Lumen - The University of Adelaide Magazine The University of Adelaide Australia
Lumen Summer 2015 Issue
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The risks and rewards of working in war zones


In the desert near the border of Libya and Algeria

In the desert near the border of Libya and Algeria

Life as a United Nations peacekeeper working in some of the world's most volatile conflict zones can be tough, confronting and often dangerous.

Kym Taylor is used to surviving in difficult conditions while facing the fear of being kidnapped. She's also worked and lived under the threat of heavy shelling while rockets fly overhead.

The role is a world away from Kym's early life in the Riverland and student days at the University of Adelaide where she graduated with a Bachelors of Arts and Law with Honours in 2000.

Since joining the UN in 2005 Kym has worked at its headquarters in New York and been assigned to roles in Darfur, Sudan for two years and most recently Libya. They are two of Africa's most volatile and difficult regions.

Despite the dangers, Kym says the rewards of working in such places are huge. "Getting to know local people, their customs and traditions, makes you feel like the world is opening up in front of you," says Kym. "Darfurians are renowned for their hospitality and honesty. You feel very humble working with people who suffer from conflict and are just trying to survive, and raise and educate their children.

"I quickly came to appreciate how lucky I was to come from Australia and grow up somewhere like Adelaide."

Kym credits her experiences at the University for triggering her interest in broader human and legal rights issues. She became closely involved in student life, first in the debating club and then in student politics, serving as President of the Students' Association, as a board member of the student union and also as a student representative on University Council.

"The University of Adelaide didn't just provide me with a degree, it provided me with a much more rounded education," says Kym. "When I was a student I fought for the right to an accessible education but I did not truly appreciate that it is in itself a great privilege and something many people in the world do not have. "So just being able to attend a university, let alone a very good one like Adelaide, hugely shaped my life and career."

After graduating from the University Kym joined Wallmans Lawyers practicing in commercial law and was offered a Chevening Scholarship at Cambridge University to study her Masters of Law, focusing on human rights and international law.

She then interned with the International Law Commission in Geneva and was a political advisor on human rights and international law to the Australian Attorney-General. Before joining the United Nations, she was also an attaché in the Australian Permanent Mission to the UN.

While winning a position in the UN is very competitive, the opportunities are significant for people who are really committed. "Students who want to do this sort of work need to choose the relevant subjects, get involved in groups on campus and volunteer organisations, and build their personal knowledge and network of contacts."

Since last year Kym has been a Special Assistant with the United Nations Support Mission in Libya working with a range of UN agencies. Because of heavy fighting in Tripoli, the UN mission was evacuated to Tunisia in July where the humanitarian program is now being coordinated.

Risk is an every day part of the job, but Kym tries not to worry. Her response to a difficult situation is to try and stay calm. It's an approach that worked well in Darfur and Libya which posed quite different yet equally confronting challenges.

"The living conditions in Darfur were very tough," says Kym. "I slept outside under a mosquito net most nights because it was too hot inside as there was rarely electricity to run the air conditioners. "I was sick a lot of the time from stomach bugs and infections, I showered out of a bucket, and I lived with the risk of being car jacked or kidnapped."

Libya was a different sort of challenge, living and working in the same UN compound, travelling in armoured vehicles and adhering to strict curfews. The quality of living was much higher but Kym faced the threat of heavy shelling and rockets flying over the compound. Despite the risks, she says it's amazing how normal life can be. Day-to-day living goes on, albeit with lots of rules and procedures to follow.

"You need to be very security conscious, but for me the risks are outweighed by the opportunities and satisfaction of my work," she says."I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to work in very different countries and cultures because I've seen for myself that while religion and politics can be very different, fundamentally people are not. Most people want the same things - to live in peace and provide for their families."

story by Ian Williams

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