For the next several years, I continued with UNHCR. In Pakistan, in the eastern town of Peshawar, I served as the Repatriation Officer helping displaced Afghan refugees return to their country. In Papua New Guinea as the Protection/Field Officer I was responsible for a settlement of approximately 2,200 refugees displaced from West Papua in Indonesia prepare for local integration. The responsibilities were similar to those of a small town mayor with limited budgets to target economic development, roads, health clinics, and schools.
When I began working for USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) in 2009, I was given the responsibility of helping prepare Nepal for the earthquake all knew was overdue. One of the cornerstone projects of a larger OFDA/Nepal Disaster Risk Reduction portfolio, which included such programs as building code implementation, flood early warning systems, public outreach campaigns (Red Panda DRR mascot), and the Safer Schools Program. The program, operating across the country, retrofitted schools and trained masons in seismically safe construction techniques. As I became more familiar with the situation in Nepal, I realized how critical the Safer Schools Project was. It targeted Nepal’s masons and engineers, the country’s first line of defense against earthquakes. Moreover, it focused on Nepal’s future, its children, who spent most of their waking hours in school buildings, the majority of which stood little chance of surviving even in a moderate earthquake. The program became my highest priority.
I was born and raised in San Diego, California, where I also obtained my undergraduate degree, majoring in Visual Arts and Economics from the University of California at San Diego.
Fascinated and lured, even as a young child, by lands overseas, I left for foreign pastures shortly after my graduation cap hit the ground. I purchased a one-way ticket to Europe where I spent several years teaching English in the Czech Republic and Spain before moving on to do the same in Chile. The experience served to open my eyes to different cultures, highlighting the differences but also the similarities to my own upbringing as a product of Southern California. What started out as a desire to broaden my worldview generated the motivation to return to the U.S. and Syracuse University to obtain a Masters Degree in International Relations, foreshadowing a future career in humanitarian assistance and development.
One of my first posts after graduate school came with the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The bitter civil war had severed linkages between the country’s ethnic Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks and devastated the country. As recovery began, amidst overwhelming needs, my field office situated in the former “safe haven” town of Gorazde targeted the town’s decimated infrastructure focusing on rebuilding homes and schools. As homes were rebuilt the recovery process started slowly. But it was only after the schools filled with teachers and students that the fractured communities began to show life again. It was my first lesson on the importance of schools in development/recovery situations, not only for education, but also for the health and interconnectedness of the community.
When I returned to a Nepal, ten weeks after the M7.6 Gorkha Earthquake that devastated a large swathe of the country, I had a somber but unique opportunity to see how the Safer Schools Project fared. The schools stood. And discussions with the communities surrounding the schools indicated that the locally trained masons and engineers had, in varying degrees, made impacts in their communities by raising the understanding of earthquake safe construction and contributing to an increased awareness of Nepal’s vulnerability to seismic events. Although, fortunately, the earthquake occurred on a day when schools were not in session, the Safer Schools Project would have saved lives. It succeeded.
The importance of education is universally recognized. Schools should facilitate the learning process while providing a protective environment. Yet, schools continue to be built in seismically active areas that ensure neither in the event of an earthquake. With Risk RED, I am part of a like-minded group that understands the importance of safe schools and more importantly, knows how to build them.