Sarah charts a global career path
Helping nations to rebuild after conflict is satisfying work for Sarah Callaghan.
Since studying Law and Arts at the University of Adelaide, Sarah Callaghan has fulfilled a personal mission to work around the world in areas related to human rights.
"I studied Anthropology, and I was always interested in Aboriginal rights," the 30-year-old says. "Through doing Law, that interest extended into human rights and international law more broadly. So I always knew that I wanted to work in that general field and didn't want to be a lawyer in a big law firm," she says.
Sarah was able to pursue her interests as a student, taking part in a three-month internship with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Cairo. It was an eye-opening and crucial experience for the young student, far from her home town of Port Lincoln.
After graduating in 2003 with a Bachelor of Laws (Honours), Sarah became a Ministerial Liaison Officer to the South Australian Attorney-General. She then joined the Crown Solicitor's office as a solicitor.
In 2004 - as a result of her participation in the Human Rights Internship Program - Sarah was featured in the University's Life Impact advertising campaign, saying that her experiences in Cairo "enabled me to crystallise my ideas about the kind of work I want to do". Little did she know that such work was just around the corner.
She was soon offered a position in the West African nation of Liberia through the United Nations. It was an opportunity too good to refuse: helping prepare for Liberia's first democratic elections in almost 20 years.
Working as adviser, her 12-month role involved recruiting and training staff to work in polling booths and registration booths, and providing basic education about the electoral process.
"I was based in the north-east of the country, which is one of the areas where there had been a lot of fighting - one of the rebel groups had come from that area," she says.
"We didn't know how much displacement there had been because of the war... a lot of close coordination with local chiefs was needed to establish the size of the population. It was a fascinating experience."
At the end of her time in Liberia, Sarah spent two years working in a very different environment with its own unique challenges: Afghanistan.
She initially joined a British consulting company, supported by the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), which was involved in supporting the Ministry of Counter Narcotics and the Ministry of Interior. In this role, Sarah was an adviser to the Counter Narcotics Minister and Deputy Minister of the Interior on setting up their political office structures, implementing work processes and training staff.
The security risks associated with working in Afghanistan were much greater than Sarah's previous experiences in Africa.
"Certainly in Afghanistan the security situation was concerning. Maybe in Liberia I was a bit naïve, so I didn't perhaps realise how much potential there was for it to be dangerous.
"In Afghanistan you were always on edge, but you have to acclimatise to it otherwise you can't work effectively."
Despite having been in close proximity to a car bombing, Sarah rates her scariest experience in Afghanistan as the May 2006 riots in Kabul.
"There'd been a traffic accident between the US military personnel and some locals that escalated into a conflict, which then spread into riots, and there were pockets of rioting all over the city. I was working at the Ministry... the phone services went down, I didn't have communication with my organisation, and there was all this fighting. There was shooting, and fires, and I could hear it all going on around the city. Eventually our security guys came and 'rescued' me at the end of the day," she says.
These isolated incidents aside, Sarah says her experience in Afghanistan was extremely rewarding.
"Afghanistan is a beautiful country with such proud and independent people. The situation there is complex and it was an amazing experience to be a part of helping rebuild the government and, later, ordinary people's lives."
She then joined the Norwegian Refugee Council, which provides civil legal aid services to refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).
Sarah took on the role of Deputy Program Manager for the whole legal aid program, covering Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"We had about 150 staff nationally, with about 40 Afghan lawyers providing legal aid to refugees and IDPs."
The biggest legal issues were those involving property law.
"Property is such a complex issue because of displacement during the various wars, successive legal regimes and ongoing ethnic tensions. For example, often when new commanders took over an area, they would keep that land and give it to their supporters. People who had been in refugee camps returned to their homes, quite often to find someone living in their house or on their land. Our lawyers would help them to get that back."
Sarah has now returned to Africa. Based in Kampala, Uganda, she's working with Irish Aid on justice and governance reform, including programs to enhance democracy in Uganda in the lead-up to the 2011 elections.
"It's all about strengthening government and the rule of law, providing support for free and democratic media, political parties and human rights organisations," she says.
"Uganda is a beautiful country and Kampala is very safe. Peace talks have resulted in an agreement so in terms of conflict the country is stable."
With her passport now full of stamps from troubled nations, Sarah doesn't consider herself 'brave'.
"I guess I've never thought about it - it's just something I wanted to do," she says. "A lot of people in the world have been living in these sorts of environments all of their lives and they experience a lot worse things."
She says she feels privileged to have had these experiences.
"That's the biggest benefit you get out of it, working with some really amazing people and knowing that - even maybe for a short time - you helped them. And hopefully you've left something more sustainable with them that will help them and their country in the future." ■
STORY DAVID ELLIS