Social activist braces for daunting role in Darfur

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 March, 2008, 12:00am

From Nathan Road to Darfur: that's the challenge awaiting humanitarian worker Sarah Cornish as she leaves Hong Kong after eight years in the city to work for a refugee organisation in the war zone of Sudan.

Ms Cornish, 32, has worked for nearly three years as the manager of Christian Action's Chungking Mansions Service Centre, which helps about 2,000 asylum seekers in Hong Kong, of which about 200 are women.

In Darfur around 2.5 million people have been displaced by government-backed militias.

'I'm going to be working with the International Rescue Committee, a very large and established NGO, which has been working with refugees since ... the second world war,' Ms Cornish said. 'So they're very highly respected.' Her duties will include teaching people about children's rights and how best to protect children at risk.

Ms Cornish loves Africa, she says, having read African studies for her first degree. She will work in Darfur for 10 weeks at a time followed by 10 days' leave in Kenya to relieve the stress. 'My sister lives in Kenya and is married to a Kenyan, so it will be great to see her.'

Originally from Sussex in southern England, Ms Cornish spent a year away from Hong Kong doing youth work in Uganda. But she found she lacked the necessary skills and returned to study a master's degree in social work at the University of Hong Kong. She will be based in southern Darfur in the city of Kass, where many people live in camps and from where she will have to fly to two other camps, to avoid the threat of carjacking.

For the past three years, her life has revolved around the asylum seekers she has helped, many of whom have become friends. 'There are so few people working for refugee rights in Hong Kong, so your work does make a big difference,' she said.

'There is going to be a party before I leave. I don't know how I will handle that,' laughed Ms Cornish.

'It's inspiring to see people who have kept their sense of self worth despite the trauma they have experienced and the daily struggle here. The government needs to start developing a refugee policy, because often their lives are in limbo for one, two or three years.'

Activities at the Chungking Mansions centre include English and computer classes, as well as lawyers who help asylum seekers with their requests to the UNHCR, and doctors and counsellors who give up their free time. Ms Cornish plans to return to Hong Kong for visits but hopes to remain in Africa indefinitely.