ON HOME GROUND Nora Staunton is pictured at the Quay in Westport. Pic: Karen Cox
The UNHCR’s Nora Staunton talks to Michael Gallagher about her life and career
Westport woman Nora Staunton loves her home town and the people in it, but for the past 16 years she has travelled the world as a Senior Protection Officer with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
She loves her job, says she’s living the dream and believes people are very similar all across the planet.
Every day Nora works to protect the rights of refugees, internally displaced people, stateless people and any of these categories trying to return home. Her work has taken her to Venezuela, Chad, Colombia, Geneva and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she now works and lives with her husband and two young children.
MG It has been an amazing journey from Carrowbawn to The Congo. Tell us how it started.
NS We’re just a regular family from Westport. My parents are John and Merci Staunton from Carrowbawn. I went to school here in The Sacred Heart and then university before becoming a solicitor specialising in commercial conveyancing – buying and selling land and property and doing contracts. I soon realised that wasn’t the job for me.
I was always interested in refugee issues, and actually when I was a kid we spent two years in Lesotho in southern Africa in 1982. Dad is an engineer and he had a contract there, so the five of us headed off – Mam, Dad, my sister Mary, my brother Pat and I.
It was a wonderful experience. We lived in a small village up in the mountains. We had a horse and had a lot of fun. However, I do remember going into South Africa shopping and when we’d be coming back across the border again we’d be in a ‘White’s Only’ line. The discrimination was so obvious, even to an eight-year-old child.
Afterwards, we came back to Westport and I slotted back into the same class in the convent. The only thing that wasn’t great after two years away was the Irish, but we were shuttled off to Eachleim to the Gaeltacht every summer after that to get up to speed.
I was always interested in human rights and had done a Master’s in International Studies before I became a solicitor, as well as volunteering in an asylum centre at that time in Limerick. One day I saw an ad on the internet for a job with the UNHCR and applied.
MG It was obviously a successful application.
NS It never occurred to me that a Westport woman could get a job in the UN. It’s just not something you think about. I had no connections, knew nobody involved, I just went for it and ended up in Venezuela.
I can thank the Sacred Heart for that job because I did French and Spanish in school. Everyone did French and there was a small group of us who did Spanish as well, so that helped me get my first job with the UN.
A few nights before the interview I went to my friend Pedro, who’s from Argentina, and sat at the kitchen table trying to brush up on my Spanish. The look on his face told me I was in for an uphill struggle, but somehow I managed to get through.
MG How did the job in Venezuela work out?
NS There were Colombian refugees in Venezuela at the time and I was head of a very small field office on the border. I was there for three-and-a-half years and just had a ball. It was far different from life in Westport or indeed, life as a conveyance solicitor. From Venezuela I went to Chad. I was on the border with Sudan and worked with the Darfur refugees for two years.
We lived in a tiny camp in the middle of nowhere. People often say ‘the middle of nowhere’, well this was actually that place. We’d be sitting up on a hill on a Sunday evening and everyone would be up there holding their phones towards the sky searching for a signal.
There were 200,000 people streaming across the border from all the atrocities that were happening, and I worked in one of those refugee camps with 25,000 people.
MG That was a very challenging job. Were did the next mission take you?
NS After two years I went from Chad to Colombia where I was head of a field office on the border with Ecuador working with internally displaced people (IDPs). We worked a lot with the indigenous people who needed a lot of support. The constitutional court says the indigenous people are actually in danger of physical extinction because they have been decimated by conflict for decades.
We had a boat and we’d go up and down the Putumayo River working with communities along there. It was such a fulfilling experience. We’d be going into these villages for two or three nights sleeping in a hammock, getting to places nobody else would ever see and working with communities one would never encounter otherwise.
The team has been working there for many years and is well respected by the communities, so it wasn’t a case of us going in there gung-ho. There’s a great rapport and great respect involved there. The locals know we’re trying to help and support them.
While I was in Colombia the head of the Victim’s Unit told me they were opening a new centre and calling it The Roger Casement Unit. This is in the middle of the Amazon, so it was amazing to hear this. It turns out Roger Casement had been sent out by the British to do a study on rubber plantations in Chad and Peru and is still remembered kindly for his work there. I found this intriguing. The recognition of his work was lovely to hear about.
Next stop was Beirut.
MG What was the that famous city like?
NS I loved it. It’s so overcrowded and totally unique. We did six months there, and it was a very different dynamic. I was based in the office, and Mam and Dad came out for a month and they loved it.
The next move was to Geneva, and we had our two children then. It was a really great to be in Geneva with small kids. Great parks, great schools and the kids learned to swim a bit, which was lovely.
I spent three-and-a-half years there in the head office, and it might be a bit crazy to say, but that was my most stressful post. A big office with a lot of different dynamics going on didn’t suit me. I’m a field person. That’s where I want to be. However, I enjoyed getting to know how the organisation works and how the machine moves, but I wanted to get back on the road.
MG Were you hoping to get a post away from the hustle and bustle of city life?
NS Definitely not. We ended up in Goma in The Republic of Congo. It’s a huge city with more than a million people. It’s a huge peace-keeping mission with up to 20,000 soldiers there for the past 20 years. The east of the country is in a mess, and there are between 2 million and 3 million IDPs from conflict.
We work with a caseload of half a million refugees, many who come from other countries, including Rwanda from the genocide years ago. There are still huge numbers of refugees from that. We’re trying to push forward solutions for them, and there’s also a Burundian caseload in more recent times.
Our role is making sure people can enter or leave countries when required. One of the principles of refugee law is – you cannot be turned back if your life is in danger. That means getting in and being allowed stay and get asylum. If we do nothing else, we must ensure that people can get asylum when needed
MG What can Ireland do to help the world’s refugee crisis?
NS Ireland has said we will take in 2,700 refugees over the next four years, and we really encourage such an initiative. Another tangible way we can support the situation is by giving towards a development fund. Ireland is trying to get to a target of 0.7 percent of the Gross National Income, and that money will go to the countries who are hosting the refugees … that’s a great way to show solidarity.
We’re very welcoming to refugees here in Mayo, with the Karen people and, more recently, Syrian refugees settling here. These people will benefit our society. It’s good to have different outlooks and the world is a very small place. Sit and speak with a resettled family and it isn’t long before the conversation goes to football or recipes or the general things of life.
We’re all on this world for a very short time, and we’re all having similar experiences no matter what nationality one is. I’ve worked in many different communities around the world, but once you sit down and talk to them you quickly realise we’re all very similar.
MG Would you recommend your job to young Mayo people reading this article?
NS I love my job. I think it’s the best job in the world. It’s really interesting and I absolutely wouldn’t do anything else, but it’s not for everyone. You have to make big calls, stay balanced and keep a close eye on your family life because down the line maybe your kids or partner won’t be happy. I’ve seen other families struggle with various aspects of it. I have a hugely supportive family. In terms of work or contributing to something really worthwhile, it’s just fabulous and I love that.