An Interview with Rema Jamous Imseis, UNHCR Representative in Canada
“It always starts with one person extending their hand to another.”
By Daviel Lazure Vieira
One evening, during a mission in Morocco to learn more about a new route used by asylum-seekers and migrants to cross the Strait of Gibraltar in order to reach Spain, Rema Jamous Imseis sat down for a modest dinner alongside Jean-Paul Cavalieri, UNHCR’s Representative in the country.
They had been invited by a French priest who runs a small church in the north, providing shelter and meals for people passing through the area. Around them were several youth who came from all over the African continent. They had prepared a very simple meal, one of the ways they were expected to share in the responsibilities of the group and give back to the small community housed in the church.
These young people told them their stories. How they found themselves in this tiny corner of the North African continent with their eyes on the shores of Spain, and the sacrifices they made on their journeys to reach this point — leaving everything behind in search of a better life.
“It was one of the most humbling experiences of my UN career,” Rema explains. “And it’s something that has really stayed with me.
Nobody willingly leaves their home, their family, everything that is familiar to put themselves in harm’s way. Something compels people to move — desperation, persecution, violence.
Nobody chooses to be subjected to the kinds of horrors and risks these youth saw on their journeys.
Nor would they ever put their children in unseaworthy vessels or spend days walking through treacherous conditions if that wasn’t the only possible way to survive.
And once you understand that — that they’re human beings seeking safety and better lives for themselves and their loved ones — you relate to them and their struggles.”
“Once you understand that — that they’re human beings seeking safety and better lives for themselves and their loved ones — you relate to them and their struggles.”
Rema Jamous Imseis was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. Her parents arrived in the early 1970s from the Middle East, shortly after they were married.
She did her undergraduate studies in political science and history at McMaster University in Hamilton, and then went to Halifax to study law at Dalhousie University. “I was always keen to learn more about Canadian and international politics. I would take any opportunity to interact with the world and the issues of the day; it’s something I found very interesting,” she explains.
After earning her law degree, she articled in Toronto, and then joined the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario as a litigator in the legal services division, where she worked on cases looking at freedom of information and privacy issues.
In January 2003, Rema moved to Gaza City, where she worked with a local NGO and became acquainted with a number of UN agencies working in the Gaza Strip. In July of that year, she was offered a position with the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, a field mission of the UN’s Department of Political Affairs. From Special Assistant to Legal Advisor, she worked on legislative reforms and support initiatives, first out of Gaza, and then from Jerusalem.
After a stint in Edmonton as the Arab spring made headlines around the world, Rema moved back to Jerusalem in the fall of 2011. It wasn’t long before she was appointed with the United Nations Regional Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Within just a few months, she became the Head of Office in Cairo, Egypt — covering 22 countries, deploying staff to set up teams and support emergency responses across the region, from Yemen to Iraq, Syria to Libya.
It was while working on the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 as chair of the regional steering group for the Middle East and North Africa that she was approached by UNHCR and decided to join the team as Deputy Director of the Bureau for the Middle East and North Africa in Geneva.
“What my experience has taught me, through my missions in the region and the time I spent working in the field, is that even when you see the worst situations of forced displacement and widespread human rights violations –you also see the best of humanity shine through and how quickly people mobilize to help. The basic instincts of compassion and solidarity take over” says Rema.
“It always starts with one person extending their hand to another, and then it grows. It sounds cliché, but I believe it can have a profound impact and change the course of somebody’s life. It’s a powerful thing to witness and be involved in — this cycle of giving, of supporting each other and finding what unites us and what is common in our humanity.”
“It’s a powerful thing to witness and be involved in — this cycle of giving, of supporting each other and finding what unites us and what is common in our humanity.”
Three years later, it was time to return home with her husband and three children. On 27 January 2020, Rema Jamous Imseis took up her functions as UNHCR Representative in Canada.
“As a first-generation Canadian who grew up in this wonderful country and learned about principles of justice, equality and human rights by studying the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it gives me immense pride to be given the chance to advocate for the values and principles that are at the core of our work. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to strengthen our engagement with Canada and the world.”
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