When disaster strikes

By Anneli Knight

Briony Stevens is just a phone call away from the next drought or refugee camp. But the emergency humanitarian worker is reluctant to swap her life for the ‘real world’.
Image of Briony Stevens

Credit: RedR

Briony Stevens realised during her undergraduate degree in health science that she wanted a career in international humanitarian work. She took on stints in Nepal with the Fred Hollows Foundation and volunteered with Amnesty International, and as soon as she finished her undergraduate studies at Charles Sturt University she enrolled in a Master’s in International Public Health at Sydney.

“I wanted to see how I could potentially fit nutrition into the international humanitarian space. The master’s gave me a broader perspective on public health and in particular in a developing country context,” says Stevens, 30.

The University of Sydney’s Professor John Hall provided inspiration and mentorship to Stevens during her degree. “John shared that if a child does not receive adequate nutrition the immune system weakens thus lowering resistance to infection. Ahealthy child is less likely to die from common childhood diseases such as diarrhoeal disease, respiratory infections and even malaria, however an undernourished child could easily die from any one of these infections. With my undergrad in nutrition, I could see that there was a need for nutritionists to work in the international public health sector,” Stevens says.

“I met with John for career guidance and he recommended that I apply for one of the AUSAID-funded volunteer programs to gain my initial experience after uni in the international context. This led to my gradual employment and career as a public health nutritionist.”

Since completing the degree seven years ago, Stevens’ work has taken her across the globe, including a two year AusAID volunteer position in Cambodia with a local NGO, followed by a further two years in the country with the UN’s World Food Program. For two and half years she had a role with World Vision providing nutrition support in more than a dozen countries, including Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopa and Sudan, and she is now enrolled with RedR Australia to provide emergency nutritional responses in disaster zones.

During these years, Stevens would return to visit family and friends in Australia, or travel to the regional head office of WFP in New Zealand, and she would regularly be asked the same question over and over again: when was she going to return to the real world?
“People often say: ‘Oh but Briony, when are you going to return to reality?’ I’ve worked abroad for seven years and that is where the majority of the global population are. There are a lot more people in these countries. That is the reality,” she says.

Some of the major projects she’s been involved with include setting up a micro-nutrient powder program in Rwanda – commonly known as ‘sprinkles’ – which was so successful the pilot program was adopted by the government and written into national strategy. She was part of the Horn of Africa response during the 2011 drought in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya and provided support for the community management of acute malnutrition programs.

"My heart breaks whenever I’m in the field. Then I come back home and I have time to re-heal."

She also worked as the nutritionist on the rapid assessment team for the Sudanese response, interviewing refugees on the border of Sudan and Ethiopia to identify the nutritional needs and interventions required in refugee camps.

During her many years of various projects across the globe, Stevens says there have been two projects that transformed the direction of her career and her attitude to life. The first was during her work in Sudan in the emergency response team. “All of the experiences were rewarding, but that one had a big impact. It made me realise I wanted to shift from development work to emergency work because of the absolute needs refugees, or displaced people, have.”

“There is no-one there to support them – many of the developing countries don’t have the safety nets in place to give them access to basic services. If they have to flee their homes because of famine or civil conflict or floods or any disaster, they’ve got nothing.”

This insight led Stevens to enrol with RedR Australia, a standby partner to the United Nations, which provides skilled staff to the global NGO when there is a shortage, usually during times of disaster. It was during a RedR assignment based in Cairo last year, working with Syrian refugees, that Stevens had her second epiphany. “Syria brought it very close to home because a lot of Syrian refugees come from Damascus and other cities. They are university-educated, they have their two storey houses, they have their cars. The people I was speaking to were doctors, nurses, working in allied health services. They left absolutely everything behind. That made me understand how vulnerable we all are because I could really relate to what they called home.

“It was definitely an eye-opener. My perspective changed. In Africa it’s quite different. Yes, I empathised, and yes, my heart breaks for the people, but their background is very different from my background.”

Stevens’ attitude to humanitarian work has changed since her undergraduate days. “I went into it being young and idealistic. I’ve definitely seen my attitude change over the years. I used to think, ‘Yes, we can change the world.’ Now I think, ‘Oh, no, we can do as much as we can’. I feel as though my heart breaks whenever I’m in the field, then I come back to Australia or New Zealand, and I have that time to re-heal … but something else occurs in a developing country where I might get a bit cynical, where I recognise the lack of attention and awareness of global issues, and that gets me quite frustrated.”

Stevens returned to Australia at the start of this year, and is now based between Brisbane and Bangladesh to complete her PhD studies investigating the correlation between maternal nutrition and child growth faltering. She strongly believes people in the developed world should be more aware of their personal responsibility to think about the global consequences of their decisions, starting with asking questions about the conditions of people in countries where their clothes and food are sourced. “We need to be aware of what we’re doing. We can’t ignore it, because if we ignore it, it allows certain things to take place.”

Although she’s looking forward to focusing on her PhD after years of interruption because of her work, she is still on the RedR register and knows she is unlikely to say no if a global humanitarian crisis occurs and she is called to a project. “When I return to the field, I get reminded of why I do the work I do. It’s being with the people, in particular women my own age. When I see them I see myself, my family, I see such similarities. The only thing that makes us different is where we are born and we have absolutely no control over that.

“It really could be one of us, it could have been me being in these hard, hard conditions. There is so much injustice. I feel as though I have a relationship with these women and that keeps me motivated and passionate: wanting to do everything I can, even though it’s only minimal.”