Hannah Wesley ’07 is working in Amman, Jordan, at the health department of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The opportunity to serve as the organization’s associate health policy and planning officer came about following a graduate internship she completed in the department.
She graduated with a master’s in public health from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in May and was offered the job shortly after. “This is a great opportunity – the best-case scenario job I could have imagined after graduate school,” says Wesley, who notes the UNRWA is one of the largest bodies within the United Nations having nearly 30,000 employees. She is pleased that the services offered by UNRWA are located in a central location which allows her to make an impactful tangible difference to the refugees.
UNRWA was founded to care for Palestine refugees after the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. The organization is separate from United Nations organization which works with all refugees worldwide, in that it takes sole care of the Palestine refugees. In addition to housing camps, UNRWA operates 139 health centers, schools, and microfinance programs. Its headquarters are in Amman and the Gaza Strip, with field offices in Syria, Lebanon and the West Bank.
Having focused on child protection and child-friendly spaces in emergency situations as a graduate student, Wesley hopes to integrate child protection principles into her current work. One of her responsibilities is working toward ensuring the psychosocial and mental health diagnosis and referral pathways in schools and health centers are strong.
“With what’s happening in Gaza and the war in Syria now into its fourth year, child protection is particularly relevant,” she says.
In addition to her internship with UNRWA, she spent several months in Jordan working with faculty from Columbia’s Program on Forced Migration and Health as part of a three-year study between Columbia University, UNICEF and World Vision. The study focused on the effectiveness of child friendly spaces in protecting and caring for children and was conducted in both Lebanon and Jordan with Syrian refugee populations. She worked with the world’s preeminent child protection specialists and gained a firsthand understanding of what it is like to be on the ground during an emergency.
She notes it was time spent as a volunteer in Kenya in 2009 that inspired a career change, graduate school, and ultimately her current role. After graduating from William Smith with a B.A. in history and minors in sociology and American Studies, Wesley worked at a public relations firm for a short period before volunteering for Flying Kites, which runs a children’s outreach program in rural Kenya.
“Once I landed in the country and met the residents of the small village of 14,000 people, and particularly those kids who had hard childhoods, I fell in love with them and it changed my life. I knew I wouldn’t be content returning to a corporate job.”
As a result of her time volunteering at Flying Kites, she was hired as director of Oasis, one of Flying Kites’ outreach programs in Nairobi’s slums, a position she held for nearly three years. She then realized she would not be able to translate that experience into a similar job in the public health field without an advanced degree. Now, she’s surprised and thrilled to have received such a prestigious job right out of school.
“It’s incredible,” she says.
In the photo above, Wesley (second from the right) joins other headquarters staff as well as staff from the health center in Amman New Camp, one of the UNRWA camps for Palestine refugees in South Amman, Jordan.