Shining the light of Rowan English

Currently living and working out of Ymen, Rowan is the BSC Education Adviser at the International Red Cross [ICRC]. We are extremely fortunate that Rowan agreed to be interviewed by us for our feature article this month and for sharing an insight into a world most of us will never experience. Thank you, Rowan!

Rowan English is a very interesting person! Currently living and working out of Yemen, Rowan is the BSC Education Adviser at the International Red Cross [ICRC]. We are extremely fortunate that Rowan agreed to be interviewed by us for our feature article this month and for sharing an insight into a world most of us will never experience. Thank you, Rowan!

1. How did you end up working and living in Yemen? [big question I know Rowan!]

I have been working in various countries for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) over the last five years and was asked to come to Yemen to manage the Physical Rehabilitation Project that ICRC run. The ICRC works in ‘conflict’ and ‘post-conflict’ countries; hence our work in Yemen is needed because there is an active conflict going on at present and the needs of people with disabilities are significantly increased in conflict zones.

To go back a little further, my undergraduate education and initial work back in Australia began in the area of prosthetics and orthotics. From this time I was always interested in working to improve the life of people with disabilities, mostly people with limb amputations, and for many years my work was based in Australia. However, after further work and study in clinical practice, research, education and management I ended up moving into academia for many years and, then when the time was right I decided to move once again, this time into international humanitarian work.

I think the impetus to work in the humanitarian sector was stimulated by the work I was doing with international students, on campus in Melbourne as well as across South-East and East Asia. I was also a member of the education committee of the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics which gave me even more insight into the international sector. By this time, I had travelled extensively and saw that many countries needed assistance to develop physical rehabilitation services. As it happened, I was a person who had many years of this sort of experience, and I was keen to share my skills.

2. What does a typical day look like for you?

I get up early to exercise for an hour then, when the generator comes on (there is no mains power in most of Yemen), I get ready for work. The vehicles arrive to take all staff to the office for the day. There is a lot of office work and reporting required to coordinate the program and report on activities for donors, so there is time at the desk necessary. On some days I have meetings with interlocutors within the city of Sana’a, related to the physical rehabilitation centres, health ministry, or the disabled persons’ organisations, for example. Travel to these meetings must be cleared for security before we move in the vehicles. I go on field trips every few weeks to other cities across Yemen to see my staff, meet interlocutors and visit physical rehabilitation centres to monitor progress. Some of these trips are by road and others by air when we cannot traverse some areas by road due to the ongoing conflict. It is a great benefit that I get to see the centres and the service users that need prostheses, orthoses and physiotherapy services. This means I can see the result of our efforts, and this is very rewarding.

3. Based in Australia, we can only try and imagine what you are subjected to each day; how do you process what you see?

We operate in a very different culture to our own, so some adjustment is required. In my particular sphere of work, I see people with disabilities caused by many factors. It may be as a direct result of conflict such as the impact of a landmine, an indirect result due to a disease that we may not see at home or from road traffic accidents. Many of these injuries are different, and often much worse than those we see at home. The impact is often more significant on the person due to the lack of available medical care or expertise. However, people are the same everywhere. They are keen to get the best possible assistance and work hard to be able to get back to their families or back to work. They are always very grateful for any support they are given.

4. How amazing are the people that work with you?

Very! I am so lucky to work with exciting, dynamic people from a very diverse background of nationalities and skills, including the local Yemeni staff. We have front line workers and backroom support workers that all give their best efforts to reduce the effect on innocent people impacted by the conflict. We have medical personnel, economists, agronomists, language experts, lawyers and negotiators, to name a few. ICRC is a big, well known and respected organisation with a fantastic bunch of people.

5. Do you ever feel concerned for your own well being Rowan?

Well, we do work in an active war zone, so there is always an element of risk. However, we have stringent security rules to follow that ensure our safety. Our organisation has security specialists that work with local, national and international authorities to negotiate safe passage for our staff when travelling to the field, as well as to keep our residences secure.

6. How long do you believe it will take to achieve what you have set out to achieve and what would you consider doing next?

In the area of physical rehabilitation, there is much to do. We are here in Yemen for the long haul. Even if hostilities ceased tomorrow, there would still be many people with disabilities that require services for the rest of their lives. The impact of land mines and other unexploded ordnance will likely be a threat for years to come, so we expect to have a presence here for many more years, even after the eventual cessation of hostilities.

Next, I am not sure yet. I think a break back home in Australia will be good so I can spend time with my son, sisters, friends and my elderly parents. During that time, I plan to get out in the bush and enjoy the peace and quiet. In the meantime, there is a lot of work to be done in other countries so I will likely go elsewhere to continue similar work.

7. When someone asks the question, “what do you do?” What do you say?

I say I work for the International Red Cross to help develop or improve services to people with disabilities who are impacted by conflict. Most people have some knowledge of the Red Cross, so that makes it easier. They do not always know what we do, nor about the different parts of Red Cross, so that takes a bit more explaining.

8. Who inspires you?

There is no one person. I have had some incredible mentors in my younger years, but now it is the people we work to assist are inspirational. To see people, walk again after losing hope of ever doing so is very special. I remember a ten-year-old boy who had ‘walked’ on his hands and rump all his life, when he stood up and started walking on his prostheses for the first time, the look on his face was incredible. We could not stop him after that. I last saw him playing soccer with his mates! Also, to see new graduates from our prosthetics and orthotics course become excited about helping those with disabilities is wonderful. To see these graduates, begin to help their fellow countrymen and women overcome disability and to know you have made a positive impact on their lives is very inspiring.

9. What makes you smile each day?

My work colleagues always make me smile. Even on the hardest days, there is someone who will have a laugh. The local staff, as well as the foreigners, like to have a laugh. I can walk into the office feeling glum, and my team will always change that.

10. How do you think the world can become a better more accepting place? [again a big question I know Rowan!]

This is a huge question indeed. I think we need our leaders to less divisive and more accepting of others, just like most of our fellow Australians and, in fact, most people are. The more people from different cultures I meet around the world, the more I see they are the same. We all want good health for ourselves and family, education, a future and a decent living standard.

11. Over the years you must have seen so much advancement with prosthetics; what’s left to do?

There have been tremendous advancements, but these are not available to everyone as there is generally a significant cost involved. This is OK in wealthy countries, but it is not in the poorer areas. One of the most significant problems is the lack of access to services in ‘developing’ countries. For example, in Australia, a person with an amputation will have free access to a basic prosthesis and physical rehabilitation, and we have well trained clinical specialists able to provide the necessary services. This is not available for most of the world, so we have much to do to educate clinicians and technicians to improve services in these countries. This is the majority of the world’s population.

12. What value does Peter and the team at Woodward Nhill give you?

As I am not very focussed on personal financial planning, I need assistance in this regard, so Peter has been able to lift that burden from me. It is also an excellent opportunity, on the occasions that I do get home, to chat with him and have a reality check. The environments I work in mean I need a little time to adjust to being home. I need a decent financial plan in place for when I do return home for good, possibly to work and eventually to retire. As there is a chance that I will undertake some volunteer work after I retire, I need to have enough money available to do that as well. Peter’s calm approach and the time taken to get to know my situation has been very beneficial.

13. Living in Yemen, what do you do to switch off and relax?

As we cannot go out at all, I tend to try to keep fit in the gym or jogging around the yard, read, listen to music, speak to my family on skype, plan motorcycle and bicycle trips and socialise with my work colleagues. We often have get-togethers for meals or games in each other’s residences on the weekends. We can get out of the country for a week or two every six to eight weeks, so there is a chance to explore other countries in the region too.

14. What type of food do you eat? Is it similar to home?

I tend to cook at home most days so stick to my usual diet, but as I share a house, my housemates will often cook something different as well. Yemeni food is delicious so that I can eat that quite regularly too. Yemenis are very generous so tend to share, and we are often invited to a meal. It is always tasty and fun.

15. What has been the most surprising thing you’ve noticed living in Yemen?

I have been lucky enough to travel to many parts of the country with my work, and I was very surprised to see how beautiful it is. I was expecting a hot, flat, arid country with little to see. I was totally wrong. I live in Sana’a which sits in a mountain range at over 2000 metres altitude, and the mountain range extends from the north to the south of the country. The weather is sunny and usually delightful all year round. If there were no conflict here I would happily be a tourist, travel the country and visit many old and spectacular cities and sights.

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