Courage in a danger zone
By Bryan Demchinsky
When he entered the darkened room crowded with machine-gun toting soldiers to confront their commander, Peter Wright became a little nervous.
It was June 2012. A few hours earlier, at the refugee camp where he worked, Wright was told three United Nations personnel had been arrested at a South Sudanese army checkpoint — and he was asked to help find them.
His response was spontaneous. He hopped into a vehicle with a fellow aid worker to locate the captured UN men before they could be moved and perhaps mistreated.
Driving from checkpoint to checkpoint, the NGO workers learned where the captives were. A tense negotiating session followed. It turned out the commander was ready to bargain in return for some batteries for his vehicles and a plane ride to Juba, South Sudan’s capital. As they left, a wave of relief washed over the rescuers and the grateful UN workers.
For Wright, who was 26 at the time, it was all in a day’s work, one of many filled with tense moments during his years with Samaritan’s Purse International Relief, a Canadian NGO that operates in conflict and disaster zones.
In South Sudan, the organization set up a hospital and sheltered and fed refugees fleeing from the war that in 2011 saw the southern part of Sudan, primarily home to Christians and adherents of traditional religions, break away from the largely Muslim, Arabic-speaking north. At the time, learning to respond in rescue situations was not part of the NGO’s training (it now is).
For his bravery, Wright was awarded a Meritorious Service Decoration (Civil Division) last year by Governor General David Johnston. “Thanks to his courage, cultural awareness and quick thinking, a high-risk situation was defused without violence or loss of life,” the citation reads.
As exciting as life was on the frontlines of foreign aid work for a young man from Belleville, Ont., Wright realized that he could do more.
“The experience of being in countries that were in conflict led me to understand that the assistance we were able to give depended on government policies,” he said in an interview at the Global Affairs Canada building on Sussex Drive in Ottawa, where he now works.
“So I decided to come back to Ottawa to do a master’s program. That’s what led me to the University of Ottawa — I applied from my tent in South Sudan — because I felt that might give me an opportunity to determine how we engage in countries like this.”
“Countries like this” included Niger, where he began his humanitarian work; southern Turkey, where Samaritan’s Purse assisted refugees fleeing from Syria; and the Philippines, where he met his wife, a Filipina who, after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, was also helping with disaster relief.
In fact, Wright was still on the disaster response roster of Samaritan’s Purse while enrolled at uOttawa, and was allowed to do his exams two weeks early in order to set off on the Philippines mission. It’s an example, he says, of the flexibility and real-world experience that the Faculty of Social Sciences fosters in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA), from which he graduated.
Along the way he was mentored and encouraged by professors who had much experience in the world. In particular, Wright mentions the GSPIA’s David Petrasek, who has worked for Amnesty International and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “He helped me develop my own thinking on policy issues. He introduced me to people in the field. He went above and beyond,” Wright said.
For his part, Petrasek found Wright to be a good fit in his faculty. “Peter brought an enormous amount of experience to the program, and it was a delight to supervise his work.”
Wright recognizes that it’s difficult for young people to find a way into a career in foreign affairs, especially in a government position. He offers some advice: get experience by volunteering with NGOs, studying languages and finding the right master’s program.
The University of Ottawa “opened up opportunities for me,” he said, citing the CO-OP program and networking events at which students are introduced to policy-makers. His own CO-OP experience with the Department of National Defence paved the way to the position he holds at Global Affairs, where he is a senior program officer in the peace and stabilization operations program.
Now married and father of a young son, Wright is more deskbound than he was during his NGO years, but his job has taken him back to Turkey. “We look for NGOs who are doing good work and we provide them with funds,” he said.
And what has his own experience taught him about the world and Canada’s place in it? “You see growing division — a lot of sectarian strife — a huge blame on 'otherness.' I think as Canadians we have the opportunity to carve our own path. We don’t have to follow the trajectory of pushing back against the ‘other,’ of being an unwelcoming place. That’s not who we are.”
Upper Nile, South Sudan: Peter Wright stands beside the Sudan People’s Liberation Army commander he negotiated with, several months after the June 2012 incident.