Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Leaving Diaspora Action Australia

DAA Donor Drive "thank you" messages; photo: Dinesh Liyanage
Today was my last day of work at Diaspora Action Australia. It's been an amazing and rewarding three and a half years. A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by one of our writers, Amy Rashap (photo below right), and the piece below is hers. It will be published on the DAA website in the near future. Interspersed photos (photographer: Nick Chiarizia) are just a few of the wonderful people I've been working with during my time at DAA.
Amy Rashap. Photo: Nick Chiarizia

Nicky Reiss: Nothing is Permanent (but the important things remain the same)

Nicky Reiss is usually the first person any Diaspora Action Australia (DAA) volunteer will meet. Her green eyes look at you searchingly, yet her face is friendly and open. Once you start speaking with her, she makes it clear that she is listening—really listening—to you. This combination of cool-headed analysis and friendly intuition are just two of the reasons why she has been such an asset as volunteer coordinator for DAA. There is an even greater number of reasons why we are all very sad to see her go.

Nicky comes from a cosmopolitan family that exposed her to global issues. Her father was born in Germany, but was raised in the U.K. Nicky’s mother, a U.S. citizen, met her future husband while both were students in the U.S. As the owner of a wool business, Nicky’s father often entertained international visitors at home. She also became interested in international affairs due to her paternal grandmother, Franziska Simonis. Born in Germany in 1899 into a Jewish family, Franziska and some family members were able to escape to the U.K., avoiding internment in concentration camps. After WWII, Franziska worked as a volunteer in the British Council for Aid to Refugees (now called the Refugee Council). ‘She helped refugees settle in the U.K.,’ Nicky recounts. ‘Hearing about this experience had a huge effect on me—I think it’s one of the reasons why I chose a career path involving travel and working with people around the world.’

Travel? She’s done it. After university (where she spent time in both Austria and France), Nicky’s wanderlust took her to Indonesia for two years, as a VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) volunteer. While she had wanted to be placed in China, the VSO decided Indonesia was the place for her. ‘I had visited a friend in Indonesia for a week,’ Nicky laughs, ‘and when the VSO asked if I had any experience in that country, I said, “Yes, I have been in Indonesia for seven days,” and that was enough for them.’

Nicky has lived in the UK, Australia, the US (including Hawaii), Austria, France, Indonesia, Malta, New Zealand, Timor Leste, DR Congo, and Rwanda. She has worked for universities, INGOs, and on the UN mission in East Timor (UNTAET).

 Then, Nicky’s life took an unexpected twist. ‘On 26 December 2005 I woke up; I was in Rwanda, and just was not well,’ Nicky narrates. Suffering from debilitating exhaustion, plus noise and food sensitivities, she spent the next eight years trying to get a handle on her complex disease. After numerous misdiagnoses (including myalgic encephalomyelitis, aka ’chronic fatigue syndrome’), she came to live with her family in Melbourne. ‘I thought I would never be able to work again,’ she recollects. ‘And once you’re diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, that’s it: most doctors just give up on you.’

If you look up Nicky on Google, you will see that she is a tireless blogger and tweeter. ‘I began doing online advocacy because of my illness,’ she said. ‘I was constantly doing research on the internet. I began contacting people with the same symptoms as me on Facebook. We are all given this wastebasket diagnosis; we knew research had to be done, and no one was doing it.’ As a result of these efforts she firmly believes in the value of social media. ‘For people with disabilities, Facebook is a lifesaver. We created networks and a wonderfully supportive environment. Through Facebook I learned about advocacy and it was something that helped me get this job at DAA.’
(Nicky finally found a good doctor in Melbourne, and avows that her health is now 85 to 90% restored.)

Being volunteer coordinator at DAA is the first job Nicky has held since 2008, and the organisation has been lucky to have her for more than three and a half years. ‘What have I loved about this job? The volunteers,’ Nicky states immediately. ‘I get to meet interesting, amazing people, especially young people, full of energy and enthusiasm. We’ve had volunteers from Africa, the Middle East, Europe, the Americas, as well as Australia—and I’ve learnt so much from each of them. It’s especially exciting to see what each person can contribute to DAA.’ Nicky proudly relates that several DAA volunteers have parleyed their skills into careers in international development, finding placements in Oxfam and Plan International.

Nicky is especially proud of having developed the DAA communications team from a unit of one individual to a group of writers, web editors, photographers, social media specialists, and graphic designers. She is also pleased with how DAA itself has matured: the organisation developed a new strategic plan in late 2012, and following on from that a communications plan, an income generation plan, an operational plan and a program logic model.

 ‘I also believe in this organisation’s mission: to support diaspora community initiatives; provide resources, information and training; facilitate dialogue and shared learning,’ she observes. Nicky narrates several examples of well-meaning Western organisations who have attempted to effect change in developing countries without having a solid grasp of the local scene. ‘So often, these great-sounding projects just disintegrate because there is no understanding of how local people live every day,’ she says. ‘It makes more sense to train people from developing countries—as DAA does—and these people can then bring back that knowledge to their countries. They know the territory.’

‘I would also like to see Australia recognise that diaspora groups can play a key role in international development. When we have this recognition, we might be able to get more funding, work with more groups, and then we can grow,’ she says optimistically.

 Nicky will be leaving DAA in July to return to her house in Hawaii. (She had worked there for almost ten years, in the 1990s.) ‘What’s in store for me?’ Nicky muses. ‘Perhaps I’ll get part-time work in Hilo, teaching ESL; I have contacts at the university there. I’m thinking of doing consulting for individuals who wish to contribute to non-profits. I’m excited about the possibilities!’

 Everything does, indeed, change. And, for Nicky, changes—even tough ones—are to be met with courage and grace. ‘My mantra is, “Change is good,” so it doesn’t frighten me,’ Nicky says, and smiles her wonderful smile. ‘I’m willing to do things on my own, and to accept the challenges as they’re given to me.’

Amy Rashap - writer.

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