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A Tribute to My Dear Friend at the UN, Whose Spirit for Justice Endures

Maha Fayek, an Egyptian who worked for the UN in some of its radio units and “spent her life fighting for justice,” died a year ago, on Jan 5. The writer of the essay, who was also a UN staffer, stood up for Fayek’s legal rights in the UN system, but her case of mistreatment, filed in 2020, was recently dismissed. 

Maha Fayek died on Jan. 5, 2021.

She was one of the most wonderful persons I have ever known, and I miss her very much. She spent her life fighting for justice, without any fear of the consequences for herself.

I first met Maha on July, 22, 2002, when she came to me for advice when I was working as a volunteer legal counsel for the Panel of Counsel, a body in the United Nations internal justice system that helps staff members with legal problems.

She joined the UN in the Arabic unit of the radio section in August 2000. Before that, she worked for 10 years in Paris as a journalist for radio, TV and various daily newspapers and magazines.

After joining the Arabic unit, she soon became the subject of discrimination by her colleagues because she was trying to do objective, unbiased reporting about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but all her colleagues were citizens of Arab countries who were pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel and did not accept her reporting. After she complained about the discrimination, she was reassigned to the French radio unit in June 2001.

However, the officer-in-charge there was not happy because he wanted European colleagues, and Maha was from Egypt. She was also much more experienced than her colleagues in the unit, which the boss resented. As a consequence, she was not treated fairly, and this is why she came to me for advice.

In 2007, the post of chief of the French radio unit was advertised and Maha was found to be the best-qualified candidate. However, her supervisors falsified the results of the evaluation to give the post to a Frenchman rather than to her. I appealed her case, and the UN Tribunal agreed that she had been cheated out of the post of chief of the French radio unit, and she was awarded a small indemnity for her suffering.

However, the decision on her appeal was not retroactive, so not only did she not become chief of the French radio, but she was also harassed by her bosses because she had shown that they cheated. In addition, she had become a staff representative and was fighting to help colleagues who were not treated properly, which made her bosses even more nasty to her. She was never promoted to another job, and her life became miserable to the point that she decided to leave UN headquarters in New York City.

She joined Minusca, the peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, in August 2014, where she created the best radio station in the country and was adored by her colleagues and the people there.

In June 2016, while stopping in New York City for a medical checkup, she was found to have Stage 4 cancer!!!!!!! She never went back to the Central African Republic but went to work in the Department of Global Communications, where, instead of her supervisors being especially nice to her because of her cancer, they mistreated her by refusing to put her back in her normal position and giving her functions for which she was not experienced.

A new case against her mistreatment was filed in 2020 but recently dismissed — after her death — as “not receivable” by the UN Appeal Tribunal, with arguments that ignored the main facts: that her request on July 8, 2019, to return to her normal function had been refused on July 12, 2019. Although she was a single woman, if her case had been decided in her favor, her heirs would have received a financial award.

If Maha had not been illegally deprived of the post of chief of the French radio unit in 2007, she would still be alive with us today because she would have gotten essential preventive medical care and could have discovered the cancer sooner, working in New York City. Of this I am convinced. If she were still alive, she would continue to be fighting for justice without fear of the consequences for her. Which is why I miss her so very much.

The essay was updated to provide more clarification on Maha Fayek’s 2020 case of mistreatment.

Joseph Alfred Grinblat is a statistician-economist-demographer who retired from the United Nations in 2004, after spending 30 years in the UN Population Division, except for two peacekeeping mission stints in Western Sahara. He also spent four years in Tunisia (1969-1973), working for the Population Council and the Ford Foundation. He lives in Flushing, New York.

7 thoughts on “A Tribute to My Dear Friend at the UN, Whose Spirit for Justice Endures”

  1. Maha’s story is representative of so many women of color that dare to challenge the organization by highlighting its pervasive ills and lack of accountability. RIP Maha, may your story be remembered and inspire others to be brave and take a stand to right the wrongs that continue to exist.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for this sad piece. It just indisputably proves that there is a lot of darkness under the light house, one of the many signs of the end times.

    Reply
  3. Thank you for posting this article, I did not know that Maha had passed away. While I served in UNMIL, the peacekeeping mission in Liberia, in 2005, she would call frequently, asking for updates on the Liberian elections, on disarmament, on reconstruction issues. She was always pleasant, professional, a joy to speak with, and she truly did want to make the world a better place. It is very sad but not surprising to hear of the poor treatment and indifference she received from UN colleagues and superiors — all people who should know better and act better.

    Reply
  4. While fully appreciating the trials and tribulations that Maha had to go through in her career with the UN (and as a woman of color who has gone through some of the same experiences), I don’t believe this is an objectively written tribute when someone states “If Maha had not been illegally deprived of the post of chief of the French radio unit in 2007, she would still be alive with us today because she would have gotten essential preventive medical care and could have discovered the cancer sooner, working in New York City.”

    Unfortunately, this is a ranting piece by an obviously heartbroken and grieving friend and colleague- but let’s not throw out all objectivity when it comes to tributes like this. Even if Maha was posted in Central African Republic, she would have still be given the opportunity of going on R&R and having the necessary medical checkups done. We cannot blame her death on not having been living in New York at the time. So the author is basically implying that only those who live and/or are posted in New York have the opportunity to do health checkups?

    If this is the type of articles/tributes that Passblue encourages, then it seems we have thrown all objectivity and professionalism out the window. What about all those people that the author has smeared in his tribute? Should they not be provided with the opportunity to defend some of these claims?

    I understand that a grieving friend would want to share a tribute for Maha, but this could have been done in a classier way to give those readers who didn’t know Maha a snapshot of who she was, rather than all the jobs that she didn’t get or felt that she was pushed out of. I would hope that our friends and colleagues remember us more than just the jobs that we hold for a brief period of our lives.

    I would hate to think that we have all become reduced simply to our attempts to go further in our careers in the UN, there must be more to us and our characters than just our applications?

    Reply
    • It is Fatima’s article that is ranting.

      What I have written is not a ranting, but a statement of fully documented facts.

      It is certified by the UN Tribunal that Maha’s supervisors falsified the results of the evaluation, in order to deprive her from the post of Chief of the French radio unit.

      It is also a fact that, if she had been the Chief of the French radio, she would not have gone to a peacekeeping mission. She would have stayed in New York, her cancer would have been found at stage 1, when it was easily curable.

      Fatima is ranting: I did not give any name or smear anybody in my article; I never said that only people who live in New York can have health check-ups

      Reply
  5. The article you published on 3 January under the title: A Tribute to My Dear Friend at the UN, Whose Spirit for Justice Endures, written by Joseph Alfred Grinblat, is filled with misinformation and unfounded accusations against the Arabic Radio Unit.

    As a former chief of the Arabic Radio Unit during the period in question, I have a moral obligation to set the record straight and state the irrefutable facts.

    I want first to pay tribute to my former colleague Maha and pray to God to grant her eternal peace.

    I was the chief of that Arabic Radio Unit when the late Maha (may she rest in eternal peace) was recruited upon the recommendation of Radio Chief, Mr. Ayman Al-Amir of Egypt. She sent a 6-page CV about her achievements in the field of radio in Paris. A short interview was conducted in spoken Egyptian, which did not show her strength in the Arabic language.

    In August 2000, upon returning from my home leave, I found Maha just joined the Unit after she received a P-3 contract for two years, very unusual for a new recruit. My whole team asked me to meet with them without her. They informed me that Maha does not know the Arabic language well enough to be a radio producer. I told them let me get to that conclusion myself. I welcomed her to the Unit and invited her with both of her parents to my house in New Jersey, together with Mr. Al-Amir and a few members of the Unit.

    I started observing her work closely to realize immediately that her Arabic is insufficient to write or read well. Not only did she not know grammar well, but she did not know how to pronounce the words, nor did she know the sentence structure.

    In about a month or so, I prepared a long memo about her lack of knowledge of the Arabic language, giving many examples, and requested a meeting with Mr. Al-Amir. I went to his office with the whole team including a P-3 most experienced Egyptian producer, Ismail Bahaeddin, and a part-timer Egyptian radio producer (I recall his first name was Yahya – last name maybe Abdelqader) in charge of the weekly magazine. We discussed the situation with Mr. Al-Amir. Mr. Al-Amir, not admitting his faulty recruitment, told us: “She is here to stay. You, Abdelhamid, Ismail and Yahya- teach her grammar”. Ismail replied: “Our colleague Abdelhamid took 9 years to move from P-2 to P-3 and here is a new recruit as a Radio Producer at P3- level who needs to be taught the basic grammar of Arabic”. Mr. Al-Amir did not accept this argument.

    Yahya started giving her a lesson in grammar every Thursday, the only day he used to come to the UN to record the Magazine. I used to redo every piece she made and ask other colleagues to record it or read it live. This arrangement added more burden on every staff member. A new recruit who was expected to be a principal producer in the Unit became a burden on everybody.

    Maha started helping the French Radio Unit, without our knowledge. Apparently she wanted support from French radio that she was a good radio producer, a fact I cannot contest in French but not in Arabic. She could be the best radio producer in French but that does not make her a good producer in Arabic. All I was trying to assert that her Arabic is vey shallow in all aspects, reading, writing, recording, pronunciation, grammar and sentence structure.

    She went to the then Egyptian Ambassador, Ahmed Aboul Gheith, and accused me of discrimination against all Egyptians. The Ambassador spoke with Mr. Bahaeddin first, who refuted this accusation explaining the real problem, and then spoke with me and I told him half of my unit were Egyptians, my chief is Egyptian, Yahya the SSA, the main producer Ismail and a production assistant were all Egyptians. The core issue is her Arabic language. The ambassador was convinced and did not open the subject again.

    To give one example, she went to conduct an interview in Arabic with Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi. He stopped the interview immediately and called Ismail who was then OIC and said, “Who is this radio producer who cannot formulate a good question in Arabic?” Examples like that were plenty.

    I wrote a memo to the chief of the Division, Salim Lone, calling for an external panel to evaluate her Arabic. I said in conclusion of that memo: “I stand corrected if the Panel approves her level of Arabic.” She of course refused based on advice she received from some members of the staff council.

    Mr. Ayman Al-Amir, on his very last day before retirement, 28 February 2001, wrote a detailed memorandum addressed to the Executive Office, admitting that it was a mistake recruiting her and her level of Arabic was insufficient and did not meet the requirements for the job description of Radio Producer in Arabic.

    In fact, Mr. Al-Amir revealed in his last day a secret about her recruitment that was based on a recommendation by former SG Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was residing in Paris and had some family ties with her family. We then made the connection between her recruitment and creating for the first and last time a D-1 post for Chief of Radio in the last few days of Boutros-Ghali’s tenure.

    The Staff Council did not accept Al-Amir’s memo, calling it “a hit and run tactic by a departing chief who would not be here to defend his position.” Maha during this period was part of the Unit without doing any work.

    Maha then asked Mr. Jerome Longue, chief of the French Unit, to write her a recommendation letter saying she was a good producer in French. He did. Mr. Salim Lone, the Division’s Director of the News and Media Division, decided then to move Maha to the French Unit sometime in 2002.

    From that point I had no say in what happened. I left the UN at the end of 2006 on an early separation package. Maha reached out to me after that and apologized for the hard time she gave me. We remained on good terms till her untimely passing. I felt sorry for her and wrote her a nice eulogy. May she rest in eternal peace.

    I hope this letter will be published to balance the account introduced by Mr. Grinblat.

    Abdelhamid Abdljaber
    Former chief of the Arabic Radio Unit,
    News and Media Division – Department of Public Information

    Reply
    • Reply to the article by Mr. Abdljaber

      In the first paragraph, his article already contains false facts.

      It says that my article is “filled with misinformation and unfounded accusations against the Arabic radio unit.” What “misinformation”? And what “unfounded accusations” ?

      The fact is that there is only one paragraph in my article where there is mention of discrimination against Maha in the Arabic radio unit. So it is not “filled with misinformation and unfounded accusations,” as there is only one accusation in one paragraph.

      Furthermore, Mr. Abdljaber never denies that Maha was being mistreated because she was doing objective reporting about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which amounts to implicitly recognizing that it is true. He also acknowledges that her colleagues were jealous about the fact that she was recruited as a P-3, which was completely normal in UN practice for recruiting somebody with 10 years of fully successful professional experience

      Not only is everything else in his article totally irrelevant to this issue, but there is no proof anywhere that what he says is true. If some of it really happened, it was part of harassment against Maha for having reminded the public that it was Jordan and the other Arab countries that prevented the creation of an independent Arab Palestinian country in 1948 and 1949, and for her having been recruited as a P-3. One should remember that Maha was born and raised in Egypt, and that Arabic was her mother tongue….

      Other distortion of the facts: Maha did not move to the French unit in 2002, but in June 2001. Jerome Longue was not the Chief of the French radio unit in 2002; it is only in 2007 that Mr. Longue became the Chief of the French radio, after the results of the examination which found that Maha was the best qualified candidate were falsified in order to give the post to Mr Longue, as confirmed in the UN tribunal judgment (UNDT/2010/113).

      It is incredible that Mr. Abdljaber says that Maha went to him in 2006 to apologize for the “hard time” she gave him. She was still mad at him then for the way he had mistreated her when she was in his unit, and she certainly never gave him a hard time.

      Reply

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