Annabel Mwangi Profile
Annabel Mwangi (Kenya & St Cross 1999) is a Protection Officer, working with UNHCR in Aden, Yemen. She had previous placements with the UNHCR in Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia. She has also previously worked at the International Criminal Court. She holds a DPhil in Development Studies and International Refugee Law from the University of Oxford, an MSc in Forced Migration and International Refugee Law from the University of Oxford, an MSc in Development Studies and International Human Rights Law from the London School of Economics and a BA in International Relations from the United States International University in Nairobi.
Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?
Annabel Mwangi: I am half Kenyan and half Bulgarian, but I was born and raised in Kenya. I call Kenya home, even though I haven’t lived there in the past fifteen years. It’s where my parents are, and I try to go back there once each year.
Rhodes Project: What surprised you upon arriving at Oxford?
Annabel Mwangi: To be honest, I was initially a little reluctant to go to Oxford because I wasn’t really sure how I would fit in there. I was most surprised by the diversity of people that I encountered. I was doing a Masters in Forced Migration and we were a really small group; there were about fifteen of us. They were down-to-earth and we’d have great conversations and debates. We ended up all being really good friends and even though we are spread out all over the world, we’re still in touch. I think that was the nicest surprise for me. I thought it was going to be quite a difficult adjustment but it ended up being a really good time in my life.
Rhodes Project: Why were you initially reluctant?
Annabel Mwangi: Because Oxford had such a high profile. I was coming from Kenya and it was going to be my first time living abroad on my own. I was a little bit nervous about how that would work out and I was, of course, a little bit nervous about how well I would fit in at Oxford. I thought it would be extremely competitive, which it was, but in a good way.
Rhodes Project: What motivated you to become a protection officer?
Annabel Mwangi: I started off going into international relations when I was studying in Kenya. At the time that I was doing my first degree, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia broke out as well as the conflict in Rwanda. Being from a part European background, I was very interested in what was happening in Yugoslavia. So that was my first introduction to complex emergencies. Then, with Rwanda being so close to home, I was following developments there very closely. So that was what piqued my interest in conflict and protection work to start with. I also had a really good mentor at university, David Keen, who was one of my lecturers. He was very supportive. He’s done a lot of work around complex emergencies in Sudan, which engaged me even more. Initially when I was in Oxford, I wasn’t very pro-UNHCR because we were quite critical of UNHCR at the Refugee Study Centre. One of the reasons I joined was because I thought that I would be in a better position to understand and critique the organisation from the inside - in the end, I really enjoyed my work and I’m still at UNHCR.
Rhodes Project: What is the best part of your job now?
Annabel Mwangi: The most interesting thing for me is working with people on a day to day basis. It’s really difficult some days and you listen to pretty horrific stories from refugees who have gone through a lot. We’re dealing with people, especially women, who have experienced gender based violence, families that have been torn apart and so on. It’s sometimes difficult to disengage yourself entirely from your work, but it’s also really inspiring to see the extent to which human beings can overcome difficulties in their lives, and how they stay strong and keep smiling. I think it makes me aware of the strength of the human spirit.
Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part of your job?
Annabel Mwangi: To remain a little bit neutral and avoid being too emotionally overwhelmed. Also, trying to remember that you can’t save everyone. I see a lot of people every day, and you want to be able to help every person that you come across. Unfortunately, we can’t always do that. I always mention that difficulty to new colleagues to the organization now because you sometimes get overwhelmed by the things that you see. You have to try and remain engaged, and just keep moving on.
Rhodes Project: What proportion of your time is spent in conflict areas versus the UN office in Geneva?
Annabel Mwangi: I spend all of my time on location. Before Yemen I was in Rwanda, then in Somalia. Prior to that, I was in Darfur in Sudan and then in Ethiopia. This is something that I am thinking about now – maybe I need to get some distance and spend some time in Geneva. But I think the really interesting part of my job is working directly with refugees. If I am sitting in an office then I don’t really feel like I am doing my job. I think it’s really important to have people in HQ coming up with the policy, guidance and direction because when you are in the field you really don’t often have time to think about the bigger picture. But I really enjoy field work and I’d really miss it if I had to leave.
Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman entering your line of work?
Annabel Mwangi: To keep an open mind. There’s always something new to learn. I’ve worked in protection for six years, which is not as long as some people at UNHCR but is long enough. I find that every single place that I’ve been to, I’ve always had to overcome new challenges. Don’t assume that you know it all – be open to learning from your superiors and from your peers. There are a lot of national staff in the areas that we’re in that have been here a lot longer than we have, and know a lot more than we do. Coming in and having an outsider’s point of view is great, but you have to take into consideration the local perspective as well.
Rhodes Project: Do you have any mentors or role models?
Annabel Mwangi: I would say I have some role models in UNHCR. My first placement was in Ethiopia, where tboth my supervisors, Louise Aubin and Annika Sandlund were really great. That was my first experience working with the UN and they were really supportive and gave me lots of responsibility. I also look up to them quite a bit because they managed to find balance between their personal and professional life. There are many women who have a great deal of difficulty doing that, especially working in the UNHCR, because you tend to work is such difficult conditions.
Rhodes Project: What do you like to do outside of work?
Annabel Mwangi: Well at the moment, in Yemen, my choices are quite limited due the current situation – we can’t really move around. I bought myself a treadmill and try to get as much exercise as I can every day, because I can’t go running around in the streets. I can’t walk in the streets either for that matter. In Yemen, my fun is running on my treadmill. I just got myself a punching bag and got back into my kick boxing, which I started doing some time ago. I am also doing yoga. Otherwise, I like travelling, I enjoy reading and I love scuba diving.
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