Helping Refugees on the Front Line: Former Government Professor Swaps Classrooms for War Zones

Former Assistant Professor of Government Shelley Deane left academe with an expert knowledge of the Middle East to work in the hands-on world of conflict resolution and risk assessment. In effect, she swapped the classroom for the frontline, even coming under fire on at least one occasion. Deane returned to campus recently to deliver a lecture and take part in a discussion with students about her experiences as director of the Brehon Advisory, a London-based NGO she set up four years ago, which specializes in conflict mediation.

Shelley Deane with ‘traumateddy’ and bilingual books

“We fill that space where research, rigor, information, data and local knowledge, are integrated to create a thorough, comprehensive approach to whatever the particular problem happens to be,” she said, “especially in Middle East conflict zones, specifically in border areas, where there tend to be far greater gaps than in metropoles.”

Deane and her colleagues provide information to their clients—who range from national governments, to other, larger NGOs, to philanthropists—from places where many are reluctant to visit, largely with a view to tackling the refugee problem. Even some NGO workers shy away from the real trouble spots, said Deane.

“Many NGO folks are fantastic and do great work, but some, it has to be said, shy away from border areas referencing security fears, preferring the relative security of the nearest big city.”

To do her job properly and deliver accurate risk assessments, Deane said it’s important to visit these places. “How can you do good predictive work if you’re not on the ground and aware of what’s happening?” Every detail is important, she said, and sometimes a seemingly innocuous fact can turn out to be hugely important. She cited one example of the mayor of a town in Lebanon who she was interviewing.

“I asked him what his biggest problem was, and he said ‘garbage collection,’ and we proceeded to have a lengthy discussion about the trash situation in his town. How much is there? Where does it come from? Where does it go?” Deane said her colleague who was with her grew increasingly exasperated, wondering why she was discussing the garbage problem at such length, when they were there trying to help refugees.

Irish UNIFIL UN peacekeeper with refugee children in South Lebanon. Brehon work with Irish peacekeepers supporting their peacebuilding initiatives with traumateddy bilingual books for refugee and vulnerable host community children.

“But that was the whole point,” she said. “It turned out waste management was a critical issue, and the refugee settlement in town was exacerbating an existing garbage problem, which was proving a major headache for the authorities. So if we tackle the structural garbage problem, we also tackle the negative perception mistakenly associated with the refugee problem.”

This anecdote, said Deane, underlines the importance of reaching out to people on the ground and finding out what their biggest problems are. “Because if you can help problem-solve their headache, it can begin to alleviate the problem that you’re there to solve. They’re the ones that know what’s really happening. You don’t.”

Connecting with local people and groups in these conflict areas is supremely important, said Deane, not just for gathering information, but for security reasons. Although Deane may seem to have a casual attitude toward danger, she’s actually very careful about planning her trips, and this means having a good relationship with local contacts. “It’s also important to be able to change your plans at a moment’s notice, because things often don’t go to plan.”

One of the projects Deane is most passionate about is the initiative concerning “traumateddies” and bilingual books for refugee children. Unlike other programs, this one is funded by the Brehon Advisory itself, which has published thousands of children’s books, most of them in both English and Arabic designed to help Syrian refugees. The books’ central character is a boy called Salem, and the books describe how he learns to conquer his nightmares, partly with the help of his ‘traumateddy,’ a wool toy that provides physical comfort to trauma victims.

Brehon Advisory also creates ‘traumateddies’, knitted by volunteers in the UK and Ireland, and hand-delivered to children in the Middle East.

Designed to help refugee children: bilingual books and ‘traumateddies’ (knitted by volunteers in Britain and Ireland)

“Brehon’s guiding principle is that education is security,” said Deane, “and one of the core problems surrounding the Syria crisis is that there’s a lost generation of children who are not being educated.” The idea behind creating these books, she said, was to try to create a sense of unity among these displaced children, “so they might one day say ‘we may all have been refugees in different places, but we all read the same books.’ If, through Salem and the traumateddies, we can create a shared history and social consciousness by promoting literacy and language skills, we can hopefully help children create a space to think for themselves.”

Deane has big goals for the project. “We’ve already published 50,000 books, nearly all of which we have personally distributed by hand, because we like to be sure they end up in the right place.” She said her aim is to extend this initiative to eventually reach the Arabic speaking refugee and displaced child population.

 

 

 

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