Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Washington, DC

ADMINISTRATOR SAMANTHA POWER: Thank you so much, Tyler [Beckelman]. Welcome back to some who might have been away for little parts of August. Hello to everybody out elsewhere in the world. 

As I was saying to Sheri-Nouane, it is interesting to get to work with a colleague, as Deputy Assistant Administrator, who will forget more about Somalia than most of us will ever, collectively – other than the Somali Ambassador – know. Don’t argue with him about particular elders and particular villages and what their preferences are – this person is very, very steeped, and we’re going to have Sheri-Nouane, an incredible partner back here in the Africa Bureau, along with Monde [Muyangwa] and the rest of the team. But, Tyler, we’re so lucky to have your expertise on a country that is really at a crossroads. 

Ambassador [Ali Sharif Ahmed], thank you so much for being here. You know, we all talk about public service as a sacrifice, but I think when individuals go into the public service in Somalia, it’s a different kind of sacrifice. It’s a different kind of risk, unfortunately. 

We are working collectively as partners to bring about a day when that is not the case, when it is just another job, but anybody who serves the Somali state has found themselves at risk of being targeted – just for the goal of bringing peace and prosperity to your country. So thank you to you and to your other team members from the Embassy who have put yourself in these roles to try to build a better future for your kids and your grandkids. It’s inspiring to us, honestly. 

Thank you, Chargé d’Affaires [Shane] Dixon, for your leadership. Having visited Somalia in my time as USAID Administrator and toured the Embassy compound, I know you’re not doing it for the glamor, or for the digs. It is a very challenging post, and again, such an important one. It’s a very small team you have working with you physically in Mogadishu, and you do so much with the team that you have. I think everybody I met was doing four or five jobs at once, and your leadership is indispensable. So thank you, and thank you for welcoming Sheri-Nouane. 

I’ll join Tyler in welcoming Sheri-Nouane’s family, most specifically Peter, who is here with us  – I’ll come back to Peter later. I gather her mother, Mary, is joining on the screen from New York. And all of Sheri-Nouane’s family and friends beaming in from around the world. We have a packed house here which is unusual just after Labor Day in any circumstances. So [it] really speaks to your soft power, Sheri-Nouane, and the legion of friends and colleagues that you’ve made over the years.

Sheri-Nouane has always been a global citizen, and she mastered the art of immersing herself into new cultures from an early age. She was born in Laos and was adopted by American parents, Mary and Walter, who were working for the International Voluntary Service. Sheri-Nouane spent her formative years in the U.S. and was sworn in as an American citizen in 1976, America’s 200th birthday.

From the start, Sheri-Nouane displayed an unusual fearlessness and determination to dive into the unknown. Once, while listening to a favorite Carole King song together, Sheri-Nouane’s mother casually remarked that the theme would make a fun skit. Just a few days later, Sheri-Nouane had organized a full performance featuring musical accompaniment and a big group of friends. 

As a fifth-grader, she took interest in learning piano and surprised her family by informing them that she had independently researched lessons – this was probably before the internet was as user-friendly as it is today – she had independently researched lessons, scheduled sessions, and arranged logistics. Her parents just needed to give their sign-off. When Sheri-Nouane’s father took a job with Save the Children in Thailand when she was 11 years old, she dove right into the new adventure, confidently hopping on the public bus alone to explore her surroundings – my daughter is 11. This is quite the sight, quite the visual, trying to imagine that. Of stiffer fiber are you made.

Even then, Sheri-Nouane was also compelled to serve. Moved by her father’s work in the community, she regularly bussed herself to local refugee camps to work alongside Filipino nuns caring for their displaced neighbors, many of whom actually hailed from Sheri-Nouane’s home country, birth country, of Laos.

Roughly a decade later, she joined the Peace Corps. She volunteered first back in Thailand, and then later in Côte d’Ivoire. This was a dream job for her. At one point she aspired to become Director of Peace Corps – don’t give up on that dream; it’s still very much within reach. She even became a poster person – and I don’t mean that figuratively. She was literally the face of the Peace Corps on recruitment flyers.

So it was no surprise when Sheri-Nouane went on to join USAID’s Foreign Service. Her first placement took her to Bangladesh as the Agency’s Office Director for health. One day, an Australian Aid colleague named Peter invited her to lunch, to discuss “work.” Peter had noticed Sheri-Nouane, and he was drawn to her kindness, her poise, and her character. Sheri-Nouane only caught onto his interest belatedly, when the lunch was nearly finished, and she realized that no work had been discussed.

The two fell fast and they remained together even after Sheri-Nouane was assigned to Mozambique. Before long, Peter took a leap of faith, taking leave without pay to join Sheri-Nouane in Maputo. Fortunately, both were next assigned to Ethiopia by their respective home country agencies, and serendipitously scheduled to start on the very same day. The pair got engaged against the backdrop of Victoria Falls and they were married in a small ceremony on a South African safari.

In 2014, the couple relocated to Cambodia, where Sheri-Nouane ascended from Office Director to Deputy Director to Acting Mission Director. She dove into creating community – establishing warm, strong relationships with fellow Americans and Cambodians alike. An American colleague recalls stopping by the communal breakroom to find the newly-arrived Sheri-Nouane sitting in the middle of a group of Cambodian FSNs, all packed around a very small table, sharing food and erupting into boisterous fits of laughter, like old friends. She was witnessing the early days of a tradition: Sheri-Nouane’s “USAID Lunch Group.” It became a trademark in her time in Cambodia. The FSNs would often cook traditional dishes, which they remember Sheri-Nouane enjoying with enthusiasm, while she would return the favor by hosting dinner parties at her home. One Cambodian FSN recently mused, “If you mention Sheri-Nouane here, everyone just responds with a big smile.” 

Sheri-Nouane was always looking out for her staff. When one colleague took a winter trip to the U.S., Sheri-Nouane lent her warm clothes to wear. When life hit hard, Sheri-Nouane was there. One colleague recalled a tragic day for the Embassy when a local staff member’s child passed away unexpectedly. Sheri-Nouane rushed to offer support, internalizing the local customs around bereavement, attending the service, and showering her colleague with love. A local staff member recalled, “She was our supervisor, but we felt like we were working with a good friend.” Five years later, this colleague still has a photo of Sheri-Nouane hanging on her wall.

In 2017, the Cambodian government cracked down on independent media and dissolved the only major opposition party, effectively turning the country into a one-party state. Sheri-Nouane distinguished herself as a calm, confident, and compassionate leader, providing steady communication and support. She hosted training sessions, town halls, and retreats to keep staff informed. And she insisted on trying to keep spirits high. 

One of her American colleagues vividly remembers how, at the end of a three-day long staff retreat, instead of quietly retiring to her bedroom like most exhausted leaders might be inclined to do, Sheri-Nouane jumped into in the closing festivities, beelined to the dance floor, and joined three local colleagues in belting out karaoke to a 50-person crowd.

Since 2019, Sheri-Nouane has served as a Senior Development Advisor to the U.S. Mission to the UN in Geneva, where she negotiated on the front lines for critical UN reforms across a range of areas – including those aimed to prevent and respond to incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment. She did this all against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining strong ties with our allies through its complexities with grace. 

Today, Sheri-Nouane is again stepping into a challenging role as she takes the helm of USAID/Somalia, where she will support the Somali people as they strive to live in peace and dignity.  

If we take the long view, the gains that the Somali people and their leaders have made in the past 15 years are nothing short of remarkable. It doesn’t make headlines, but from consolidating state-level administrations, to supporting communities rising up to reject al Shabaab’s brutal control, to building more responsive and transparent governing institutions, the signs of progress are clear and manifold. But we know also that these gains are fragile.

Violent extremists continue to threaten the safety and dignity of the Somali people. We at USAID remain committed to supporting President Hassan Sheikh’s ambitious agenda to push al-Shabaab – and their brutal ideology, once and for all. Climate change has also had a staggering impact on the Somali people, with approximately half of the country’s population in need of humanitarian assistance after a record five failed rainy seasons.

All told, conflict, insecurity, forced evictions, drought, and flooding have displaced more than 3.8 million people. In the last year-and-a-half, USAID has been the largest provider of relief to the Somali people, helping avert what could have been a truly devastating famine. 

The Somali people themselves have demonstrated extraordinary ingenuity and persistence in the face of these just the latest enormous challenges before them. As many have said, Somalia may not stop having droughts, unfortunately, but it can definitely stop having famines. USAID is supporting millions of drought-affected Somalis with nutrition and health support, cash transfers, and clean water. 

At the same time, we are working with our partners on the ground to build resilience to humanitarian shocks and stresses by helping farmers, herders, and fishing communities implement climate-smart techniques to increase production of nutritious food even during extreme weather. As Somalia hopefully soon reaches the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries completion point, international lending will resume, marking an essential milestone for the country’s recovery and for its long-term efforts to adapt to climate change. 

Through all of these efforts, we are committed to empowering Somalis and their leaders to break the cycle of drought and famine and build that prosperous and stable future that we know Somalis are utterly capable of building for themselves. 

We know that only in the absence of terror can that future come within reach. That is why we are so committed as well to addressing the conditions that have driven too many young Somalis to join al Shabaab and other extremist groups. We are supporting reconciliation efforts that seek to address unresolved grievances and local conflicts that al Shabaab uses to exploit and divide. And, importantly, we are investing in education – especially in communities recently liberated from al-Shabaab – to help equip Somalia’s youth to drive economic growth and become leaders in their communities. 

Sheri-Nouane’s steady hand and fearlessness will be invaluable in these efforts. Just like her brave younger self, she will step into this chapter alone, making a great sacrifice in parting from Peter and her family. 

She will lead from afar, managing her primarily Nairobi-based team from Mogadishu, as one of only a handful of USAID staff stationed in the country. She will of course, as well, lead from up close, with those she will work with, and of course with the Somalis with whom she partners. 

She will have to call upon her hard-won skills as a convener, a diplomat, a negotiator, and a communicator. And we know she will do it with her signature warmth and charisma that have always enabled her to build teams, win allies, and achieve the extraordinary.

And with that, Sheri-Nouane, it is my pleasure to make it official and to invite you up to swear you in as our next Mission Director to Somalia. Thank you.

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