A humanitarian abroad

12th March 2015

News, Student news, Alumni news

A desire to involve herself in humanitarian work has taken Wadham alumna Maggie Sandilands (1997, Chinese) from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Afghanistan and Iraq, helping people in the depths of despair and conflict.

  • Maggie in Afghanistan

    Maggie Sandilands (1997, Chinese) in Afghanistan.  (© M. Sandilands)

  • In Kabul

    In Kabul. (© M.Sandlilands)

  • Displaced Yazidi children in Kurdistan Region of Iraq, after a clothing distribution.  (© Sara Guy/Tearfund)

  • mobile clinic

    Maggie in Kurdistan Region of Iraq, with a mobile clinic providing basic healthcare to displaced populations.   (© M. Sandilands)

Returning to visit Wadham after more than ten years, Maggie took a nostalgic look back at her years at college studying Chinese, tutored by Dr Tao Tao Liu.

Arriving at Wadham in 1997 from her home town of Livingston in Scotland, she spent her first year on staircase one overlooking front quad, then in fourth year was on staircase 16. “Studying Chinese was like doing a degree and a half, fascinating but a lot of hard work! When I wasn’t working I was socialising, and, very occasionally, sleeping," she remembers.

Hearing the journalist Kate Adie speak at Oxford was an inspirational moment for Maggie. “I remember her telling us about the wars and crises that she had covered, that we had this opportunity and that the world was out there, asking what were we going to do about it. It struck a chord with me.”

Following her degree, Maggie found a British Council teaching job in Beijing, teaching English at a Chinese middle school. “I was a terrible teacher because of my strong Scottish accent – my students ended up speaking a very strange kind of English, almost completely incomprehensible.”

Returning to London she looked for a job in international development and found herself working at Tearfund, a relief and development charity, working in partnership with local NGOs and churches worldwide to tackle the causes and effects of poverty. “I was at Tearfund when the Boxing Day Tsunami struck in Asia. As I watched the experienced humanitarian teams heading out there in response to the devastation, I knew that was what I wanted to be doing.”

It is a very visceral feeling when you hear a bomb go off nearby, when you hear the gunfire and know that people are dying, there is no way you are not affected. There is a lot of despair after so many years of war, but when you sit in a classroom and see the eagerness of these young refugee girls to learn, you see hope.

Maggie Sandilands

After working for a couple of years in London, supporting local community-based responses to HIV in Malawi, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Russia, an opportunity arose for Maggie to work in the conflict-affected north east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “My role there was to act as liaison between international funding agencies and the local staff on the ground, who were providing emergency aid to people who had been displaced by conflict. We were meeting basic needs for food, shelter, clean water, by facilitating the provision of seeds, tools and agricultural training, helping communities to construct wells, latrines, shelters.” The three month contract quickly became 18 months and although the local conflict was unpredictable, aid workers were not the prime target.

Her next posting, two years in Kabul in Afghanistan with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) was a different matter. As the international troops began their withdrawal from Afghanistan, civilians, including aid workers, increasingly became targets for violence, with frequent suicide attacks in Kabul. NRC works with refugees and internally displaced people, providing emergency aid, shelter, education and legal support. Working particularly with the most vulnerable, including women and girls, the elderly and disabled, providing them with cash to buy winter fuel or basic literacy and skills training to help them generate income to support themselves and their families, Maggie felt that this work is essential. “Some of these girls I met, they are only 12 or 13, but they have already seen so much conflict, they have been refugees, they have grown up in refugee camps. Some are already married, and they face so many challenges within the conservative culture, it is vital to work alongside the local communities, to try to increase opportunities for them.”
Was her own security a worry? Said Maggie: “It is a very visceral feeling when you hear a bomb go off nearby, when you hear the gunfire and know that people are dying, there is no way you are not affected. There is a lot of despair after so many years of war, but when you sit in a classroom and see the eagerness of these young refugee girls to learn, you see hope. And when I think back to Afghanistan I don’t just think of bombs and guns, I think of how amazingly beautiful the country is and how incredibly courageous and hospitable the people are.”

Interestingly, while in Kabul, Maggie found herself with another Wadhamite from her year, Emma Graham-Harrison (1997, Chinese), who was working in Afghanistan as Bureau Chief for Reuters, and then as Afghanistan-Pakistan Editor for the Guardian newspaper. “Afghanistan is a tough assignment. Having a friend from Wadham in Kabul made a real difference to me,” she said.

Now back in the UK with Tearfund, Maggie is leading work on responding to sexual violence in humanitarian crises and conflict.

In September 2014, she spent a month in Iraq setting up an emergency response to the mass population displacement due to the escalating conflict. “I am particularly concerned with acts of violence committed by Da’esh (the so-called Islamic State) in Syria and Iraq, the sexual violence is horrific. Many women and girls have been abducted, imprisoned and used as sex slaves. In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Maggie was working with the displaced Yazidis, and other minorities, to meet basic emergency needs such as food and clothing. “People go through so much and I always feel you can do so little and you cannot make people safe. You hear terrible stories. Even when women escape from Da'esh, they are often not safe to return to their families because of the strict moral codes and the stigma surrounding rape, which mean they are no longer accepted in the community. So that is what we are working to try to change. It sometimes seems unremittingly dark, but then when you meet women in these circumstances, actually I do not meet only despair but also the unbelievable resilience of the human spirit.”

So what's next for Maggie? She is determined to continue her humanitarian work and is not deterred from working in areas of conflict, “because that is where the needs are greatest”, but for the moment, much to the relief of her family, she is based in London.

  • Interfaith Meeting

    Interfaith Meeting on ending sexual violence in conflict, with William Hague, Angelina Jolie-Pitt, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby and Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay (front centre), and faith leaders from around the world. London, February 2015. Maggie is in the back row, far right. (© Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

  • Wadhamites Maggie and Emma Graham-Harrison (1997, Chinese). Emma was was working in Afghanistan as Bureau Chief for Reuters, and then as Afghanistan-Pakistan Editor for the Guardian newspaper while Maggie was posted there.

  • Maggie Sandilands back at Wadham.