Over Long Career, Mia Adjali Remains U.N. Booster
Photo courtesy of UMNS.
by LINDA BLOOM*
When Mia Adjali's college class decided to put on a "mock" United Nations – with Ms. Adjali as secretary-general – she attended a weeklong Methodist Student Christian Citizenship Seminar as preparation.
That experience became a turning point, leading to a lifelong career relating to the United Nations. At the end of 2007, Ms. Adjali retired after serving 46 years in the U.N. office of the Women's Division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
"Mia Adjali has probably known more of the international community over a longer period of time than any living American," said Betty Thompson, another longtime employee of the Board of Global Ministries.
"From her post at 777 U.N. Plaza, she has been a vibrant link between the Christian community and the United Nations," Ms. Thompson said. "Through her office, literally thousands of Americans have come to visit the United Nations and participated in seminars. Her passionate dedication to peace and justice, her gift for friendship, and her mission heritage uniquely equipped her for this post."
Although Ms. Adjali has officially retired, she is not yet leaving her diplomatic stomping grounds on the east side of Manhattan. In July, she was elected vice president of the World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women during that organization's 11th assembly in Jeju, South Korea.
As vice president, she will oversee the federation's U.N. program and studies program. Ms. Adjali was host to the federation's officers when they met in New York City a few years ago.
"That's when the federation got the idea to concentrate on the millennium goals of the United Nations," she said.
She also has been asked by the Women's Division to write a history of the United Methodist-owned Church Center for the United Nations and assist with preparing resolutions for the 2008 General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body.
Like the United Methodist Boards of Global Ministries and Church and Society, the World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women has consultative status with the U.N. Economic and Social Council, which allows access to U.N. meetings.
The role of such nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the international body is part of the U.N. charter.
"It wasn't just the governments that were discussing the founding of such an organization," Ms. Adjali said. "The churches had an important role."
”NGOs, in many ways, are the ones that lift up the issues and remind governments of issues they need to be concerned about," she said.
Ms. Adjali's childhood reflected Methodist involvement in the world at large. Her parents, Mary and Hans Hansen – the family name was later changed to Aurbakken – were missionaries with the Methodist Board of Missions. After being trapped in Algeria during World War II, Ms. Adjali remembers tasting chocolate for the first time when the family finally gained passage in 1945 on a Norwegian banana boat.
After a brief stay in their homeland of Norway, her parents took a sabbatical leave at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. There, her mother died from complications of a gall-bladder operation when Ms. Adjali was 7 years old.
Eventually, her father remarried a family friend. Ellen M. Aurbakken is now a retired United Methodist missionary who lives in Dallas. After Ms. Adjali’s father remarried, the family returned to Algeria, where Ms. Adjali finished primary school. She spent three years at a school in France before finishing high school in Hartford and then attending Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.
Dick Celeste, a Yale student who later became the governor of Ohio, was in charge of the Christian Citizenship Seminar in 1959, organized by the Methodist Student Movement. The seminar brought students to the United Nations to learn about international issues and then to Washington, D.C., to meet with legislators.
After that experience, a professor encouraged Ms. Adjali to change her major from sociology to international relations. She took every course Millsaps offered on the subject. Upon graduation in 1960, Herman Will of the Methodist Commission on World Peace – a predecessor agency of the Board of Church and Society – recommended her for a job with the U.N. office.
Working for rights
Ms. Adjali spent five years working as a seminar designer before becoming a staff executive with the Women's Division. In the early 1960s, the Methodists built the 12-story Church Center for the United Nations, directly across from the U.N. New York City headquarters.
Margaret Bender, who led the office then, was an enthusiastic advocate of decolonization in Africa, Ms. Adjali said. The center's staff assisted those petitioning the United Nations from liberation and human-rights movements by providing space with desks, telephones, typewriters and access to copying machines.
Many of those leaders later became prime ministers, presidents and Nobel Prize winners.
"We believed in the rights of people to represent their concerns and issues," Ms. Adjali said.
An exciting moment involving what was then Southern Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – occurred in 1980.
"Just before independence…the two parties were to make a joint presentation at the Security Council," Ms. Adjali said. "They sent their speechwriters to our office."
Ms. Adjali's assistant, Jennifer Washington, typed up the speeches, paragraph by paragraph, and they ran off enough copies for Security Council members and other interested parties. Moments like that allow the Women's Division's U.N. office to feel "we really are giving a service here that we are privileged to give," she said.
Even her personal life has been influenced by her career. She met her husband, Boubaker Adjali, while in Algiers in 1966 to plan a Women's Division trip.
"We were engaged in five days," she remembered.
They married in 1967 and planned to move to Algeria, but for political reasons her husband was unable to do so. Boubaker Adjali, a filmmaker and journalist, also eventually became an adviser to two presidents of the U.N. General Assembly. Their son, Madani, turned 25 Feb. 1.
"Boubaker really knows the United Nations inside and out and has worked with the African diplomats," Ms. Adjali said.
She does not know the new U.N. secretary general – Ban Ki-moon of South Korea succeeded Kofi Annan Jan. 1 – but said she's heard he is a good manager.
"They expect a number of changes in terms of management of the United Nations," she said.
Ms. Adjali is a staunch defender of the United Nations and believes much of the criticism surrounding its work is "a reflection of the incredible amount of misinformation about the United Nations or lack of information."
In Ms. Adjali's opinion, no other mechanism exists than this international body "for thinking and reflecting" on issues such as eradicating poverty, protecting the environment, improving health, and offering access to housing and education.
*Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.