CEU Alumna Zulfia Sabirova on Delivering World Food Programme Services During the Pandemic

This October, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for work during the pandemic. Serving as the current Head of Area Office for the WFP in Kassala, Sudan, CEU Gender Studies alumna Zulfia Sabirova (’97) shares her experience as a humanitarian aid professional at the organization on the occasion of this award.

The WFP is the largest humanitarian organization, saving lives in emergencies and using food assistance to build a pathway to peace, stability and prosperity for people recovering from conflict, disasters and the impact of climate change. Last year, it assisted 97 million people in 88 countries who are victims of acute food insecurity and hunger.

Over the last 20 years, Sabirova has been part of field operations in Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Ethiopia and Sudan, coordinating the provision of emergency food and humanitarian aid to millions of displaced people. In Sudan this year so far, WFP has reached approximately 6.7 million people with food assistance and nutrition support. This is an edited interview conducted with Sabirova in November 2020.


On the occasion of the WFP receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for work during the pandemic, what is your reflection regarding this honor?

I am very proud that the WFP has been honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. This recognition is for the work of all WFP staff who put their lives on the line every day to bring food and assistance to more than 100 million hungry children, women and men across the world. Many of the people we help are fleeing conflict. Hunger is both a cause and an effect of conflict. Without peace and stability, we will struggle to achieve our goal of zero hunger.

The decision of the Norwegian Committee comes as progress in defeating global hunger is being reversed - mainly because of conflict. It puts the struggle of the 690 million people who go to bed hungry at the center of the world’s attention and we welcome this. The recognition really drives home the message that we cannot end hunger without ending conflict and vice versa – and brings WFP’s work of ending hunger to the forefront of conversations on peacebuilding in a way the issue has not been previously positioned.

Food distribution in Sahagarab Camp, Kassala, Sudan, 2017

Tell us about your work with the WFP.

Working with the WFP is extremely rewarding, fulfilling and challenging. Most of my work addresses conflict or disaster in affected countries where people are more likely to be undernourished than those living in countries without conflict. 

I have an adventurous spirit and strong call to help others. Working in different field missions has given me the opportunity to support local communities, to satisfy my passion, and most importantly, to directly address the dire needs of people in desperate crisis situations. Raising awareness of hunger and its effect on people’s lives, women’s health, children’s futures and the future of the country is an imperative part of my daily work. We are working directly with people in need through our programs on school meals, productive safety nets and nutritional programs by addressing the needs of women and children who are food insecure or malnourished.

Working in the field has broadened my mind and strengthened my skills and knowledge in an enriching way. Hands-on experience is irreplaceable. There is no better way to comprehend the magnitude of a problem and to help the world’s most vulnerable people than being there on ground and giving it everything you have.

What was it like to contribute to humanitarian aid in the wake of the pandemic?

We work in quite challenging places in the middle of humanitarian crises - countries where there is protracted conflict and some of the least developed countries in the world. Hygiene and access to medical services are minimal if not absent.

When the pandemic started, I was working in Sudan, heading an office in the East of the country. Stopping assistance to the most vulnerable Sudanese was not an option. We had to quickly come up with many additional COVID-19 measures and adapt our ongoing programs while implementing awareness-raising campaigns in the communities. We also had to reduce our physical presence due to lockdowns and quarantine measures. Therefore, many of us had to take up additional commitments to cover for other colleagues. Many of us transitioned to work from home while others still had to conduct lengthy field visits to reach people in remote locations.

Despite the challenging context, WFP continues to deliver life-saving food assistance and nutrition activities throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, while implementing precautionary measures to ensure safe distributions. In the wake of the pandemic, WFP is also providing logistics services for government and humanitarian agencies to support their transportation, storage and distribution of essential health-related items to frontline health workers.

In other words, our operations became ever more challenging and complex. However, the weight of the problem motivated us to persist while introducing the best possible practices. Our focus was to protect the people we serve, as well as our teams, and to minimize the risks while supporting partnerships.

Sabirova with WFP beneficiaries in Gedaref, Sudan, 2018

How did your studies at CEU shape your career path in humanitarian aid?

Studying at CEU (Department of Gender Studies) significantly shaped my views and experiences during formative years. In addition to academic studies, CEU’s ethos and spirit of openness definitely inspired me to a large extent and encouraged me to pursue a global career path in the humanitarian field.

After CEU, I joined the WFP as Junior Professional Officer in a capacity focused on gender.  This is when I realized more than ever that in countries facing famine, extreme conflict and hunger, women often eat last and least. In any crisis, whether it’s man-made or a natural disaster, women and girls are especially vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition. I observed malnourished women and hungry children, the suffering of refugees and displaced families, and moments in which precious time was running out and final hopes were fading. This is when I made a strong commitment to dedicate all my efforts toward making a difference in people’s lives and being part of the impact on a global scale in fighting hunger and inequality.

Now looking back to the time I studied and lived at CEU, I realize that the university gave me a vision and aided my journey toward my goal, which I continue to this day. Across continents I am working alongside my colleagues, my friends and those in need with my every action, thought and intention to end hunger.

Is there anything else you'd like to express to CEU’s global community?

Through this work, I’ve learned the importance and essence of helping and being part of a greater cause. The plight of those most in need is one in which we all must take an active stance. No matter where I am, witnessing the struggle and inequality of everyday life fuels my passion and commitment.

Knowing that one more child goes to sleep with a full stomach or that one more girl attends school on any given day, makes me feel blessed. The help that we provide to a single person, or a single family does not stop there. As we help them, we are helping the community, the region and the country, because you never know how that single act of kindness will change their way of life, their opportunities and the future.