Combining engineering with international aid work has helped Sarah Davies lend her expertise to rebuilding infrastructure in Syria, Chad, Haiti and more.
The conflict in Syria has forced more than 4 million people to leave the country, and left more than 13 million people within Syria unable to return to their homes and in need of help after infrastructure and services were destroyed. Fixing infrastructure and services sounds like a job for an engineer, and that is exactly what Australian Sarah Davies has been doing there through international aid work on behalf of the Red Cross.
Based out of Tartus on the coast just to the north of Lebanon, Davies and her team, including three local Syrian engineers, were responsible for looking after the water and sanitation program for three of Syria’s 14 governorates: Tartus itself, Latakia to the north and Idlib, an inland area to the northeast.
“Idlib is an active conflict zone. The north and northeast of Latakia, which is mountainous, is too,” Davies said.
“But in most of southern Latakia and Tartus there’s been not much active conflict. There was some unrest in the very beginning, but since mid to late 2011 it’s been stable.”
That stability has meant Tartus and Latakia are playing host to many of the country’s internally displaced people, causing the local population to double and putting lots of pressure on basic services.
“We had two main areas of work. We would work with the local water boards and sewage companies for general assistance and service provision to the whole population,” Davies said.
“We were also doing work with the displaced people, unblocking sewers, doing conversions in the schools for some of the toilet cubicles, the shower cubicles, provision of hot water as well as cold water supply, solid waste collection, hygiene parcels, replacing taps – all those kinds of things in those centres.”
Although part of her area was in an active conflict zone, Davies says she never came too close for comfort. “There’s a little mountain range that runs between Tartus and Idlib, so while there were often skirmishes in the mountain range, that sort of conflict didn’t come closer,” she said.
And when they needed to get people or water trucks into Idlib or other dangerous areas, the Syrian Red Crescent would find local contractors.
What do I really want to do?
Davies knew she wanted to be an engineer from the age of 15.
“For me it was a case of, if you enjoy maths and chemistry, and you want to do something practical, then engineering is the logical choice,” she said.
At the same time, she was also starting to think more globally.
“We had a school trip to Indonesia when I was 15, and that was something that really opened my eyes to the wider world outside.”
After graduation, she decided she wanted to work for a company big enough to give her opportunities to go overseas. That desire led her to a job in the water industry with Memcor, which she found valuable and stuck with for 10 years. But she knew she wanted to do something more with her life.
“My father’s been a volunteer for Vinnies for more than fifty years. My mum was volunteering at the school tuck shop and she was our brownie guide leader. They were very active in the community and volunteer service was a part of it,” Davies said.
“I saw an ad in the paper for Australian Volunteers International. It allowed you to take your skills and go overseas and apply them. I thought, that sounds like a good fit for me.”
She knew she was good at her job and enjoyed the technical side and the engineering side. But this allowed her to feel she was doing something more meaningful.
Her first volunteer role was in Fiji where she spent nearly two years with an intergovernmental agency, working with water authorities throughout the Pacific.
“I did things like help with the water management system in the island of Niue, or we were doing rainwater harvesting projects in Southern Tonga. It was wide ranging across the Pacific,” she said.
“From there, I joined the Red Cross, and I went to the Island of Simeulue in Indonesia after the Boxing Day tsunami. Simeulue was very close to the epicentre of the earthquake. It didn’t have huge waves, but because it was so close to the epicentre, almost every building on the island had been damaged by the earthquake itself.
“I was there quite some time, doing a long term recovery project, working on wells for water supply, and toilets and the hygiene promotion around toilets because people weren’t used to having organised sanitation. It was an integrated health and water sanitation hygiene project there for about a thousand households.”
Her next posting was an 18-month stint in a refugee camp in Chad in central Africa.
“That camp probably had somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000 people in it. We were providing the water supply and the sanitation there,” she said.
“After the first six months I became field coordinator there, so I was responsible for, not just the water and sanitation program, but the international rescue committee, camp management, education, child protection, gender-based violence, and the health program. We ran both the hospital in the village where we lived, and also in the camp. That was a very full on experience.”
Once again her engineering training was invaluable with this new role.
“What the engineering training really sets you up for is a logical approach to problems, to be able to break things down because, especially in emergency responses, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by things that are going on,” she said.
“As engineers, we’re trained to break down a problem, to take things step by step, to prioritise, to look at what we can do, and that has been a good basis for me.”
Gamut of humanity
The job can be tough and not just in disaster zones. Returning to Australia after 18 months away, she realises the lives of friends and family have continued without her, which she finds sobering.
“But I think I’m very privileged through the work that I do, to have a window into places that many people will never really get a chance to see or to understand,” she said.
“One of the things that also really encourages me is that the more places I go to and the more people I meet and get to know in these places, the more it’s reinforced that we have much more in common than we do that divides us. We live in a time where there’s a lot of divisive politics about race and religion, but you can go to Syria and see all the same kinds of people that you see in Australia or anywhere else.
“There’s the good people, the bad people, the people with lots of energy, the people who are always wanting to help other people, the people who are always trying to rip other people off. I meet lots of people, especially in places like Syria or Chad where people are often living in very difficult circumstances, but are still giving to others, and that I find very inspiring.”