As part of our “Americans in the UN” project to share the stories of Americans who work for the United Nations, we talked to Chris Boian, who was born on the Fort Sill Army Base in Oklahoma and grew up outside of Denver, Colorado. He serves as a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Washington, D.C. Boian joined UNHCR after working in journalism for approximately 30 years, mostly overseas covering international news including the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War.
What motivates you to work for the UN?
Chris Boian: UNHCR is about providing the assistance and urgent care that people need, but it’s also about being a part of a conversation about who we are as human beings and how we want our world to look. What kind of world do we want to leave for our children? What are our values? And when they are tested, do we stand by them?
Things like human dignity, freedom of choice, and human rights are values that I, coming from a Marine Corps family in the United States, was brought up to cherish and respect as values that are woven deeply into the fabric of my country. I am proud to be an American, I want to serve my country, and I regard my work within the UN as supporting both American and broader human values.
When Americans see firsthand the work that UN agencies do – really drill down and understand it – they see there’s no contradiction between what my peers and friends in Colorado or elsewhere in the United States value and what the UN Refugee Agency is doing to help refugees from, for example, Syria or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
When you talk to friends and family in the U.S., what surprises them most about the UN?
CB: One thing that surprises some of them is that there are Americans working for the UN at all. Some Americans tend to think of the UN as something essentially ‘foreign,’ perhaps because it is really the only organization of its kind and one that is mandated to give a seat at the table to pretty much all countries, all peoples, and all points of view. The thing is, this global inclusiveness is also a direct reflection of, among others, bedrock American values, American ideals, American planning, and American action in support of a better world and peace among people.
It is important for everyone to have people, nations, and points of view which you may or may not agree with in the room to be heard so that all viewpoints can be exchanged in a civilized way. That is what civilization is about really – finding a way forward, working together creating solutions that benefit all.
What is your message to Americans about the UN?
CB: The United Nations is about nothing if not working to make this a better world for the people of this world, and that includes Americans.
It includes people of all walks of life. That is very much in line with American values, and it is also a matter of American interest. I believe engagement with the world furthers the good of all and furthers the good of the United States. It is in the interest of the United States to support the work we do and to support refugees and programs to address their needs, not just because it is the moral thing to do, but also because it promotes peace and stability on the planet in general and in parts of the world that are of vital importance to the United States.
How has the UN made a difference in someone’s life?
CB: The refugees I’ve met who have come to the United States are deeply grateful to the American people and the American government for the opportunity to reclaim their lives. These people have been forced to flee life-threatening dangers in their own countries, and they are powerfully motivated to contribute to the communities that welcome them and to live happy, fulfilling lives in security. They integrate into their communities, work, pay their taxes, and often start businesses.
An example is Ekhlas. She’s originally from Darfur and was resettled to Maine when she was just 12 years old. At the time, she didn’t speak a word of English, and now she’s a teacher at the high school she attended in Maine. She regularly talks about her father who started a business in Portland and now employs many locals in the area. She has now become as American as you and me. She is thrilled to be here and to be contributing and giving back to Portland, to Maine, and to the United States. She understands and profoundly appreciates the opportunity she and her family were given by the American people and government.
What is the favorite part of your job working for UNHCR?
CB: Being part of telling a story that makes the light bulb go off in people’s minds and that educates them. I love telling the story about what the UN and, specifically, the UN Refugee Agency do – whether I’m in Washington in an office, in a classroom speaking to students, or in the field where refugee situations are in progress. For me, it’s about communicating that story in simple and accessible terms that resonate with Americans and with all human beings and that will make people pause and say, ‘Yes, I recognize something of myself in that situation, and if I wasn’t supporting this work before, I want to start doing so now.’
Anything else you want to add?
CB: As a foreign correspondent for 30 years, I spent a lot of time in the field and especially in conflict zones. In many places, I saw refugees in the making as the mortars fell on their houses and they had no option but to run, often with nothing but their lives and their dreams of a better future. They are people with dignity and they are not looking for handouts for the rest of their lives but, like every single one of us would do in those circumstances, they are asking for a little help to find a safe place, pull themselves together, and get back on track to resume their lives and strive to become the people they want to be. That’s all anyone wants.