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The Improbable Journey

The Improbable Journey

“I began as a dancer”

Andrew Jones found his way from a dance conservatory in the suburbs of New York to a job protecting children and comforting residents of all ages along a tense ceasefire line in eastern Ukraine.

The journey Andrew Jones took to his current position—managing a successful emergency child protection and psychosocial support program in eastern Ukraine—had an unlikely start: a dance conservatory in New York.

“I began as a dancer,” says Jones, laughing at the distance between his initial passion and his current challenge as head of an International Medical Corps program to protect children and provide psychosocial support to residents of all ages living in communities along an uneasy line of contact that separates government forces and Russian-backed rebels in the Donetsk Region of Eastern Ukraine. 

Jones explains how his journey started unexpectedly: while studying dance at Purchase College, in New York City’s northern suburbs, he decided to complete a semester studying abroad in Cairo. While there, he volunteered with St. Andrew’s Refugee Services, StARS, whose goal was to meet the unaddressed needs of migrants flowing into the Egyptian capital from elsewhere in Africa and the war zones of the Middle East—places like Iraq, South Sudan and Somalia. 

After switching majors and graduating with dual degrees in journalism and sociology, he moved briefly to Latin America, teaching English and volunteering to work with street youth in Ecuador and Peru before returning to the U.S. to do similar work on the streets of New York City, his hometown. There, he supplemented his teaching job by joining the Ashoka Changemakers program that encourages youth from underserved communities to become community leaders and implement sustainable, youth-led, social venture projects that create positive change in their communities.

In 2010, he became part of the massive relief effort in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake there, which claimed nearly a quarter of a million lives. After serving there with an Irish NGO organising psychosocial support activities for orphaned children, he returned to New York, working with the city’s homeless population, establishing support groups, teaching what he called “daily living skills” and administering support programs for those struggling to cope with substance-abuse issues or mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“It was tough but rewarding work,” he says. “I learned a lot.”

Along the way, Jones had switched his academic study to develop the knowledge and skills more aligned with his interest in humanitarian work. He earned an advanced degree in public health from Columbia University, focusing on child protection and mental health/psychosocial support (MHPSS) within the context of forced migration. A graduation requirement to do field work in his area of specialty took him to northern Uganda, where he worked as an evaluator on programs dealing with child protection, livelihoods, disaster risk management and trans-cultural psychosocial issues. 

His love of Cairo would eventually call him back, but this time working with StARS’s Unaccompanied Youth Bridging Program (UYBP)—a specialised education and psychosocial program for unaccompanied children and youth designed to reinforce positive relationships, increase confidence and self-reliance, reduce isolation and provide bridges to meaningful activities.

“Most were unaccompanied adolescents between 14 and 17 years old who didn’t have much support,” he recalls. “These youth experienced lots of racism, physical violence and discrimination, in addition to challenges with accessing health services and housing. They had no opportunity at all for education. The result of all this often resulted in despondency, loss of hope, increased fear and anxiety. Even children eight to ten years old would come through our doors in need of support services. That became my focus. It changed my life.”

His advanced degree, coupled with such rich and varied experience gathered on the streets of New York and foreign countries on four continents, drew the attention of International Medical Corps last year, prompting us to hire Jones to manage a program supporting thousands of civilians living in the towns and villages along the Ukrainian line of contact.

Jones’ task: increase access for those caught in the unrest to a number of quality services, including child protection (CP), gender-based violence (GBV) prevention and response, and psychosocial support services (PSS). The program he managed offers support to those living in both government- and non-government-controlled areas.

During the 9-month period between May 2017 and February 2018, our teams helped nearly 3,800 individuals, including more than 100 who had been forced to flee their homes elsewhere and live as internally displaced persons (IDPs). 

The breadth of issues Jones and his team must deal with, together with the geographical spread of beneficiaries scattered along both sides of the line of contact and the need to traverse the sensitive ceasefire line frequently, present formidable logistics and managerial challenges. For Jones, preventing staff burnout is among the toughest of these challenges.  

“From the minute we arrive to the time we leave a location, we’re extremely busy,” said Jones. “Then there’s all the administrative tasks and case work on top of that. Sometimes our staff meetings begin at 8 p.m.”

Psychosocial support and GBV prevention/response services are often different elements of the same response. At the International Medical Corps project in Ukraine, GBV and CP/PSS case workers ride together on community visits as part of the same mobile protection team, and the case workers are cross-trained, building a mutual awareness that helps them to work together as a single unified team.

“Their tasks often complement each other and, because they travel together, they always arrive as a single group,” says Jones. “It presents a sense of strength and fosters cooperation. For example, if a GBV session on power relationships becomes emotionally charged and a group participant expresses distress and discloses a related experience, we could have one of our GBV staff provide direct support individually and offer to refer the person to a psychologist for a more focused-level of support.”

International Medical Corps' team in the Ukraine also employs community outreach workers—often teachers or librarians whose lives are anchored in the community where they live and work. They can help identify those who need assistance, organise community-based recreational activities or simply explain the work of International Medical Corps to village residents. “Trust is always an issue when you are working in child protection and PSS,” Jones explains. “People ask if we’re a religious or communal group. They want to know why we’re there. These workers are from the community and can explain our role. They help build the trust we need to do our job.

“You don’t see that in other organisations,” he notes. “It adds an additional layer of trust. It’s one of our advantages.” 

Jones also cites another advantage that International Medical Corps enjoys in the mental health field: the acknowledged quality of its work:

“The level of respect we command is very high,” he says. “We’re known globally.”

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