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Coordinating a crisis

by David Scott January 10, 2014

For Ninette Kelley, there is no end in sight. Escaping nearly three years of civil war, thousands of Syrians have fled into neighbouring countries, including Lebanon, where more than 800,000 refugees have flooded into the country of 4 million.

In that environment, Kelley, LLB’83, has served as the regional representative for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner (UNHCR) since May 2010. Her organization provides shelter, health care, education, psychosocial support and community outreach throughout Lebanon.

“We are constantly scrambling for resources in order to meet just the minimal needs,” says Kelley, who has seen her in-country staff grow to more than 600. “The UNHCR is the lead agency; so we also coordinate among 60 other agencies the response to make sure, collectively, we’re doing the best we can with the aid dollars we’re receiving.” Even with five field offices and a budget of $230 million, challenges continue.

“It’s a great shame because we’re forced to make terrible choices every day, prioritized among equally compelling needs. It’s very dispiriting for the government, who feels that it, as a state, which has opened its doors to Syrian refugees, quite literally homes and villages, has not received support from the international community. They really find this terribly frustrating.”

Conditions have decreased steadily since Kelley arrived in 2010. “The massive scale of this problem with no end in sight is one of the greatest human tragedies I think we’ve seen.”

Before joining UNHCR, Kelley served eight years with the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) of Canada as a member of the Convention Refugee Determination Division (CRDD) and of the Immigration Appeal Division from June 1994 to June 2002.

Kelley, an attorney, was called to the Ontario bar in May 1985. She has co-authored two books, The Making of the Mosaic: The History of Canadian Immigration Policy and Working with Refugee Women: A Practical Guide, and published extensively in the areas of human rights law, refugee protection and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.

Between 1988-90, Kelley held various policy and consultative roles with international humanitarian agencies including the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) and the International Working Group on Refugee Women, Geneva. In addition, she served as the Executive Director of the Working Group on Refugee Resettlement (WGRR), Toronto from 1985-88.

“It’s such a rewarding career choice,” she says. “Young people now are much better prepared for the international community than they were when I went through. They have skills that are useful in places other than Canada.” Since 2002, Kelley has held legal and change management positions within UNHCR. Prior to her present assignment, she was the acting head of the Organizational Development Management Service at UNHCR’s headquarters in Geneva.

The attorney was drawn to Lebanon originally because of its modest refugee caseload and interesting political dynamic. When the crisis began, most fleeing Syrians were housed in Lebanese homes; some with people they knew, many with people they didn’t. Most of them ended up in the poorest areas of Lebanon. Refugees are spread now across 1,400 localities.

But the burden and risk is becoming too much for the Lebanese, Kelley says.

“The economic impact of the Syrian Crisis has been quite devastating to Lebanon,” she says.

In September, the World Bank estimated the Syrian conflict will cost Lebanon $7.5 billion by the end of 2014. The number of refugees is also predicted to soar to more than a million by the end of January, and may represent 37 per cent of the country’s pre-crisis population by the end of this year.

There are no official “refugee camps” in Lebanon. Most of the refugees rent. In many instances an entire family will live in a single apartment. In fact, any empty space you can conceive of is being repurposed.

“They rent chicken coops and garages and unfinished buildings,” Kelley says. “They have started to erect tents on land, something we call ‘informal tented settlements’ that are very vulnerable and precarious.”

Lebanon has tried its best to facilitate the work of the international community but its own institutions are also very fragile. “They’ve never had a tradition of any kind of secretariat, for example, to handle a massive humanitarian disaster of this kind,” she says. “So, there are lots of challenges here in terms of the government response but the relations … across a lot of different political spectrums have been very positive.”

With no immediate end in sight, the single most important long-term goal is an end to the Syrian conflict. “We are putting Band-Aids on a hemorrhage really.”

Most Syrians just want to return to their homes, or what’s left of them, and start to rebuild their lives once it’s safe to do so.

“You just keep your eye on the people who you’re trying to help,” she says. “For me, it’s a great privilege to be put in an opportunity where my life and my efforts can have that kind of meaning. To work with tremendous colleagues, and to work with other UN and international and national agencies, it’s rather inspiring.”


This article appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of Alumni Gazette
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