Upon completion of my thesis and Master’s degree, I was keen to get out into the world and start working internationally. Ideally, I wanted to find a position with the United Nations. I landed up obtaining a United Nations Volunteer position in Luau, Angola. Despite being a volunteer, the position offered me more money than I had ever made in a month and I was on my way back to Africa. I honestly felt like I had won the lottery. Upon arrival I’m pretty sure I was bitten by a mosquito in the airport arrivals terminal because I became sick with malaria just a few days later (I would subsequently catch it again a few months later), but after a week or so, I was fine.
The town of Luau is situated on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It was a stop on the former Benguela Railway and apparently in pre-civil war days over 90,000 people lived there. When I arrived there, there were maybe 50. We had no running water, but had to send a pick-up truck down to the river to fill barrels of water. No electricity but a generator we ran for a few hours at a time. No phone or internet, except a satellite phone. There were chickens and rats but no proper bedroom furniture, but a mattress on the ground. We could drive there from Luanda, the capital, but relied on the UN Humanitarian Air Service which flew small Beechcraft planes piloted by South African pilots. I worked there for 15 months, helping to organise the repatriation of Angolan refugees from the DRC. It was quite special to be a part of this repatriation. These refugees had fled the country in 1975 and were now only returning in 2003. Many had been born in the DRC and had only known life in the refugee camps there. we met them at the border and escorted them to our reception centre, where they received a medical check, non-food items such as blankets and plastic sheets to set up a tent as their new home and attended awareness sessions on HIV and landmines (this area was one of the most heavily mined areas in the world at the time).
It was quite a start to my international career. Despite the remoteness of the location and the starkness, there was quite a bit going on there and I met some fantastic people. I enjoyed working with UNCHR at the time, along with those who worked with our NGO partners; most of my colleagues were very interesting and passionate people from all over the world.
From Angola, I went on to work in Kosovo, Sri Lanka and then back to Toronto for a year and a half, where I tried to a have a more normal life. I managed programs for a Canadian NGO in Haiti, Uganda and Ghana, which allowed me to live in downtown Toronto but continue to travel to these locations to monitor the work of our local partners. Finding that my friends were getting married, buying houses and “settling down”, I thought I should maybe see if that’s what I wanted too. It wasn’t.
I moved on and took up a position in Erbil, Iraq. I wound up working in Iraq for 4 years and then after a year in Virginia followed by just over a year in Yemen, I went back to Iraq for another 15 months. Now I am in Lebanon and have been here for almost 5 years. Most of my work has been focused providing assistance to refugees or internally displaced persons. The work has been challenging but rewarding and interesting. I have been extraordinarily fortunate to be able to live and work abroad. I love being able to travel extensively and will continue to do so in the post-COVID world.
However, despite the world of opportunities that this lifestyle presents, it also comes with numerous challenges and while they are not insurmountable, they do require a great deal of fortitude and patience. This is what in fact led me to life coaching. More on this in the next post.
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