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Gillian Cook - Coordinator, Darfur Australia Network, Sydney

Gillian Cook
'Getting involved in a volunteering capacity with community organisations is a great first step into humanitarian work. You should look at the area that interests you – whether it's women's rights or a specific country or issue.'

Fresh out of university, Gillian is well on her way to a successful journalism career. As part of her university studies, Gillian spent 12 months living and studying in Reims, France, where she discovered that career opportunities are endless and that first-hand experience is invaluable.

Gillian currently works for the Darfur Australia Network (DAN). This community network was set up in Melbourne in 2006. Gillian started as a volunteer in 2007 when the Sydney network was being formed and is now the coordinator. For World Refugee Day on June 20, DAN is organising a Darfur Festival of Culture at Bondi Mall where there will be stalls with food, craft, merchandise and advocacy messages as well as singing, dancing and theatre.

How long have you been involved with DAN?

A few years ago as a journalism student I decided to write a story about what was happening in Darfur. I covered a Sudan peace march that was taking place in Sydney. A few years later I was still interested in the subject and saw a flyer at uni promoting a discussion about Darfur and a network that was being set up in Sydney. So I went along to the lecture, got interested in what they had to say and started volunteering.

While I was a volunteer I also wrote a profile article about Darfuris living in Sydney for my investigative journalism class. I guess I just got more and more involved the more I found out about it. By September 2007 I was employed as the coordinator for the Sydney branch of DAN.

What is happening in Darfur at the moment?

For the past five years war has raged in Darfur, Western Sudan. Human rights violations in Darfur have continued unabated, leading to the deaths of a reported 400 000 people and mass displacement of an estimated 3.5 million people. The violence against civilians in Darfur has continued into 2008 and left the area at severe risk of famine and the unstable security situation hampers the effectiveness of humanitarian organisations' activities.

The Darfur crisis has been compared in the media and academia to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 after former United Nations Secretary, General Kofi Annan, highlighted the similarities. The conflict has led to what is now widely considered the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world. There have been ongoing obstructions that have delayed the full deployment of the United Nations and African Union Peacekeeping force to Darfur which means that the international community's responsibility to protect the civilians of Darfur is not being fulfilled.

What is the purpose of DAN?

It basically has three purposes. The first is to raise awareness of what is happening in Darfur to the wider Australian public. The second is to come up with policy responses and research, and advocate for certain actions to be taken towards sustainable peace in Darfur, both by the Australian Government and other organisations.

The third objective is to help in the resettlement of Darfuris in Australia. In Melbourne they're a bit further along with this and actually have a refugee working group where they can assist refugees in Cairo or Chad who are having trouble with their application process to come to Australia. We don't really have that capacity in Sydney yet, but we work with the Darfur community to find out what their needs are and where they're having problems and we try to connect them with services such as English language classes, driving lessons or homework help for the kids. We do a lot of community facilitation.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

I do a very wide range of things; from basic admin – filing, writing minutes and agendas, organising meetings, booking venues, organising catering – to liaising with all the volunteers to make sure they're happy, comfortable, and doing the tasks that have been delegated to them. I also spend time with Darfur community members to make sure the network is effectively bringing out their voice and is run by them – we try to make it as inclusive as possible. I enjoy going to the women's group each Friday and chatting with the women and playing with the kids. Additionally, I am responsible for annual planning, facilitating planning sessions, doing presentations at forums and working out the bank accounts.

How many people are involved with DAN in Sydney?

The number of people on our team is really fluid, but we've grown in the past few months. We probably have about 20 really active volunteers, which includes 10 Darfuris. Recently we've had some women from the Darfuri community join as well, which I think is a good step forward.

How do you manage this team of volunteers?

A lot of communication takes place through email, but that's not necessarily the best way to communicate with a lot of the members because many Darfuris don't have the Internet at home. So I also spend a lot of time on the phone coordinating activities. Every two weeks we have a committee meeting where we discuss what's been happening within the network and what is planned for the future. This Wednesday we're having a community meeting at Blacktown where the larger member base will be able to come along and contribute.

What are some interesting projects you've been working on recently?

We had a huge event at the end of 2007 called the Forgotten Peoples Exhibition, which was an exhibition of knots made of coloured cloth that had been tied by volunteers from all over Australia. Each knot represented a person who had been displaced in Darfur – it is estimated that between two and four million people have been displaced from their homes so far. This was a physical display to show how people in Australia are concerned about the people who are being forced out of their homes in Darfur after their villages have been destroyed. This exhibition was held at the YWCA and was accompanied by photos, speakers and singers. It was a really successful event which was publicised in the 'What's On' pages of the Sydney Morning Herald.

How does it make you feel when you hear stories from the Darfuri people?

Hearing their stories can be really painful and emotional, but that actually gives me a reason to keep going. It is a challenging job – it takes up a lot of my time and I invest a lot of emotion into the work that I do. If I didn't know these personal stories I don't think I'd be driven to continue.

One of the most important things for me is the real connection with the people who I'm working with, and that's really why DAN exists. There are people back in Darfur who are having a really horrible time, and there are people in Australia struggling as well. Hearing these stories is very sad, but it's also a positive thing as it reminds us that we have a reason to do the things we're doing.

How often do you work?

I am paid by DAN for 10 hours of work each week. I do a lot of extra work on top of those hours and I see this additional time as work that I would be doing in a volunteer capacity. This job does take up a lot of my time, but I wouldn't be doing it if I wasn't passionate about it.

I also do some freelance journalism for a variety of media and I'm currently looking for additional work to supplement my income.

How do you organise your freelance work?

I had an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald after I completed an internship there. Since then they've approached me a few times to write more stories. With other organisations, sometimes I organise work on a more permanent basis. For example, I am currently writing a number of articles for an in-house magazine at the YWCA. This type of work is sporadic so I can't rely on it as an income source.

What qualifications do you have?

I completed a Bachelor of Communication (Journalism) and International Studies (France) at the University of Technology, Sydney. I also did work experience at Gourmet Traveller Magazine, an internship at the Sydney Morning Herald as well as other journalism work placements and volunteering with the media team for APEC and the media team for the Oxfam International Youth Partnerships.

When you started uni, did you think you would end up working in community development for a not-for-profit organisation ?

The short answer is 'no', I kind of just fell into it. But I guess really deep down I'd always thought that a job like this where I'm actually working side-by-side with people to assist them to help themselves, gain resilience or gain a voice. I just like being with people and finding out about their lives. I guess it's been a natural progression, but I've been struggling for a while with the fact that I've completed a journalism degree and am now involved in this development work where I don't really know where I'm going.

What are your plans for the future?

There are so many possibilities and it's a little bit unclear at the moment as to where I'm heading. But I certainly know that I enjoy writing and working with people who have come from disadvantaged backgrounds who have really interesting stories to tell. I like working on that personal level.

Would you be interested in working overseas?

I studied in France for a year, and I'd love to somehow use my French and maybe go back and work there for a while. I caught the travel bug while I was there, and I do see working overseas as something I want to do in future, either in Africa or in the Asia Pacific.

What advice do you have for people who want to get involved in community groups?

Getting involved in a volunteering capacity with community organisations is a great first step into humanitarian work. You should look at the area that interests you – whether it's women's rights or a specific country or issue. This can be as simple as doing a search on the Internet to find a group that appeals to you. But it's important to do your research and make sure the group is operating in an ethical way, is supporting the people they're meant to support and is working in a consultative manner.

It's not an easy thing to be a volunteer. I think our world is too structured around getting money, self-improvement and taking on jobs that just look good on a resume. So if you are going to actually be inspired to do volunteering, you need to spend time with the people who really count in the area that you're interested in, because it's from them that you get your inspiration.

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