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Empowering refugees in Burma

Dr. Paul O’Keeffe from Co. Cork, who currently works at the Global Studies Institute at the Université de Genève, discusses how his VSO volunteer placement in Burma changed his life and greatly impacted his professional career.

Paul with colleagues from Burma Issues in Maesot, February 2010.

Initial thoughts

I was a VSO volunteer in 2009/2010 when I travelled to Maesot in Thailand to work with Karen refugees as an information management advisor on a human rights documentation programme. Prior to my time with VSO I had traveled the world extensively and lived in various countries working as a lecturer and education programme manager. Although I thought of myself as pretty worldly and career focused at the time, I don’t think I foresaw just how impactful this life-changing experience was going to be for me.

VSO placed me with Burma Issues/Peaceway Foundation, a grassroots human rights organisation on the Thai-Burmese border. On arrival, the basic living conditions, heat, mosquitoes and harsh reality of the lives of my refugee colleagues was an immediate shock. While I was prepared well by VSO in advance, the emotional jump I made that monsoon day in July after traveling 10 hours in a bone-shaking bus from Bangkok to Maesot was immense. It changed my entire outlook on life, gave me a new sense of humility, and hardened my resolve to try to challenge injustice whenever I came across it.

Valuable lessons

In Maesot I lived and worked with a small group of Burmese human rights activists, who, despite some of the most unimaginable obstacles placed in front of them, tirelessly toiled to demand respect and dignity for their community. The friends I made at Burma Issues/Peaceway Foundation taught me one very valuable lesson above all – never give up. Their efforts persist today, but through their work and that of other human rights activists in the region, the situation on the Thai Burma border has (for the Karen people at least) improved in recent years.

Paul with InZone students in Azraq Refugee Camp, Jordan, September 2017.

Life after placement

Through the assistance of VSO, Burma Issues/Peaceway Foundation became empowered to lead their own path and determine their own future: no small feat for refugees whose lives are more often than not determined by the whims of forces beyond their control. This refugee empowerment approach has greatly influenced my present work as an academic working with the University of Geneva’s higher education in emergencies project InZone. Through a collaborative learning approach, InZone delivers top-class higher education opportunities to refugees in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. The very core of InZone’s philosophy is empowerment through education, which we endeavor to incorporate into our work with our refugee partners.

Paul with colleagues in Kakuma Refugee Camp, September 2017.

The appreciation I gained for self-reliance and never giving up from my time with VSO has stayed with me and is something I recognise in the brilliant heroes I regularly meet through my work at refugee camps in Jordan and Kenya. Despite the obstacles of war, poverty and so on placed in front of them, our students strive to make the most of terrible situations. They grasp the few education opportunities that come their way to change their own lives and the lives of their communities. To be able to work with such inspiring people and facilitate brighter futures is something I am honored to do.

I frequently find myself recommending VSO to colleagues. It is by no means an easy thing to take time out from our own lives and take a chance on trying something new, but in my experience, it is the best thing I have ever done. For anyone who is thinking of doing it, I wholeheartedly say go for it and don’t hold yourself back.

Interested in volunteering overseas?

VSO Ireland has roles for professionals from a broad range of sectors - education, health, business, marketing, IT, finance, engineering, advocacy, development and social sciences to name but a few. Please visit our vacancies page or sign up for job alerts to see what roles might be the best fit for you. 

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