Emily Robinson talked with Carlotta Sami, Chief of Communications with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The following transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
Robinson: Please, can you start off by telling us a little bit about your background?
Sami: My educational background is in Law. I graduated in 1995 and then did a Ph.D. in Law. During my Ph.D., I spent some time working at a university in Paris and got some experience working as a lecturer, then I decided I wanted to work abroad again.
For several reasons, I ended up in Jerusalem. I started working in the occupied Palestinian territory. Firstly at the university there and then as a volunteer. I started to volunteer with a human rights organisation and also with local theatre companies. In the Palestinian theatre companies, I volunteered to teach contemporary dance and helped to put on shows for the Palestinian refugees. After that, I started to work with the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That role taught me a lot about the world of work. I then began managing emergency projects for the European Commission.
In 2002, I came back to Italy and started to work with Save the Children where [they]needed a project manager. I helped them to design some of their first projects, mainly related to unaccompanied children since at that time, there was quite a big wave of unaccompanied children coming from Eastern Europe and there was a big problem with trafficking and exploitation of girls coming from countries like Romania.
After that I moved to Save the Children International in London, again working on emergencies but this time with a slightly different perspective: I wanted to empower the different branches of Save the Children to improve their capacity for advocacy and communication.
In 2010, I became Director for Italy at Amnesty International and held that role for a couple of years. Now I work with UNHCR as Spokesperson for Southern Europe.
Robinson: Since your current role is based in Southern Europe, is there a part of that region that you find yourself working in most often?
Sami: I spend a lot of time working in Italy, of course. However, throughout the crisis of 2015 and 2016, I covered Greece for a lot of time during the influx of refugees from Turkey to Greece.
I also have to coordinate the work of colleagues who are working with the media in other parts of the region, especially in Malta and Spain. At the moment, Spain needs a lot of support. There has been a stark increase of in arrivals by sea and although Spain has mostly been a very friendly country to refugees… you never know. We keep working to build knowledge and encourage consensus about how to treat refugees. The worry is that what’s happening in Italy could happen there. We are seeing that politicians are taking advantage of this situation and [are] using refugees and migrants in their politics. This can be very dangerous.
Robinson: It sounds like your current role is very interesting. Can you tell me about your day-to-day work?
Sami: Well, it depends. We are quite an operational office. This is a European country so there is an asylum system in place with clear-cut procedures. However, it has gone through many difficult phases over the years and still needs some support.
In particular, we do a lot of work at the ports. We also spend a lot of time encouraging integration policies. We work on many different levels. There are many peaks in the workload, including many emergencies. For example, there is a very high risk of shipwrecks. Thousands of people have lost their lives in this terrible route through the Mediterranean. This portion of the Mediterranean between Libya and Italy has become so well known. Journalists from every part of the world are coming here to see what is happening. As a result, we are really exposed to the media and have to do a lot of work around that.
Thanks for the beautiful piece and for introducing me to such extraordinary women
We also do a lot of work to raise awareness. In fact, it’s more than awareness raising. It has to do with continuous engagement and the creation of a solidarity movement. There are many forms of solidarity in every European country; you will find thousands of solidarity groups.
I see our organisation as a kind of catalyst for these groups. Every time we propose ourselves as a platform to create bridges among people and associations, everyone reacts happily. These positive actions which can be so simple and have such a huge effect do not have the same kind of visibility as those negative attitudes we hear about so often.
We work very closely with schools and organisations. For a year and a half, we’ve also been working with refugees themselves. In 2018, we created a training module to help refugees understand communications and media relations. It was fantastic because it helped to get their voices heard. Migration and refugees are some of the most talked about topics in the Italian media but we usually only hear the voices of politicians and hardly ever those of the migrant refugees. We hope that this training is helping to empower them to be the protagonist who tells their own lead story.
We also work with the private sector to fundraise and engage. Last year, we convinced one of the biggest publishers in Italy to publish a book for free. It’s a collection of novels by 12 very famous Italian novelists in Italy. The title is “Even Superman was a Refugee” and there are 12 novels about famous refugees from Freddie Mercury to Marlene Dietrich. These authors coupled famous stories with the less famous but still very inspiring stories of refugees today. This book is getting a lot of attention and is having quite a lot of success.
Robinson: Has the book already been published?
Sami: Yes, we launched it on the 20th of November, 2018. It is really aimed at children, but the way it is written means it’s also engaging for adults. We are really pleased with how well it is going.
Remember a year ago the scandalised textbook that spoke about refugees and migrants in a discriminatory way? We had an idea: Christmas gift and bedtime reading for adults and children! #evensupermanwasarefugee
Robinson: Are you finding that people are engaging well with it, especially children?
Sami: Yes! You can really see the enthusiasm. I was in a school today and everybody wanted to read a piece of the book. You can really see how much they enjoy it. I’m really happy about that, it’s given me a lot of positive energy.
Robinson: Moving onto your social media usage. I’ve noticed on Twitter that your tweets are bilingual. I wonder if you get different reactions depending on whether you tweet in English or Italian?
Sami: I use Twitter just for professional use. For me, it’s mainly a way of communicating with the media. Posting in English allows me to reinforce my connection with foreign media. So when something big is happening, I will post in English and retweet some of the content that is produced by our office in Geneva.
When I post in Italian, there is a difference of course. I feel that the Italian posts receive a lot of attention from people who are following my account. Unfortunately, now in Italy, public opinion is very polarised. There is a growing solidarity movement, so you can find many accounts of people who are posting to support the cause of refugees but, also, many others that oppose refugees and can get very aggressive.
I post in Italian telling the story of refugees and explain what is happening. I also use figures to help my followers to understand what’s happening. It works quite well and I think it is important. Sadly, it does bring some negative attention, sometimes even hate speech and disgusting comments. I usually report these comments to Twitter; sometimes I’ve had to go to the police to report them. Unfortunately, hate speech is really on the rise in Italy. It’s becoming such a huge problem that certain members of parliament are advocating for a specific law against hate speech on the internet.
Robinson: Do you find that the negative attention that you sometimes get affects the way that you feel about using Twitter?
Sami: No. Something I really try to focus on is taking a very balanced approach. When I receive negative attention, I try to understand if the person expressing the negative comment is open to interaction. I find that interacting with that person can help because the negativity comes from the fact that they do not have all of the information they might need to fully understand the situation.
Robinson: We can see that you are doing really well on the leaderboard for the UNSocial500, and I wonder if you can tell us your three top tips for making the most of your social media presence online.
Sami: First of all, I could not be very strong without the strong content that UNHCR is creating. Strong content means very strong human stories, videos, and pictures.
Second, I think I bring an interesting perspective because I work out in the field and therefore I can share things that I am actually experiencing.
Finally, I always try to be very authentic and also to give something of myself. I try to balance my professional persona with something personal, for example how I feel when I meet a refugee.
Robinson: In closing, do you have any thoughts on the UNSocial500? How did you get involved with it?
Sami: I think it’s a great initiative. I saw that so many other colleagues are engaging with it, including Melissa Fleming who is a super, super champion!