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UNHCR: Tell Individual Stories


UNHCR: Tell Individual Stories

With an aim to capture people’s attention and increase donations, the UNHCR has been telling the story of refugees differently.

“The current realities of refugees have forced us to look out of the box and for non-traditional ways of how we as a UN agency want to communicate,” said Omer Elnaiem, Campaign and Advocacy Officer at UNHCR to Communicate. 

Citing its social media practices and growing involvement with influencers, Elnaiem acknowledged the increasing impressions and engagement when influencers are involved in the organization’s  posts. Recently, the UNHCR has involved influencers by taking them to crisis-ridden areas and presenting the living conditions through their channels, in hope of gaining more public sympathy.

“Social media influencers show that refugees are a local issue,” he explained.

While campaigns range from seasonal such as back to school campaign focusing on education to as per needs such as health campaigns, the latest campaign Refugee “Zakat Fund,” has gained momentum in which 100 per cent of the Zakat has been donated to the refugees.

When dealing with the campaign’a strategy, Elnaiem believes that the campaign tells the story of refugees across the world. Hence, the aim is “not to look at the millions, but to look at the individual,” and to tell the story of one.

Below is part of his interview with Communicate, some of the interview has been edited for readability reasons. 

What is the philosophy behind your campaigns?

So, philosophy is a word that I find quite tricky, because it implies there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way. We don’t know what the right way is and what is the wrong way. We are trying to have so many different outlets to tell one message, and in a unified way of refugees, and that takes different forms and shapes, depending on the season,  and the need. 

How effective has your current story telling techniques been?

I mean, the question here is what are the KPIs and what is really the objective? We have expanded our reach to different platforms. So we are on TV, we have done radio, we’re doing outdoor, we’re doing social media, and social media influencers strategy. It has helped us raise donations. We have raised so far [in Ramadan], and this is public information because transparency is very important, almost $2 million, from the public to support Zakat. These are people going online, putting their name and credit cards.

What are the different approaches you are using in your marketing and communication campaign?

Zakat campaign is quite an interesting case study. We saw the potential. I spent two years working on a communication strategy to get people to first go like, refugees, Zakat, UNHCR [think that they can pay their Zakat using UNHCR to reach refugees].

 What sort of mindset or strategy did you have to change within the UNHCR to be able to create such a program?

I have to admit, it wasn’t an easy conversation. But I think it really comes down to this: if I have to free more resources, by getting Zakat to give to a family that’s eligible for Zakat, then we [the UNHCR] can give [allocate resources] funds to a family who doesn’t [is not eligible] get Zakat. So if I can raise funds to support the 50 per cent of refugees in the region or those eligible for Zakat, that means I can use the pot to raise funds for others.

It wasn’t easy internally as well. But I think we were forced into this place by the funding cuts.

How effective has been social media influencers in raising donations?

Social media influencers are very fast and tangible way of reaching out to audiences. You can see reach ability, engagement, and impressions, with post from influencers, donations go up for us, the day admission happens. For me, the big question here is are social media influencers, the new TV 10 years ago in the ad world?

I have no answer, but to tell you, we have proof that donations increase, so are impressions and mentions of the organization. We have a very strict way of vetting who goes and who gets involved with us. So not everybody who wants to be associated with the UN gets to go to  a camp, as much as we can vet. But it is a very important part of our communication pillars. 

Social media influencers help show that refugees are a local issue. So when I go on a mission to Bangladesh, with influencers from the UAE or from Saudi, people can know how it is there. The public can see the reality through the social media influencer’s eyes.

But didn’t you also face a backlash for using social media influencers, especially after the Kite Beach Walk video?

So this campaign was part of a campaign that is called “step with refugees.”  So the idea was really to sign up online. The more active we get, there is a sort of a technological thread that then measures how many steps you take, and then you receive stories of refugees that have done the same distance for safety. So we’re almost saying, okay, fine, I might run in a month 500 km, then you get the story of Xena who had to flee from South Sudan to Ethiopia  walking the same km. Yes, walking down in Kite  beach is not the same as walking down the Sudanese’  borders. But it is a way for us to bring the story of refugees in a way that fits the modern day while still keeping the dignity of the refugees.

I don’t think that message was conveyed. It didn’t work as how we wanted it to be.

What are the key learning points you have learnt from changing the way you convey the message?

I think really to be innovative and to not be afraid to ask for help. I think this is really an issue in civil society and NGOs. The idea is to really challenge ourselves internally first, and then be open to what advices we get from experts in the industry and the public. We like every year to do something more bold, but the main objective in everything we do is really telling the stories of these ordinary people who are going through extraordinary circumstances.


The below video is for one of the organization’s campaigns “Be the light,” which was launched during Ramadan 2019.

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