Beyond the boundaries of tradition: Josefa Ojano
Josefa Ojano is a role-model of intelligence and dedication, having fought for her place in a male-dominated organisation. Despite the challenges of discrimination, Josefa made it to the top and can now look back modestly at how she made it there.
After 37 years with United Nations High Commissioner for Refuge (UNHCR) - travelling from Africa to Europe - Josefa has since retired in Switzerland.
Josefa is from humble origins, her own mother was a fishmonger and her father was a farmer in the rural village of Bisocol in the Philippines. Out of her eight siblings, Josefa was the only one who showed any interest in education and thereupon built up her academic and professional career, capitalising on this opportunity.
Being the only woman in her family to have made it out of the Philippines (through tenacious employment rather than marriage), Josefa now sends local girls to school via scholarships, invests heavily in community skills development, and empowers entrepreneurs in her family and village.
Josefa attributes her generosity to both her 37 years of employment with the UNHCR and her unflinching Christian faith. Yet, I believe there is something deeper within her that feels an unconditional urge to give back to others.
Part I Introduction
Q. Tell me a bit about yourself and where you come from.
My name is Josefa Ojano. I am 62 years of age, I’m married with two children who are 27 and 24. I have dual nationality: I am Filipino and Swiss. I worked for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for over 37 years until I retired in December 2016.
Q. So now you are retired?
Yes and proud to be a retiree! I enjoy the freedom of managing my own time, gardening, and discovering other interests that I thought I would have not enjoyed that much in the past like walking in nature, sewing and picking fruits in the field. I keep adding a few more that I wish I could do if I had more energy, stronger will, and time.
Q. So you were born in the Philippines, in South East Asia, but now you live in Switzerland?
That’s correct. I came from a small village of Bisocol, City of Alaminos, Province of Pangasinan in the Philippines. We were a large family of eight children: 3 boys and 5 girls – I was the 7th child.
Q. What did your parents do?
My father was a farmer and my mother was a fishmonger. Imagine feeding eight children with this occupation! It was a hard life for my parents. The food that came to the table was mostly from the farm and the river nearby. Income from my mother clothed us and maintained some of the domestic needs a family has. Education was the last in the long list of needs to be catered for. So, most of my siblings did not even complete primary school.
I was the 7th child and, well, you could say I had some aptitude for learning so I went through to pursue a dream: I earned my secondary school scholarship by maintaining honors level in class, being either the first or second in my promotion. I graduated salutatorian (second academic excellence among 120 students). This basically granted me another scholarship for college where I gained my university degree: Bachelors of Science in Commerce, majoring in accounting and finance.
Q. That’s quite impressive considering your “humble” origins.
Yes but, unfortunately, I did not get my cum laude award due to a teacher who was not qualified to teach yet she was taken in to fill in a gap. I worked almost immediately after I graduated and was issued my transcript of academic records. Although I gained acceptance to work in a bank, UNHCR was really my best shot in April 1979. And this felt right. So I stayed with it although I had opportunities for other jobs.
Q. So who supported you the most in your family?
It would not be fair to name anyone specifically. But I can’t deny that my father was the one who made me feel confident to make it through. My sister Dang too, she provided some financial support.
My mother was always in the background observing while ensuring that I had my needs met. Support from others was wide-ranged like challenging the decision to send me to school or allowing me the space to learn...things like that...
Q. How did you manage to make it out of the Philippines?
While I was working as a national staff with UNHCR, a personnel officer was sent to test, interview and recruit deserving staff from the country.
And within the year I was offered my first international assignment – “go to Eastern Sudan for the Eritrean refugee emergency”. That’s how they said it. This was August 1986. This was then followed by many international assignments and missions that brought me to Uganda, Eritrea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, other countries in Africa and Asia; then I ended up working in Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. It was busy traveling and working for a Filipino national, I’ll tell you. But I always remember my country, and I give back now and then.
Q. In what way are you giving back to your country?
There is so much poverty and lack of will-power, you could say, in the Philippines and, in my family alone, education was denied to the members of the family.
So I’ve decided to financially support deserving students to pursue their studies - from the family (we have quite an extended family as you can imagine, me being the seventh sibling out of eight!).
Four have already completed their college/university degrees and are employed and two have nearly completed this too. This triggers a chain reaction to the whole process. Children who see the success brought about by education came along to also do their bit.
Q. Is there a big financial gap for education in the Philippines?
Yes, and I know that education is a gift that is not expendable but serves as a permanent investment for the future of the country. A tiny contribution to a small portion of the children of the Philippines is an offering to the entire country.
I’ve also started to provide support for water equipment for remote villages in my town so that people can care for themselves and their animals – it’s a source of livelihood. I did this together with my former high school mates and hope we can continue with this project along with - possibly - the provision of sanitary kits to children in school. I have many plans.
In a sense, creating small-scale wage earning activities is another avenue I keep pursuing: construction/upgrading facilities to show signs of development (although modest), tree planting, anti-soil erosion measures.
Q. You do have many plans. Where did you learn how to do this?
While I was still professionally engaged with UNHCR, one of my responsibilities was to ensure that providers of assistance to displaced people, either by conflict or natural disasters (common in the Philippines), received the necessary support either through financial assistance or advocacy.
Q. What was it like for you as a woman to manage all these projects and see this kind of suffering?
It was challenging. I needed to have a strong determination and resilience. Success has many definitions from a micro to macro level, this now I know. However, in the past the macro level was so vague for me. It was just then simply living the day. All I knew was that I needed to have enough financial resources to help my parents and provide a bit of modest luxury they haven’t enjoyed in all their lives.
Q. So what did that mean for you when you left the Philippines and started working abroad?
As I moved on to a broader environment, the nature of the challenges I met also became bigger. Sudan was my first assignment. Exposure to risks became the new norm and I needed to always be on the look-out.
I will always remember the experience I had while on an assignment dominated by men (location withheld for personal reasons). We were 17 international staff; only 3 were women. More men on short-term missions joined the others. In one staff party, a man (he was a pilot on mission) made some advances. It was very uncomfortable. Thanks to some of my male colleagues, they told him off and also escorted me home. This did not end there. One evening, the same man came understandably under the influence of alcohol and verbally sexually harassed me by the door of a prefab house I shared with another female colleague.
If she had not pulled a Rashaida sword we kept by the door of the prefab as a decoration and told him to go away the consequence could have been unimaginable. The following day - thankfully- the man was sent home never to come back. I do not now remember how he looked like and what his name was.
On another occasion, a government counterpart invited me to his house to meet his family over dinner. Arriving at that place there was nobody but himself and he told me he was interested in me. I could throw up even thinking of it. A colleague who drove me to the place had a good sense of turning back quickly. It was this that diffused the situation. During that time, in the late 80’s, such incidents were not considered a big deal.
There was only humiliation if you were to report such matters. We have now come a long way both in the UN community and the general public with #metoo and other movements.
Q. So this kind of harassment was common?
Sexual harassment is only but one of the many obstacles in pursuing success. Office politics, discrimination, cultural barriers, gender biases are landscapes I was not familiar with and couldn’t navigate. I only persevered with the help of good colleagues and mentors. My memory is not failing me yet. I could now see how I allowed myself to be manipulated for the professional advancement of others. The experience , however, was rewarding. It made me strong and resilient!
I even enjoyed the momentary glory that came with it. If I were to be asked what I could have done differently, I would say I could have marketed my skills and talents better and I could have “fought” and spoken up more for myself. Silence is a virtue but staying quiet in certain contexts does not get you the recognition you may deserve!
Part II: Career
Q. Any particular career milestones you achieved that you’d like to share?
In UNHCR, like in other UN agencies, promotions are measured by grades and levels. This is followed by titles and responsibilities. I was proud to have been promoted at a regular pace. Colleagues in the past predicted that as “brown-skinned staff” - we will never reach the D-level category. He who said that did not, but I proved him wrong. I reached it. Here are some of the achievements of the years that I would like to mention:
Also, in the early days of my career, while in Uganda, and was allocated by the government to the settlement of refugees following their evacuation for security reasons. I brokered the land allocation and coordinated the transfer of people by trucks.
In Afghanistan, I was responsible for operations for Afghan returnees - we had a budget of over USD 120 million… Ah, it was just incredible. The team I worked with was dubbed the “A team”.
In charge of the Africa bureau budget for the UN, I was like the “silent power”...those were the very words of my boss, who was also my mentor. He said, “exercise care and be wise how to use this power”. It was the one that I lived by in the years to come.
Q. It seems like those days are tinged with challenges, but also a feeling of being in control?
I was in control. I eventually became responsible for the whole organisation's overall budget! Sometimes I am nostalgic about those times wishing I could replay them.
I ask myself now if this was an experience that I could have done without. Perhaps. But everything happens for a reason. Maybe one day I will further appreciate the moments I spent in the Bureau including these moments where I believed certain discrimination was latently taking place. What hurts sometimes the most is the feeling that some “white” people believed I never noticed that discrimination. The fact is I did!
Q. Those are big milestones. I bet they came with some challenges, especially (like you mentioned) you are an Asian woman in a male-dominated workplace - and probably often boxed into stereotypes.
Oh yes, those milestones carried with them big, big, challenges. The biggest of all is the perceived or real feeling of vulnerability because of race, cultural differences and gender...being a woman in a work environment dominated by men... I was underestimated and, sadly, I allowed it. Despite the long period of international exposure, I will remain culturally the (true or not) humble, modest and soft-spoken “Asian”. My fault?
Part IV: Abstract
Q. Can you describe a time where you felt powerless?
I guess when I was confronted by colleagues of African origin and they categorically told me that I did “not belong to Africa”.
You see, I was at the time the Senior Resource Manager in charge of budget allocation. I had to swallow every cruel intolerant word. One of them even said, “I will make sure that you will “not advance” from where you are.” It was one of the saddest moments in my professional life. All I wanted was to be straightforward and exercise fairness. To some, this was not enough.
Q. Can you describe a time you felt powerful?
In the same avenue. Which was budget allocation, actually. I felt empowered to provide advice to senior managers, including the Head of the Organisation, on how to allocate the use of resources.
To some, the chair where I sat was the receiving of “money”. To me, it was a provision of service, a difficult one that is, and how to properly ensure equal application of these resources.
Q. What piece of advice would you give young girls looking to leave the Philippines or pursue an ambitious career like your own?
Be determined, work very hard, explore your full potential. Be competitive in education, learn languages well, and hope for God’s eternal guidance in the pursuit of your dreams. One does not need to be like those from another race or culture. But rather obtain knowledge of that environment, capitalise from the information to strengthen one's own and move forward...That’s what I would say to young girls.