“I’m really privileged”

Interview with Gry Kristiansen, administrative officer, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, (UNHCR)

Gry Kristiansen

Photo courtesy of Gry Kristiansen
Gry Kristiansen has spent most of her career at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, where she has carried out a variety of tasks, including finding a good home for kittens born in her meeting room during her country review.


Under normal circumstances, the Norwegian Mission in Geneva and missions elsewhere would be about to celebrate the 160th anniversary of the birth of Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian explorer, scientist, diplomat, and not the least, the first high commissioner for refugees. Unfortunately, COVID-19 came along and changed a lot of plans.

However, this does not prevent us from being able to pay tribute to Nansen and in particular to his legacy, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. While the organization as we see it today was set up after World War II to deal with the refugee crisis that the war had brought about, it was built on the foundation of the Nansen Office for Refugees. Many people tend to remember Nansen for his polar expeditions, but arguably his legacy is even greater when it comes to his work for prisoners of war and refugees. It’s because of Nansen and his colleagues that refugees have a legal status, and these pioneers laid the groundwork for international humanitarian law as we know it today.

We wanted to know a little bit more about what it’s like to work in UNHCR, and we were lucky to meet Gry Kristiansen, a brilliant administrative officer who has spent most of her career in the organization. To talk with Gry was inspiring because of her positive spirit. While she has done so many different things to help others get a better life, in line with Nansen’s visions, her humility is striking.

So, let’s leave the floor to Gry to learn a little more about her work and what they do in the UNHCR.

Gry Kristiansen

Photo courtesy of Gry Kristiansen
Kristiansen believes she has developed through challenges, travels, and acquiring new languages; “I have been to many places and hope to go to more before I reach the time when it will all be just sitting around reading the newspapers.”

Marit Fosse: Could you tell us a little about your background?

Gry Kristiansen: I was born in Bergen and raised in Moss, close to Oslo. After high school I attended the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration (NHH), and I graduated in 1985. In the 1980s, among the main topics of discussion in public affairs were finance, leasing, factoring… so this area became my specialization.

At one stage, I read in an article in one of the leading newspapers, Aftenposten, that Norway was going to be involved in the EPCOT Center in Florida. I had been there and was fascinated by the concept and sent an open application. I got a chance go to work there in something they call the World Showcase Fellowship Program (no longer existing), and I represented Norway. It was a unique experience, and I was there from 1986 to 1987. I then retuned to Bergen, where I worked in the hotel/hospitality sector for two years. Then I aimed for the United Nations. I sat for the National Competitive Exam in 1988, was accepted and was offered a job. My desire was to go to New York, and although Geneva was perhaps not my first choice, I ended up there. Looking back, I think it was a very lucky choice. I started out my United Nations career in the Economic Commission for Europe, and then I transferred to Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in 1993. Since then, I have been working there in different capacities and different locations, in emergencies and non-emergencies. I have also been on loan to several U.N. entities. In and out of headquarters, Geneva has become my main home base, a city I have learned to love as my own.

MF: You said that you have been posted in many different locations around the world. Where have you been?

GK: I have been to Bangkok, Nairobi, Amman, Baghdad, New York, and then on many missions. UNHCR is involved in emergencies. I was in Afghanistan and Pakistan on that operation, I have gone to Sudan and Chad several times. In Africa, I traveled a lot, in connection with my posting in Nairobi. When I was posted in Bangkok, I also had regional responsibilities, which gave me a chance to travel a lot in that part of the world.

So, I must say, I have been extremely privileged. Even if I were to choose from the top shelf at the amusement park when winning the prize, I think I got far more than was actually shown on the shelf at the outset. By joining the United Nations, we want to change and save the world; no surprise, it’s not as easy as we think. 

I still believe that I have managed to develop myself through the challenges, travels, and languages learned. I have been to many places and hope to go to more before I reach the time when it will all be just sitting around reading the newspapers, no longer being part of the action. So far, I feel that I’m really privileged.

MF: Your last posting, you were based in Baghdad. How was it to live there?

GK: It was a very special situation, both working and living conditions, in terms of the freedom you do not have, the type of offices you have, and the way you are living in containers, surrounded by sandbags and soldiers. It’s an intellectual challenge. You go there, and say to yourself: “This is what it looks like and this is what you have to deal with.” And that’s what you do. If you want to sit down and complain, you will never survive. I was there for a different purpose. So, I really enjoyed Baghdad because I really felt that I could make a difference.

My work is not in the forefront of saving or helping, but if the people who go out there get their salaries, etc., and know they are taken care of, they can focus on doing a good job. So, I actually see my mission as just as important as that of those on the front line. 

MF: Could you tell us more about what exactly you do?

GK: It’s always been a kind of mixture of budget, administration, finance, and human resources. It is always highly varied although the title and topic might be the same. Sometimes you are responsible for buying new cars and finding the money to do so, sometimes you have sleepless nights working on a staff member’s medical evacuation, sometimes it is processing visa requests for people or finding a good home for the kittens that were just born in your meeting room during your country budget review. It is always a challenge—there’s never a dull moment.

MF: When you go on these missions, you see all these suffering people. How do you cope with that?

GK: It is not easy. I want things to work and to move forward. But this can be a task larger than life. Sometimes you want to blame somebody, whether it is God, the president, the country that does not give enough, or the countries that do not pay their dues. At the same time, I can only make my little contribution worth it. 

As a result, you get very attached to your job, and you really want to deliver. My small contribution is perhaps a big contribution although in a tiny context, but it still matters. I need to see it like that in order to have the rationale for not bowing under the pressure.

MF: As a contrast to the field, what would a job in the U.N. metropolis of New York look like?

GK: In a way it’s also highly varied but covers a much smaller area and is less demanding operationally on a day-to-day basis. What is really interesting is to get a peek into the larger U.N. and understand more of the politics and interaction of the organization and the agencies. If I go into a field operation, I may have a finance officer, a human resources officer, an IT officer in my team. In a small office with a large context like New York, you have to deal with all the problems on your own so it’s actually refreshing.

MF: What about the Norwegian community. Are you involved there?

GK: I’m very impressed by the Norwegian community in New York. It’s very active, long standing and with long traditions. The church is of course a hub for many activities, and so, it draws people to it. Norwegians, traditionally, are not sucked into each other’s spheres. It is more like, “Hei, how are you?” and then they go on with their life. Here they have a tendency to link up more than in other places, so, that has been a very positive starting point because moving always means starting from scratch. 

So, leaving Gry to her busy life in UNHCR, we wish her and her colleagues all the best in these challenging times.

This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Marit Fosse

Marit Fosse trained as an economist from Norwegian school of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen (Norges Handelshøyskole NHH) and then earned a doctorate in social sciences. She is the author of several books. Nansen: Explorer and Humanitarian, co-authored with John Fox, was translated into Russian/Armenian/French. In addition, Fosse is the editor of International Diplomat/Diva International in Geneva, a magazine set up 20 years ago for diplomats and persons working in the international organizations in Geneva but also elsewhere. In her free time, Fosse is an accomplished painter.