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A woman of the world

6 April 2017
For this alumna, an international humanitarian crisis is more than a headline

She used to be an engineer talking to machines. Now Olivia Wellesley-Cole is an aid worker talking to relief organisations, governments and some of the most disadvantaged people in the world. The work can be confronting, but it matters.

The Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone was past its peak when Olivia Wellesley-Cole (MInternatLaw ’06) went there in 2015 as part of the international response. The outbreak had received enormous media attention as an aggressive contagion that was breaking through its usual borders and threatening the wider world.

That the epidemic was past its peak in Sierra Leone doesn’t mean it was over. The virus that causes the disease is tenacious and easily passed on through all bodily fluids. Olivia worked in one village where half the adults had died, but she knew of other villages that had been wiped out. There was understandable paranoia about the disease.  

Olivia Wellesley-Cole visited the University in 2016 during a break from her work in Myanmar. Photo by Stefanie Zingsheim

Olivia Wellesley-Cole visited the University in 2016 during a break from her work in Myanmar. Photo by Stefanie Zingsheim

“I was checking my temperature twice a day,” remembers Olivia during a leave break in Sydney. “Then at the Response Centre gate they’d stop you. You had to wash your hands in chlorine and they’d do a temperature check. Two minutes later we were at the main building, same thing. So you’d have your temperature taken 10 times a day and you’d wash your hands in chlorine till they were pickled.”

Olivia is what the emergency response community calls a stand-by partner. She is currently employed by RedR Australia, a company that supplies skilled emergency staff to United Nations (UN) agencies such as UNICEF, the Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO).  

As Olivia gained experience in emergency situations around the world, she developed skills in protecting the vulnerable, the elderly and disabled, and particularly children. For all the work she has done in conflict and disaster zones, Sierra Leone’s Ebola crisis was her first medical emergency, and her skills in protection were desperately needed.

As people thought to be infected were taken to treatment centres, the elderly and children were often left behind alone, and the quarantine process meant they couldn’t leave their homes for 21 days. It was Olivia’s job to see that these easily forgotten people received the government services they needed. She was particularly focused on enabling the school-aged children to study at home, making sure they had school books and radios for listening to lessons that were broadcast.

There was a psychological perspective to her work as well. “We’d talk to the children across the quarantine tape,” she says. “We’d talk about what was happening to them, why their family members weren’t there and how they were feeling.”

The government-imposed state of emergency shut the schools down for nine months, meaning more unsupervised children and, as any emergency worker would expect, there was also a surge in teenage pregnancy. Fields went unplanted, harvests were missed and a big part of the population fell into poverty. As Ebola wiped out families and communities, Olivia describes some of what she saw as a horror story.

Yet Sierra Leone holds a personal significance for Olivia that spurred her to ask for a work placement in the feared Ebola zone. Olivia was born in London, but her family and much of her history is in Sierra Leone and she was educated there.

It was also another, very different crisis in that country that led Olivia to study international law at the University of Sydney.

As Olivia says, there are no straight paths. Remembering herself as a quiet and book-obsessed child, she became one of the top school students in Sierra Leone, eventually winning a national scholarship to study wherever she liked. Having a talent for science, she chose to study electronic engineering in Wales, leading to a career in telecommunications, which brought her to Australia, the country she now calls home.

It was the 1990s, and the telecommunications industry in Australia was booming but, as consumed as she was by her career, Olivia found herself affected by events unfolding in Sierra Leone. A savage civil war had broken out where two rebel groups were fighting government troops and little mercy was shown to civilians by any side. Terrible atrocities were committed in which tens of thousands died and a quarter of the population was displaced.

The 500-strong Sierra Leonean community in Sydney organised and lobbied the Australian Government to accept some of the refugees fleeing their homeland. Like all of them, Olivia wanted to do what she could for the country of her parents and her grandparents.  

People ask me why I stopped engineering to do this work. One of the reasons is that I got fed up with talking to computers. I wanted to talk to people.
Olivia Wellesley-Cole

“I knew nothing about refugees,” she says. “But I could talk, which meant I could advocate and make speeches. I spoke with very senior government people but there were times when I realised we were talking different languages. They were using legal definitions of words like ‘refugee’ that I just didn’t understand. I decided to learn that language by studying international law.

“For my master’s degree, I studied refugee law, human rights law, international humanitarian law – so laws of war, dispute resolution – lots of useful things.”

Olivia also became part of the Australian National Committee on Refugee Women (ANCORW), which advocates for better services for resettled refugees. Eventually she was asked to make a bigger commitment so she could represent the organisation at annual meetings with the UNHCR in Geneva. She decided the time was right so she left the telecommunications industry.  

One of Wellsley-Cole's favourite photographs because it shows all three modes of traditional local transport (camel, donkey, horse). Taken during a hospital rehabilitation project in Darfur, Sufan, in 2009 (photo supplied).

One of Wellsley-Cole's favourite photographs because it shows all three modes of traditional local transport. Taken during a hospital rehabilitation project in Darfur, Sufan, in 2009 (photo supplied).

“People ask me why I stopped engineering to do this work,” says Olivia. “One of the reasons is that I got fed up with talking to computers. I wanted to talk to people.”

Now, when she works as a UN protection officer, that’s exactly what Olivia does.

“UNHCR Protection Officers interview refugees,” Olivia says. “There is a strict definition of who a refugee is and they have to make their case. And if you are asking people about being persecuted, you’re hearing really nasty stuff.”

As Olivia tells her story in a comfortable café with a beautiful Sydney day outside, she knows she will very soon head back to her current work location, the remote state of Kachin in one of the world’s poorest countries, Myanmar, where she is a child protection specialist with UNICEF.

Huge unseasonal floods struck the country in 2015, affecting more than a million people. In Olivia’s district, children have been moved from their devastated homes to another village where their education can continue. But being away from parents and home makes these children vulnerable and some are being taken as child soldiers. It’s Olivia’s job to negotiate, plan, organise and second-guess what’s happening in a way that will keep these children safer.

The living conditions in refugee camps are often very basic (photo supplied).

The living conditions in refugee camps are often very basic (photo supplied).

Asked what type of people take up her line of work, Olivia says with a laugh “crazy people like me”. She says she did a lot of thinking before she took it on, but she knew that having her home in Sydney would make it possible for her to do what she does. “You have to have somewhere to come back to,” she says.


Written by George Dodd

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