A Passion for Refugees

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A report by Julien Neaves for Trinidad’s Newsday.

AS a child, Corinne Gray’s earliest prayers were about helping orphans in Africa. But she never expected that she would one day be on the continent and travelling to other parts of the world helping refugees to help themselves.

At 35, Gray, a former Fulbright scholar, is an innovation engagement officer with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and tells Sunday Newsday her passion for humanitarian causes began from a young age.

“Growing up, my two biggest dreams were to be a professional singer and to change the world. I grew up with a mother who was a social worker, and as far as I can remember, I always felt a deep affinity with humanitarian causes. I remember crying whenever I watched the news about human suffering,” she says.

She also recalls at the age of eight wondering what she could do to help victims of the July 1990 attempted coup. Originally from Diamond Vale, Diego Martin for her early schooling she attended Diamond Vale Government Primary and then Bishop Anstey High School.

She took some time exploring her artistic side when she joined the Marionettes Youth Chorale at 15, and then did a BA in music at the University of the West Indies (UWI) to fulfil “big dreams of maybe ending up on Broadway or recording music.” At 19 she filled out a UN volunteer application but was not accepted.

“There was something about the humanitarian field that also called out to me. I think for many years I had a hard time reconciling the two.

I never in a million years believed that I would be doing what I do now.

I dreamt it, but never imagined it, especially not while I was at UWI.

At UWI I thought my career would be strictly arts-related, but I’d begun to toy with the idea of doing arts for social good, and thought that that would be where I would find my happy medium.” From 2000-2005 she worked as a community educator, and then in 2007 spent a year as a programme manager with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. She got a 2010 Fulbright Scholarship to do a master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Public Policy and Management, which she described as “the perfect programme that fed my two passions.” Also that year she worked as a marketing specialist in Washington, DC, and led research and co-produced a White Paper for the White House Office of Social Innovation.

In 2011 she worked in Johannesburg, South Africa for a startup non-profit that gave business training to micro-entrepreneurs, 60 percent of whom were asylum-seekers from neighbouring African countries.

“So many parts of this experience were impactful to me. Listening to their stories, especially the stories of those who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was tough. I listened to stories of men who literally had to flee on foot as the rebels approached and had already killed their families.

”There was one guy in particular I would never forget. He was in church on a Sunday when his neighbours came running in to tell him that the rebels had just killed his father and they were searching for him. He literally ran into the jungle and hid for days, and walked until he finally got to the border. From there he made his way down to South Africa.

“There is so much resilience in people who’ve suffered like this. He cried while telling me his story. I cried with him,” she recalls.

She also remembers mentoring a young girl from Malawi who wanted to start her own hairdressing business.

“What I always took away from everyone I interviewed was that they still had hope. They all knew in their hearts that one day things would get better and they kept working towards that.” The following year she traded Africa for Barcelona, Spain, and worked for two years as an associate director of marketing and communications.

And how did she end up at UNHCR? “I literally saw my job online and applied for it. I’d been applying for UN jobs for about ten years and never expected in a million years to get it, but I did. It was really that simple. No connections, nothing.

“But I’d developed an affinity for refugees and asylum-seekers while working in South Africa. I feel in many ways that I can relate to the concept of being a stranger in another land. Not that being an expat is anything at all like being a refugee, but the feeling of not being home is something I can empathise with,” she says She explains that as an innovation engagement officer, she was first hired to engage UNHCR staff, refugees, and other, private-sector partners through the agency’s corporate innovation programme. This aimed to empower staff and refugees to submit ideas for solving specific challenges.

Winning ideas were put into practice.

“My duties are quite varied, though. A typical office day would consist of lots of meetings and phone calls.

”But I do travel to the field often – to refugee camps and communities, and to different UNHCR operations around the world. One day I could be at my desk in Geneva, or speaking on a panel at a conference. On another day I could be in a UN convoy supported by armed military, driving to a camp close to the border with Somalia, or in a tiny plane flying two hours to land on an airstrip in Ethiopia, where you only hope it doesn’t rain so the plane can land. It never really gets boring.” Based in Geneva, Switzerland, for almost three years, she works in a special unit called “Innovation” where she and the other staff “basically look for better or more efficient solutions to some of the most complex challenges of being a forcibly displaced person.” She is now in charge of research and design for financial-technology solutions for refugees, who are often left out of the formal banking economy for a number of reasons.

“I’m working with some great private-sector partners and we are investigating different technologies around digital payments and remittances. I also am spearheading a project that would empower refugees to design and manufacture their own innovations, giving them dignity, and decreasing their dependence on others.” On helping refugees to help themselves, Gray explains the basic concept is “one of dignity and independence.” “Being a refugee often means waiting. Waiting on someone to give you something, waiting on someone to grant you status, waiting to be resettled, waiting for the war to end so you can go back home. There’s lots of waiting.

“I am a big believer in empowering refugees so that they can take more control over their circumstances and create things for themselves. It’s the difference between handing out a solar lantern to a refugee family or teaching a family how to build a circuit board and create a light. In the latter example, they now feel a sense of power to create change in their lives. That feeling is everything.

It’s a feeling that many non-refugees take for granted.” Her work in Africa included heading a “Humanitarian Innovation Jam” in Kampala, capital of Uganda, which brought together 40 refugees and 40 humanitarians for a two-day workshop with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Refugees become part of the process, rather than passive recipients of aid. What stood out most is that the young refugees who were there articulated that they wanted to be able to change their own communities, that they need knowledge and support,” she said.

In March last year she helped organise a special leadership lesson with Pakistani activist and youngest-ever Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, who addressed adolescent refugee girls living in the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya. She explains that, as someone committed to education for girls, Yousafzai wanted a chance to address girls and to encourage them to pursue their education, no matter how difficult.

Gray also recalls meeting a teenage girl who said she wanted to be Somalia’s first female magistrate.

“This experience impacted me the most, because there is something truly exceptional about witnessing someone who can articulate a dream that could seem (from the outside) so impossible, but having absolute confidence in herself that she would make it come true.” Gray said as a former teacher in Trinidad she has a passion for children and young people and thinks “a child who doesn’t even believe he or she can even dream of something outside of his/her circumstance is one of the saddest things to witness.” “Every young person should have a dream, or an idea about what impact they would like to make in the world.” The most rewarding aspect of her job is being part of an organisation committed to the cause of protecting people forcibly displaced by war or conflict.

“It’s rewarding to work as part of something bigger that seeks to protect and assist some of the world’s most vulnerable.

It feels rewarding to know that the little I do is part of something bigger and meaningful.” She made a call to action to support refugees, adding that the Living Water Community takes care of refugees in Trinidad and UNHCR now has representation here.

Gray returns home every other year and says she misses her family and the food – she cooks Trini food wherever she is and recalls making pelau for Germans while living in Berlin and watching them eating the “bun-bun.” Inspired by people of all cultures enjoying local food, she has toyed with the idea of opening a gourmet Trinidadian restaurant.

Her plan, however, is to return home one day and start her own social enterprise to benefit not only Trinidad, but the entire Caribbean.

Because of her responsibilities with UNHCR she does not have time for her other passion of music.

A biography of her, she says, would be called I Walk with Lions – a tribute to one of her favourite experiences: walking with lions in Zambia.

“I also would choose this title because I recognise that anything ‘great’ that I’ve ever done is because of the lions around me: my family, my faith, my friends, and anyone that I’ve ever encountered in my work. I’ve had so much support throughout my life, I could never take credit for anything. It’s all about the lions I’ve encountered. And so I walk with lions both literally and figuratively.”

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