York City to Washington, D.C. People came from Palestine and other parts of the world to run down the I-95 corridor and stop in neighborhoods along the route to create a buzz around the agency. In each community we stopped in, we held an evening event called Refugees Reimagined where we had Palestine refugees tell their stories to humanize their experiences.
The experience culminated on Capitol Hill for our first-ever advocacy day. The representatives we met with, including Rep. Betty McCollum, were so floored by these stories they decided to take up our cause and advocate to reinstate funding for UNRWA. And, although we can’t claim direct responsibility, earlier this year the Biden administration decided to re-engage the agency after a three-year hiatus. That’s a promising first step in addressing these humanitarian needs.
How do you keep your mental health uplifted and positive working on such a serious issue?
Part of this work for me is mental health advocacy. The largest event we host every year is the Gaza 5K, a charitable walk-run to raise awareness and funds for UNRWA’s mental health programming in the Gaza Strip. Children in the Gaza Strip are suffering from psychological trauma, including PTSD, because of recurrent military bombardment and life under a blockade and our funding ensures they have access to counselors to help them cope.
The experiences and the resilience that I’ve seen from these students is what gives me the boost I need to do this work without letting it bring me down. If you are to read any of these stories we put out or meet any of the refugees who are served, you would find the same sort of the same sort of inspiration.
On a personal level, I do a lot of practical things as well, including seeking out my own therapy, spending time in nature, and taking time for creative outlets like music to help me feel rejuvenated.
What piece of advice do you have for someone wanting to break into communications at an international nonprofit?
I always remind people it’s a fierce competition. I’ve hired a lot of people over the years and you have to make sure everything you’re putting out there can shine above the others. In a communications role for a nonprofit, you really need that secret sauce. Even if you’re not working in the field, if you have the skills then you can create your own project. It shows that your skills and passions are an extension of who you are and what you could lend to an organization.