This is what happened when a refugee girl took charge at UNHCR

Sandy Alqas Botros from Iraq explains why she is determined to make a difference for women and girls.

Sandy Alqas Botros took over a high-ranking position at UNHCR for one day. © UNHCR/Suzy Hopper

My name is Sandy Alqas Botros. I am 19 years old and from Iraq. My father is an electrical engineer and my mother is a tailor. I never imagined that one day I would become a refugee.

In 2015, we fled our home after Mosul was taken by militants. We lost everything. In Turkey, we boarded a small boat to Greece, and eventually found safety in Hamburg, Germany.

In Hamburg, I learned the language and was able to continue my secondary education. My favourite subjects at school are mathematics, chemistry and politics. My favourite hobbies are playing the piano, reading books and drawing. I can speak four languages: Arabic, Aramaic, English and German. When we first arrived, it was difficult, but over time it became easier because I learned the language and found friends.

This is the story of what happened when I was given the chance to take over a high-ranking position at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, for one day.

The takeover was part of action by Plan International to mark International Day of the Girl. © UNHCR/Suzy Hopper

The Girls’ Takeover was part of a global action led by Plan International to mark International Day of the Girl.

This year, over 1,000 girls across the world stepped into the shoes of presidents, mayors, head teachers and other leaders, to show that girls should be free to dream and free to lead. I am so proud to have been one of them.

“I believe educated refugees can have a great impact.”

In September, I took over the position of George Okoth-Obbo, the Assistant High Commissioner of Operations at UNHCR. I went through a day of being briefed and discussing refugee matters with representatives, directors and other managers. I had meetings on many topics, including the agency’s work on prevention, its response to sexual exploitation and abuse, the importance of education in refugee camps and the participation of women and girls in refugee programmes. As well as all that, I took over the Twitter account of Mr. Okoth-Obbo and spread my messages across the world. Mr. Okoth-Obbo himself accompanied and supported me as my Special Assistant.

Throughout the takeover, I contributed my point of view and highlighted the importance of education. Too many children in refugee camps have only limited access to education or none at all. More teachers and schools in or nearby the camps are desperately needed. I believe educated refugees can have a great impact and help to teach other refugees within informal classes.

I also wanted to encourage UNHCR to involve more women and girls in decision-making processes. I believe the International Day of the Girl should serve as a reminder that there is still too much gender-based violence and not enough girls in powerful positions.

For example, in Iraq, most girls never get the chance to participate in refugee programmes like I do in Germany. I think it is important for more women to lead programmes and to facilitate the participation of girls.

George Okoth-Obbo accompanied and supported Sandy as her Special Assistant. © UNHCR/Suzy Hopper

While working with the Plan International Youth Group (Youth Advocates), I saw for myself how important female participation is to make sure that girls receive the right protection and support. With the Girls’ Takeover, I want to show other girls that political participation is important and encourage them to do the same. I hope my takeover sets an example.

The positive reaction I received after the takeover has inspired me to continue my engagement with Plan International and UNHCR to campaign for equality and children’s rights. After finishing school, I want to study at university and get the qualifications I need to continue my work in refugee programmes that support boys and girls worldwide.