Working in the Lebanon, where one in four people is a refugee

An MA in women's studies has taken Concern's Aine Costigan all over the world

Aine Costigan lives in Halba, Lebanon, where she works as a programme director with Concern Worldwide.

Aine Costigan lives in Halba, Lebanon, where she works as a programme director with Concern Worldwide.

 

This week Irish Times Abroad meets Aine Costigan, originally from Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, who works as a programme director with Concern Worldwide in the Lebanon. If you work in an interesting role overseas and would like to share your experience, please email abroad@irishtimes.com

Where did you study?

I studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English and History in UCC from 1973 to 1976. Then I completed a Higher Diploma in Education in 1977. I left Ireland in 1985 to do a Master’s Degree in Women’s Studies in Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

Tell us about your career.

After I finished my Women’s Studies Master’s Degree, I applied for a job with the Canadian Cooperative Association (CCA). This job was for a gender specialist with Africa experience. I had worked in Nigeria between 1977 and 1980, teaching the history of West Africa. I was hired by CCA, and I did this job for almost four years. My focus was primarily on Ghana, Kenya and Uganda.

I then took over the running of a coalition devoted to policy work and awareness-raising on HIV and Aids. I worked there for three years. In 1996, I moved to Kenya to work for the University of Manitoba (UoM) on a HIV prevention project - first as a manager and then as project director, and I remained there until 2003.

From 2004 to 2006 I worked for the UoM in Rajasthan, India - again focusing on HIV prevention. By the time I started working in India, I had returned to Ireland and worked on a two-months - on and two-months-off basis. Following a short stint with Irish Aid and a two-year consultancy with Unicef Eastern Europe, I worked with Kimmage Development Studies Centre for four years.

Then, in 2015, I was employed by Concern Worldwide to work in Darfur, Sudan. This I did for two years, and then I moved to Afghanistan to work as programme director and then as country director for another two years. Then, in March 2018, I came to Lebanon with Concern as a programme director.

What does your day-to-day work involve? 

Most of Concern’s work here is with Syrian refugees. We also work with Palestinian refugees, and vulnerable Lebanese people. We are based in Akkar Governorate, which is in the north on the Syrian border.

I have five programme managers (education, livelihood, shelter, water and sanitation, and monitoring and evaluation), reporting to me, so most of my work is done through this team. On one day recently, for example, we presented our plans to undertake a menstrual hygiene survey to the gender-based violence working group. We wish to design a project to support refugee girls and women to manage their menses with dignity in a variety of challenging contexts.

Also on that day, I also had a meeting with the programme team to scope out a project proposal for 2019 for UNHCR. We also had fundraisers here from the UK,  visiting refugee shelter environments with a view to developing a Christmas appeal. Tomorrow, I meet with the Akkar governor to hand over plans for an irrigation canal that crosses two municipalities.

Are there any particular challenges you face in your work?

Lebanon hosts the highest proportion of refugees in the world. With a population of 4.4 million in 2012 plus an estimated 1.5 million refugees, the number of people in Lebanon has increased enormously (5.9 million). Understandably, this has put enormous pressure on government resources, especially water and sanitation and shelter.

Sometimes, tensions spill over and refugee families are evicted from their informal settlements. Then Concern has to act quickly, supporting the families to find alternative accommodation and making sure that they have an adequate supply of water, proper sanitation and tents, blankets, stoves. Evictions can happy quickly and they may not get a chance to bring their belongings with them.

Other challenges include inconsistent funding. For example, at the moment, we have Irish Aid and Dutch government support for 2019; but our shelter and WASH programmes don’t have any support, and our education, livelihood and protection programmes are underfunded. This is difficult. The Syrian refugee crisis is now being described as “protracted”. Some donors are fatigued by providing the same emergency support for seven years. Still, many parts of Syria remain unsafe and refugees continue to be unable to return.

What is it like living in Halba?

Halba has some lovely hills and mountains close by and the Concern apartments are in those hills. This morning, for example, I walked very early to beat the heat, and it is extremely pleasant. We have three decent restaurants and they all serve alcohol. After Afghanistan, I measure things relatively. It is also age and stage… by the time I complete a demanding day at the office, I am tired and happy to go home, cook, rest and get ready for the next day. On the weekends, there are lovely places to visit close by.

Currently, there are two Irish living in Halba, our country financial controller and myself. Living in Beirut would be a different as there are a number of Irish there. 

Have you any plans for the future?

Lebanon will be my last posting. On completion of this contract, I plan to retire, settle for a bit and see what emerges. I’ve always been a social activist and committed to “making the world a better place” so I don’t see that changing very much. I hope to go back to university and to do a Master’s in history.

What have you learned from working in Lebanon?

As a friend of mine from Benin once said to me: “War is bad”. There is really no upside to war, and the Syrian refugees and embattled host communities in Lebanon are testimony to this.

Lebanese communities do their best to support refugees, but they are also coping with a fragile infrastructure and weak governance. I’ve met the most gorgeous Syrian children who long to continue to go to school, to read more books, to have a stable life… and what they are faced with is insecurity, living in tents or fragile structures, facing snake and rat bites, and all without an end in sight.

Refugees here are facing perpetual limbo as their employment opportunities are constrained, and they have no idea when they can return home. In the 1980s we used to talk a lot about the arms industry… as this industry is surely the only beneficiary from war; that and oppressive political leaders who don’t want to solve problems peacefully and democratically.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a similar career?

I am a firm believer in pursuing what you most want to do in life. Then you will do your best and good things will follow. Of course, you can support this by pursuing relevant studies, finding an internship with an organisation such as Concern, and proving yourself through hard work and suitability for any full-time job that might arise. Often, there is no straight line. For example, when I was in secondary school, there were three options given to us; teaching, the bank or nursing. In 1985, when I opted for a Master’s in Women’s Studies, I was convinced I was signing on for unemployment for the rest of my life. That did not prove to be the case.

Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?

I miss the Irish weather and landscape so much. I miss my family and friends. At 62 years of age, I realise that I have more behind me than in front of me. That is why this is my last posting overseas. I miss Ireland, and all that it means to me.

If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do.

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