Belfast charity worker plays key role in helping Rohingya refugees
Fionna Smyth, 49, is head of humanitarian campaigns and advocacy policy at Oxfam.
A charity worker from Belfast has helped lead efforts to support refugees at one of the world’s best-known places of sanctuary.
Fionna Smyth, 49, is head of humanitarian campaigns and advocacy policy at Oxfam and has a role in alleviating suffering caused by many conflicts around the globe.
The aid organisation has been providing Burma’s persecuted Rohingya Muslims with clean water in neighbouring Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar city.
Hundreds of thousands have fled what the UN described as ethnic cleansing but Burma’s military claimed was operations aimed at militants.
Ms Smyth said growing up during Northern Ireland’s violent decades helped her connect more readily with the suffering of others.
She said: “Every single day we listened to the radio and the fear which was just normal, the normalisation of fear and lack of freedom of movement was just an everyday experience.
“I think it gives me more empathy whenever I am speaking to people from other conflicts.
“Whenever I lived in Beirut for example I was really able to understand whenever people were saying we cannot go to south Lebanon because we feel too frightened to go there.
“I think it has helped me to build that sort of empathy, but every context is completely different.”
Monday marks the UN’s World Humanitarian Day and the theme is celebrating the role of women during crises.
Ms Smyth said where women were involved in resolution of a conflict it was 35% more likely to hold.
She added that they had gone from having a backroom activist role into the mainstream political parties in many societies.
Her own job has involved her in some of the world’s most intractable conflicts, including Syria and Gaza.
She was working in the Middle East during the Arab Spring and trying to make sure people in Gaza were being heard by the rest of the world.
She was responsible for scaling up humanitarian advocacy on the Syria conflict and recalled: “It was intense and challenging, it was sometimes quite disheartening as well because no matter what you did it did not seem to get any better.
“Some of the work we did was very important.”
She was in Geneva at the Syria peace talks with the women there, along with former Human Rights Commission chief Monica McWilliams.
Three months ago she was in Burma, also known as Myanmar, and at the Cox’s Bazar’s camp for 677,000 people. Oxfam is delivering water and sanitation to almost the whole camp.
Ms Smyth said: “The stories that I was hearing were really showing me that the Rohingya people who were expelled from Myanmar two years ago on the 25 August this year…these people were still sitting in camps.
“The conditions were not right for those people to go home.
“It showed me that we have a responsibility to continue to highlight these things, even in a world where there are so many different crises.
“It is not like a competition to see who is suffering the most, we just need to keep speaking out.”
She is based in Nairobi in Kenya and was recently involved in a water sanitation programme in the Central African Republic (CAR).