Ryan Duly remembers the experience of being initiated as an elder of the Pokot community in Kenya as being “quite surreal.”
It took place following his participation in a project aimed at helping prevent disabilities.
“I had to dance, I had to put on the regalia,” the White Rock man recalled last month, during an interview from his current post in Uganda.
“It was a full-blown ceremony – one I’ll never forget.”
Duly was in the community for a peace-building project through Humanity & Inclusion (HI), a charity that works to help improve conditions for disabled and otherwise vulnerable refugees.
At the time, Duly said, two ethnic groups had long been at odds, and the fighting had left many with disabling injuries.
While the initiation was surreal, “these are the moments also you think, what really have I done?” he said.
“At the end of the day, (there is) so much more to do.”
At 43, Duly is no stranger to international aid – or to living in Africa, for that matter. He first moved to the continent with his parents at age six, and spent the majority of his formative years surrounded by humanitarian efforts.
“That’s sort of the environment that I grew up in for most of my childhood and teenage years,” he said.
From time to time, he would go with his dad, who was an international aid worker, to see projects underway by various organizations that were working to improve conditions.
His earliest memory of the impact is from Mali – which he described as “basically, a desert” – in the 1980s.
“When he was working for CARE (Canada), they would go out and they would be digging wells for communities, in order to be able to get water,” Duly said. “In those environments, there was hardly any water available.”
The well project Duly visited “really became this magical element” that represented the impact that could be made, he said, adding such experiences continued throughout the family’s time abroad.
In addition to Uganda and Kenya, Duly’s years with HI have included time in Tanzania, Somalia, Thailand and Cambodia. In Cambodia, he led development of the government’s first road safety policy and strategy.
For the past two years, he has held the position of country manager for HI in Uganda, described as Africa’s largest refugee-hosting country. There, HI’s efforts are focused on identifying refugees with specific needs, including those with disabilities and the elderly, and co-ordinating with other humanitarian organizations to make sure they receive the support they need.
HI staff provide everything from rehabilitative therapies and mobility aids, to counselling.
“There are refugees that have quite severe mental trouble,” Duly said. “They have seen quite severe tragedies. They’re still living with that trauma. Another part of the work that we do is provide psychological counselling to help them overcome.”
Duly’s role encompasses a broad range of responsibilities, from fundraising and co-ordination of projects, to representing the organization to the United Nation and other partners, and ensuring the safety and security of staff working on the frontlines.
He pointed to a small outbreak of Ebola in Uganda as an example of responsibilities that fall under the latter role.
The outbreak is “very far from where we are working, but it is my role to ensure that our staff are well-prepared and know exactly what they need to know to prevent an Ebola outbreak,” he said.
Duly – who, in some capacity, oversees some 90 staff and around a dozen volunteers – acknowledged he has a lot on his plate, but described it as “exciting” work.
Most challenging is “making sure projects and activities we implement are really meeting the needs,” and actually reach the people who need them most.
Two main groups of refugees are coming to the peaceful country, he said; South Sudanese who are fleeing civil war, and Congolese fleeing rebel groups that are causing chaos.
Uganda, Duly noted, has “a very welcoming policy” around refugees. They comprise around 1.3 million of the country’s 40 million population.
He described those with disabilities as “quite a neglected group.”
Of refugees, 15 to 20 per cent have some form of disability or injury, he said. As humanitarian response is about meeting the needs of as wide a population as possible, “those with specific needs can be overlooked,” he said.
“We have to make sure people understand the difficulties that they face,” he said.
“We can bring out the voice of people with disabilities or the voice of the elderly.”
Duly said he feels “satisfied and inspired by the work that HI is doing in Uganda,” but he was hesitant to say he is making a difference.
“What I’ve learned over time… yes, we can make a difference, but what is most important is that we are attempting to work alongside communities so they can… help themselves,” he said.
There is “definitely” more to do, he added.
“We’re only scratching the surface in terms of the needs for that group. Not even scratching the surface – just a drop in the bucket.”
Duly said his hometown bond hasn’t wavered over the years – “every time I go back (to White Rock), the pull is strong,” he said – but he’s not yet ready to return on a permanent basis.
“White Rock was always the home base. It continues to be my home. Certainly, I do have a desire to go back and either work from there or retire there,” he said.
But, “not at the moment.”