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Françoise Gruloos-Ackermans: Mama UNICEF

The Grand Mufti of the Comoros islands, off the east coast of Africa, has declared Francoise Gruloos the mother of all the islands' children.

"He invited himself to my leaving party and made a speech," Ms. Gruloos explains. "Then he goes and orders every follower to pray for me as the mother of the Comorina children!"

The children living and working in the street in nearby Burundi, in east-central Africa, seem to share the sentiment. Ms. Gruloos was in charge of a project for these children in Bujumbura, Burundi's capital. One day, when she was buying bread, there was suddenly havoc, with street children running wild. But she heard one child say to another, "Don't hurt her! That's Mama UNICEF!"

Ms. Gruloos is as proud of the title, as she is of the nature of her work.

"Passing from [a non-governmental organization], where actions are more visible, to UNICEF, where a big part of our job is not visible, I realized the power of our organization. We negotiate and advocate with decision-makers to fulfil, in a sustainable way, the rights of the children."

'I realized how vulnerable we are'

But it's not all about negotiation – or joyful experiences. Ms. Gruloos was responsible for coordinating United Nations humanitarian aid in Bujumbura after the war in Burundi. Thousand of displaced families were living in schools in very poor conditions. She did not know where to start. Sanitation? Stem the measles epidemic? Prioritize feeding programmes?

Investigating the situation on the ground for herself, in the company of a Rwandan colleague, she came across a mother trying to feed her children – five of them, all crowded around a single plate out in the open. "My colleague started crying," Ms. Gruloos remembers. "He had a sudden flashback of himself in the same situation some 25 years ago as a refugee. I realized how vulnerable we are. Today it is him; tomorrow it might be me."

Ms. Gruloos believes such human reactions are important.

"Our work is dealing with human beings, and sometimes to weep is essential. Even though working in an emergency situation is rewarding, it affects us so much personally. I still sometimes wake up at night with this picture of a baby boy dying in my arms from malnutrition. I felt responsible."

Feeling that sort of responsibility makes huge demands in terms of time, energy and passion. And with four children of her own, it hasn't been easy for Ms. Gruloos.

"I came back very late one day and passed through my nine-year-old's bedroom for the goodnight kiss," she says. "She was awake and told me: 'I wish I was a street child so that you would take better care of me and be my Mama UNICEF …'"

Fortunately, Françoise Gruloos, who is currently UNICEF Representative in Haiti, has enough energy and passion – and enough of that remarkable nurturing spirit – to go around.



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