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

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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.

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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.

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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.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article..  What are your thoughts?

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.

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A Tribute to My Dear Friend at the UN, Whose Spirit for Justice Endures
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Christine Fakhoury
Christine Fakhoury
1 year ago

Thank you for your tribute to Maha, she must have been a brave and capable lady. It looks to me that she has suffered immensely and maybe this brought cancer on to her, who knows. May she rest in peace.

Fatima
Fatima
2 years ago

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?

joseph grinblat
joseph grinblat
2 years ago
Reply to  Fatima

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

Paul Risley
Paul Risley
2 years ago

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.

Ban Cheng Tan
Ban Cheng Tan
2 years ago

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.

Narda
Narda
2 years ago

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.

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