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Woman who dealt with the IRA's Northern Bank raid has now found herself in the middle of the global refugee crisis

By Ivan Little

The high-ranking marketing executive who had to help the Northern Bank deal with the fall-out from the IRA's £26.5m robbery 11 years ago has a whole new challenge on her hands, a global one that's arguably the gravest the world has had to tackle in recent times.

For Banbridge-born Rosamond Bennett is now heading up an Irish charity which has found itself in the eye of the humanitarian storm over refugees - a mind-boggling 42 million of them, a figure which is soaring every day thanks to the Syrian war.

And the crisis has taken on a new dimension after the revelation that at least one of the terrorists who carried out the murderous attacks in Paris last week used the refugee route to get to France.

Rosamond has admitted that she's had to rely on her lifelong Christian faith to stop her plunging into despair over the scale of the refugee horror, which she has seen at first hand in her role as the CEO of Christian Aid Ireland, a post she moved into three years ago after a dramatic career change.

Rosamond, who lives in Whitehead with her primary school teacher/musician husband and three children, had spent years as the head of marketing and communications at Danske Bank, formerly the Northern.

And it was in December 2004 that she and her colleagues were thrown into the most turbulent period of their careers after a gang, widely believed to be from the IRA, carried out the audacious raid on the Northern Bank in Donegall Square West.

It was the biggest robbery in the history of banking here and Rosamond was tasked with overseeing the introduction of millions of pounds worth of new banknotes to spike the chances of the thieves spending the stolen cash.

But it wasn't just the stresses and strains of that infamous episode which made Rosamond take a long hard look at herself.

The catalyst was the death of her beloved mother in August 2011. "Mum was a very strong woman who was always trying to help other people and when I wrote the eulogy for her funeral I started to wonder what anyone would say about me and what I'd done with my life.

"I didn't want mortgages and finance to be my legacy and I took redundancy from the bank in January 2012 with the hope of finding work with a charity in a way which would show my Christian faith. Then I spotted the advertisement for the job as CEO for Christian Aid. And thankfully I got it. Which has changed my life completely, I have to say."

One of the charities which Rosamond's mother supported was Christian Aid and she remembers her holding open days to raise money for special causes like the Rwandan genocide.

And by a twist of fate, Rosamond recently visited Rwanda and was astonished to get a fuller picture of what had been going on in the country that her mother had been striving to assist.

But she did take positives out of her trip. "Many people there were saying they didn't call themselves Tutsis or Hutus any more but rather regarded themselves as Rwandans. And I thought if we ever got to that position in Northern Ireland, it would be quite something."

It's difficult for anyone nowadays to envisage a similar resolution to the modern-day nightmares which have sparked the exodus from Syria.

And Rosamond fears the Paris outrages will only heighten the crisis. "Obviously there have to be security concerns over refugees but at the same time, most of them are trying to escape from Isis in Syria.

"It's a very difficult situation and I would have concerns that people will say that all the borders should be closed, but it's not the Christian thing to do to turn everyone away.

"We have to be measured about all this and we cannot tar every Muslim with the same brush. There is no guarantee that there won't be Isis extremists coming through refugees but the vast majority are not like that - they are fleeing for their lives."

For charities like Christian Aid, the new dilemmas over refugees have come at a time when they were already having to cope with the ravages of war elsewhere and earthquakes and other long-term natural emergencies.

Rosamond says: "There's no doubt that the biggest cause of poverty is conflict, which has forced people to flee from their homes. We're talking about south Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo - the list is endless."

Rosamond, who has offices in Belfast and Dublin, was recently in northern Iraq where she met refugees from Syria and from within Iraq itself.

She says: "When I heard from people there what life was like at the hands of Isis, I came home feeling really depressed and realising that things were going to get much, much worse."

On a human level it was a harrowing experience for Rosamond. "I was talking to women who literally had to pick up their kids and start walking with just the clothes on their backs. They had walked from Syria to Iraq which shows how bad the situation must really be there."

A lot of the female refugees had been subjected to sexual abuse - weapons of war she calls them - and some as young as eight had been kidnapped by Isis in Iraq the summer before.

"Yet no one talks about them and it was disturbing to realise that we were hearing nothing about their experiences on the media here," says Rosamond.

But she adds: "I have been really inspired by women like them who told me that if they hadn't had their faith they would have had absolutely nothing. It left me wondering if I would still be such a strong believer in their positions."

In recent months, charities worldwide have been said to be at almost breaking point as they try to help the refugees risking their lives to flee by boats from the war zones.

"But it's a sticking plaster really. What we really need is for the conflict to be ended, though we can't give up on providing the vital aid that is needed," says Rosamond, who's only too aware of the generosity of Northern Irish people in response to pleas for help in the wake of natural disasters like the earthquake in Nepal and the typhoon in Nepal.

But appeals for donations to assist with tackling the refugee crisis didn't initially generate the same reaction, though the picture of the body of little Aylan Kurdi in the arms of a policeman on a beach in Kos in September did change attitudes.

She recalls: "Countless children have died but it was that photograph which brought in more support. It was terrible that it did take the boy to die but we got a lot more calls than before."

Even so a Christian Aid vigil at the City Hall in Belfast didn't attract a huge turn-out. "And at the same time people were setting up an anti-refugee rally which was really sad," says Rosamond, who admits that she is worried about the sort of welcome that the refugees will get when they eventually make it to Northern Ireland where the authorities are preparing for the arrival of only a few hundred refugees.

"We have all seen what has been happening on the streets to eastern Europeans, for example. I just hope and pray that people here show the positive face of Northern Ireland to the refugees. I know there are security concerns and fears about whether our health service will be able to cope but these people won't be coming just to find a job. They'll be coming to escape death.

"In many ways it's no different today from the famine years in Ireland when hundreds of thousands fled the island. And I'm convinced that when the refugees arrive here, our systems may be more stretched and they creak and groan but they will manage some way or another."

Rosamond believes the UK Government should have offered to take more than 20,000 refugees over five years. "I don't think that is enough at all especially when you look at what Germany and Sweden and even some developing countries have been doing."

And the immediate future for the refugees could be made more desperate by the onset of winter and the worsening weather conditions according to Christian Aid, who despite their name, help anyone of any faith or none and aren't in the business of evangelising.

Despite the huge problems in the world, Rosamond is glad that she took a new direction in her working life, adding: "I really love the job. I feel that it was almost designed for me and I am blessed to have it."

But she admits that there are times when it's difficult to remain upbeat. "I remember hearing all the stories of the holocaust as I was growing up and thinking they could never happen, but when you come back from some of these countries I have visited you realise all these things are happening again.

"But as long as there are people in these communities who are really determined to make a difference, then I feel Christian Aid must be here to support them and not just with money and appeals.

"We also have to lobby the politicians to make them see that tactics like bombing are not the answer. We need people to get around a table to talk and we have to speak up when we see or hear things which are wrong."

The charity role has taken Rosamond on a journey of discovery about the world and about herself and she is now chair of the Irish Consortium on Gender Based Violence, a grouping of human rights, humanitarian, aid and defence organisations who are promoting the adoption of a coherent response to the violence.

"I have really developed my interest in the whole area of female empowerment and the role that women can play in peace building. The women I have met in the past three years have taught me more than my academic years ever did," she says.

In response to what she saw on her travels in 2013, Rosamond decided to give up shopping for herself for a year and donated the money to Christian Aid instead.

"I stopped buying clothes, shoes, jewellery and even books. And I realised what I was spending in a week could probably help families overseas," says Rosamond who has become accustomed to answering critics who argue that too much money which charities raise doesn't go towards to the people who need it most but rather to cover the costs of administration.

She adds: "The work that we do is expert work - 91 pence in every pound goes directly to our work and the rest is used to make sure that the organisation is run well by the best people with the knowledge and expertise that is needed to do the job."

"We want to thank amazing people who help us like Andy Murray from north Belfast who has been collecting on our behalf and organising Christian Aid week for over 60 years," says Rosamond.

But given the difficulties which the organisation currently face, it's a bitter irony that it was a refugee crisis across Europe after the Second World War that gave birth to Christian Aid as churches came together to do something about it.

However, the charity which works with almost 500 partner organisations in 43 countries worldwide, says there are more refugees now than there were back then.

And chances are that Christian Aid will still be in business in another 70 years.

Rosamond says: "We would love it if we didn't exist but reality dictates that our work is as important as it ever was and we are still going strong."

Belfast Telegraph


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