Projects for Peace: The Vision of Kathryn W. Davis

"My challenge to you is to bring about a mind-set of preparing for peace, instead of preparing for war."

Helene Songe, United Nations relief worker

Conversing in Arabic with Palestinian refugees, Helene Songe once discovered a proverb she loves. It likens education to a “golden bracelet”—the one valuable, incorruptible thing that remains with you regardless of what life might throw your way. While her background is vastly different from the Palestinians she once served in her post with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Helene has lived the truth of these words.

She grew up in Norway, but hasn’t called it home since her departure at age 17 to spend two years in Singapore at a United World College and earn her undergraduate degree at Middlebury College. From the very beginning of her international education, Helene had a mission. “I just happened to be born in a stable country,” she explains, “but we could all become victims of conflict. Wherever people lead difficult lives, we must help however we can—purely out of human empathy and compassion.”

Undergraduate coursework in international studies, as well as various internships abroad, prepared Helene to take a job in Syria with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near Middle East (UNRWA). Helene explains that when the Iraq War started in 2003, Palestinians began to f lee Iraq in large numbers, becoming refugees once again. Several thousand fled to neighboring Syria, where they were unable to work legally and were vulnerable to detention or deportation. Helene and her UNRWA colleagues administered assistance with rent, food, education, and health care to roughly 780 families in Damascus and other parts of Syria. In the summer of 2010, she took a break from her job to attend the Middlebury Arabic School. A Kathryn Davis Fellowship gave her language skills to better understand the refugee population she was serving.

Helene has seen first hand how providing basic services—food, shelter, education, and health care—can act as a powerful stabilizing force. Our sense of justice and compassion, she believes, should be enough to motivate us to help those in need. But when it is not, a deep desire for peace is reason to improve the lot of the most vulnerable amongst us.

Last July, when political unrest in the country escalated, Helene was forced to leave Syria. While she continues to work for UNRWA as a community services officer in Pasto, Colombia, her heart remains in the Middle East. She hopes to return soon.