Keeping calm in Dungu
By Brigitte Génier
Murielle Pallares (BSocSc ’05) never expected to be living in the Democratic Republic of Congo six years after graduating from the University of Ottawa.
A political science graduate and Montreal native, Pallares was hired by United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) in 2011 as a disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, reintegration and resettlement (DDR/RR) officer in Goma, where she helped repatriate soldiers involved in illegal foreign armed groups and their dependents back to their home countries.
In March 2014, she was transferred to Dungu to work for UNICEF as a child protection officer.
“I’ve always believed in the power of children within any society. I jumped at the chance to work with an international organization, to learn about a completely new culture and adapt to its customs,” she explains.
Although Pallares is very passionate about her work, living in a foreign country has taken a certain amount of adjusting.
“There is no such thing as a typical work day when you live in the DR of Congo, especially in the east where a variety of rebel-armed groups are making their way through,” she says.
Her day can include anything from an eight-hour drive on muddy roads to reach villages or a helicopter ride to air-drop disarmament, demobilization and repatriation leaflets, to participating in diplomatic mediation or meetings.
There is certainly no time for her to get bored.
As part of her work, Pallares often travels into the field to rescue children who’ve been abducted by rebel-armed groups. One particular time, she was involved in discussions with a rebel group commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), trying to convince him to release hidden child soldiers.
After being freed, one of the girls travelled back with Pallares in her vehicle.
“Once she got in, she gasped with excitement upon seeing an orange. She hadn’t eaten an orange in years. It’s moments like these that remind me of how lucky I am,” says Pallares.
It’s not just people with guns that Pallares has to be wary of in the DR of Congo. The wildlife can also pose a serious threat.
“Learning to watch out for venomous snakes like black mambas has been challenging. I always need to be on the lookout for danger and to be aware of my surroundings. Despite this, the joy of seeing a family of hippopotamus on a daily basis makes up for any potentially life-threatening moments.”
As an alumna of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Pallares has very fond memories of her time on campus.
She says classes on topics like ethics in politics and international development, special lectures by distinguished guests such as retired lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire and Stephen Lewis, a former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, as well as the opportunity to participate in a humanitarian trip during her studies helped turn her passion for international development into a career.
“The dynamism and rich environment of the political science classroom, where so many ideas are shared, the multicultural nature of the campus and the openness of professors to discuss any issue have led me to where I am today. My education taught me how to adapt quickly to new environments and how to be patient—very important skills in my line of work,” she says.
Pallares says her proudest moment was when she repatriated some young mothers with their children to their countries of origin.
“These children were abducted from their families and spent years living in the bush. It was a new beginning for them,” she says. “However, when I see happy children, particularly girls, going to school, it’s certainly a close second!”
When asked what’s next for her, she responds, “I’ve learned to never expect a clear future when working with an international organization. There are always surprises and new countries to discover.”
Although her work can be exhausting and is certainly never done, Pallares still finds the time to return home to Montreal, to relax and to regroup. And, of course, a jar of one of her favourite comfort foods, Nutella, always helps, she says.
Murielle Pallares in the field in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. The writing on her T-shirt means “no more Kadogos” (the local term for child soldiers).