Advocacy and Information Advisor
“As a humanitarian organization working on the Syria response, we are doing what we can to assist people who were forced to flee. However, our work is not going to bring lasting solutions to these problems. What the refugees we speak with want more than anything is to return home to Syria in safety.” Speaking to us from Beirut, Olivia Kalis, Advocacy and Information Advisor with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)*, is now working on the humanitarian response for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, having worked in humanitarian crises in different parts of Africa for the past seven years (read her interview regarding the Syrian crisis here). “We have to be realistic about what we can achieve,” she says, adding that, “while humanitarian assistance and protection is absolutely necessary, it is only political solutions that can end the crisis in Syria.”
Having studied languages from an early age, including Arabic, Olivia developed a strong interest in international affairs, and in particular in the Middle East. Spending a year in Cairo during her studies, she volunteered for a local organization focusing on the empowerment of women. “And I guess that I just took it from there,” she says, explaining what first set her on the course towards working in humanitarian action.
The international community usually tries to support fragile states with technical solutions, but most of these problems are deeply political in nature. And there is often a fundamental disconnect between the technical support offered and political solutions required.
Her first major international professional experience was with the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), which supported the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Having worked with the mission’s Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) unit, she describes how her time in Sudan taught her a valuable lesson: “The international community usually tries to support fragile states with technical solutions, but most of these problems are deeply political in nature. And there is often a fundamental disconnect between the technical support offered and political solutions required.”
Given the long and bloody civil war in Sudan, the high level of mistrust between the parties was an obstacle difficult to overcome when it came to disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. Olivia acknowledges that it can be challenging to deal with the slow pace of change on the ground. “It is important to be able to recognize and appreciate the value of baby steps – not being able to see immediate results coming out of the work of your team can otherwise be disheartening.”
When changing the country and context in which you are working, it requires an effort to get used to new environment and culture. Olivia underlines the importance of understanding the local dynamics, the politics, risks, and security issues that conflict or disaster affected populations are facing: “The only way you can do that is by really trying to understand the context – not just at the country level, but also at the local level, which can be even more challenging.“ But she is quick to add, “One of the main reasons why I like my work is because I am interested in new contexts and I want to learn more about them.” Knowing the local language helps: “It makes an enormous difference to my ability to do my job and relate to the people we are assisting, but also to my personal satisfaction, making it easier to make friends, go a little deeper into the local context, and get insights into the culture.”
“When switching and moving across different countries, cultures, and contexts, the fact that an organization like PHAP can create the space to bring different professionals together and have those kinds of discussions is crucial for the entire sector,” Olivia says, regarding the importance of the association. Olivia has also been both a participant and speaker at PHAP training events, and finds these to be valuable opportunities for humanitarian practitioners to gain a wider perspective of the issues facing them: “It is in the nature of our work to be able to react in a timely manner to various emergencies. However, it is also important, at certain moments, to take a step back to reflect together with your peers and practitioners who work in other contexts on the challenges we are facing and discuss both the links and differences between different contexts and areas of specialization.”
* Olivia Kalis participated in the interview in her personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Interview by Azim Ostowar