Meet 5 Women Breaking Down Barriers

To honor International Women’s Day, we’d like to introduce you to some of the women on our staff whose tireless efforts makes Relief International’s work possible. First observed by the United Nations in 1975, the day aims to spotlight gender inequality issues that persist globally and to recognize women’s achievements to narrow this gap.

At Relief International, women are at the forefront of the organization, serving in a number of senior leadership positions as Country Directors, Program Officers, Project Managers, as well as RI’s President and CEO. While we might be biased, we think we’ve got the most passionate, driven and dedicated staff around, which is why we’d like to celebrate their accomplishments on International Women’s Day.

Read on to meet some of the RI women working day in and day out to ensure the people we serve in fragile settings receive the support they need.

1. Introduce yourself. When and why did you join Relief International?

Nancy Wilson, President & CEO: On International Women’s Day 2019, I will be one week-short of celebrating five years at Relief International.  What an amazing privilege I’ve had to be given the responsibility of CEO, and work with our talented and growing team. I heard about the position at Relief International through one of our board members whom I knew from college, many years ago.  Prior to joining RI, my career was focused more on the development side of programming in the United States and Africa, but also included work in the private sector and at a university, focused on building civic skills among college students. Now, I’ve been able to tap all of those experiences, and learn about many new areas, including humanitarian programming, the Middle East and Asia, building teams across borders, and how to minimize jet lag. 

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Deka closes the books with colleagues on the RI Somalia finance team.

Deka Islam, Finance Manager, Somalia: Oddly enough, my passion for numbers led me to join Relief International. When you hear the phrase “humanitarian assistance”, people tend to envision staff in khaki vests distributing food, clean water or other life-saving supplies, not all of the financial processes that make this work possible. I joined RI in Somalia because I wanted to use my passion for numbers to make a meaningful impact in the lives of the people we serve.

Andrea Patterson, Country Director for Turkey: I’ve lived and worked in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey with some brief stints in New York and London. In this field, everyone knows everyone so I heard about a short-term opening with Relief International as the Country Director for Lebanon. I really wanted to continue the work I was doing at the time to support families affected by the Syria crisis so I applied and got the position. When my post in Lebanon ended, there was another vacancy in RI, this time in Turkey. I’ve served as RI’s Country Director for Turkey ever since, which has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

Khadija Mehmood, Advocacy Specialist, Afghanistan: I joined Relief International’s team in Afghanistan just over a year ago. I grew up in a refugee camp in Pakistan, where international organizations supported my family with everything from food, clean water and warm winter clothes. Later, as I grew older, these same organizations provided me with an education, school supplies and a safe space to study inside the camp. Not everyone was as lucky as I was. Many of our neighbors and friends from Afghanistan passed away from the hardships of being a refugee. My childhood experiences living in a camp had a big influence on who I am today.

Norma "Bing" Constantino, Program Coordinator, Philippines: Hello! My name is Norma Constantino. Or, as my friends affectionately call me, Bing! I have worked in this field for many, MANY years now. When I first started out, I was working with women living in some of Manila’s worst slums where I helped to run a daycare center so that these women could find work or go to school knowing that their children were being looked after. Building on this experience, I joined Relief International’s team in the Philippines, right around International Women’s Day last year so this March is also my RI anniversary! 

2. What motivated you to pursue a career in this field?

Nancy: When I was young my family moved to Central America for a few years.  The experience of seeing the impact of poverty on people’s lives there, and then seeing the poverty also in the U.S. through more open eyes, gave me an early confidence that these were issues I wanted to address.  It’s all about increasing opportunities for those without access.

Deka: I’ve always had a head for numbers. I started my career in the private sector, working for one of Somalia’s largest energy companies, before I realized that numbers can be used for so much more than turning profits. Numbers can save lives. Determining how each dollar Relief International receives in government grants and private donations is spent can be the difference between life and death for people in fragile communities.

Andrea: I spent the summer after I turned twenty volunteering at an HIV/AIDS orphanage in Zimbabwe. I will never forget meeting a grief-stricken mother, just hours after her baby passed away. Later, I learned that there were very few health services available in her village. If only there was a hospital nearby, her child would most likely have survived. Life is so tough for so many people and I remember thinking it is just luck where you are born. It was also during this summer that I realized I could actually pursue a career in this field, not just volunteer. So, I went back to Canada and got a Master’s in International Development and, later, another Master’s in Public Health, all while travelling back and forth to the field. 

Khadija: Growing up as a refugee in a camp, most of my friends and neighbors were illiterate people with very limited access to education. As a girl child, I always thought my future would only amount to learning to cook or clean. However, when my father retired, he started to take active steps to educate me by helping me learn English and practicing countless math drills. He inspired me to improve myself, and working for Relief International allows me to pay his good deeds further to other vulnerable women. Everyone needs a hand up in life. My father provided that to me, and I wish to provide that to other young women through my work at this organization. 

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Bing meets with tribal elders in the southern Philippines.

Bing: Early on in my career, I served as one of the lead negotiators advocating for women’s rights in the midst of one of the worst clan feuds in Mindanao, an impoverished area in the southern Philippines plagued by decades of conflict. This was a pivotal moment for me. Women make up half of the world’s population and yet we are so often silenced. This experience pushed me to advocate on behalf of vulnerable women, helping their voices to be recognized and heard, especially in conflict-affected areas. 


3. What project or projects are you currently working on?

Nancy: My major project at present is to prepare for Brexit’s looming March 29th deadline. Both the European Union and United Kingdom are generous funders of our work. As they prepare to split ways, with or without a deal, we’re finalizing our own plans to ensure that the programs in which our clients and beneficiaries currently participate aren’t affected by Brexit.

Deka: I manage a small, five-person team that oversees the finances for RI’s largest programs in Somalia. These programs address a number of key needs including education for displaced children, healthcare in fragile settings and delivering nutritional assistance for communities who experience famine far too often. My favorite RI program supports girls’ education in marginalized communities across Somalia by providing scholarships to help girls to stay in school, graduate and become leaders in their communities.

Andrea: When I first started at Relief International, I oversaw our organization’s cross-border work from Turkey into northwest Syria as well as our response in Turkey supporting Syrian refugees. Later, RI created a dedicated Syria team so that my position now focuses exclusively on supporting Syrian refugees in Turkey. We provide mental health services and prosthetics, and I’m particularly keen on our work with Turkish universities and research centers to document the healthcare needs of Syrian refugees to help support them over the long-term.

Khadija: I am the Advocacy Specialist for RI’s Women’s Enterprise, Advocacy & Training Program (WEAT), which works to empower marginalized women and girls across Afghanistan. I work regularly with religious leaders, the Afghan police and local community elders to advocate for women’s rights and to develop strategies to prevent gender-based violence and child marriage in some of Afghanistan’s most conservative provinces.

Bing: The two projects I’m currently working on both focus on protecting the rights of indigenous peoples in the Philippines. Often, indigenous people face a number of problems related to the protection of their distinct way of life. We work with indigenous populations and local authorities in remote areas of the Philippines to help protect the rights and culture of the country’s oldest tribes.

4. Describe what your typical day looks like.

Nancy: So many meetings!  And, actually, I love meetings, because they represent team work, planning, problem-solving, bringing together people with different backgrounds, skills and perspectives, to advance our goals of making a positive difference in the lives of vulnerable people in fragile settings.  That’s always our focus.

Deka: My workday is always busy! Whether it’s reviewing budgets, authorizing payments, preparing financial reports for our institutional donors, attending trainings or closing the books at the end of the month, there’s never a dull moment (well, it’s not dull for me at least!) Whenever I can, I will also visit our program sites in the field and meet with beneficiaries in person. It helps to put all of my hard work into perspective. 

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Andrea is interviewed by EuroNews about our mental health and prosthetics programs for Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Andrea: Every day is different. It’s really a juggling act – there are so many balls in the air and you have to keep them all moving. I have a large team, with 12 people reporting directly to me, so I need to ensure we are all organized, on the same page and working towards a common goal. There are also meetings with government partners, UN agencies, and peer NGOs that we are collaborating with. And, most importantly, I visit the centers where we operate. Finding time for this is really important – the services we provide is why we do the jobs we do – so hearing from clinical staff and talking to the people we serve about how we can make their lives better is an essential part of my job. It takes a lot of Turkish coffee to get everything done, but it’s worth it.

Khadija: My day is split between my professional career and personal home life. Often, I wake up early to manage my house and stay up late to accomplish all of the tasks I didn’t get to finish at work. It’s demanding but I am passionate about both my work and home life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bing: As a single mom, my day starts early. In the mornings, I wake up and immediately start whipping up breakfast before my son wakes up. When I have the chance, I will drive my son to school. I cherish these car rides because as a working mom, I’m often already at work before he leaves for school. 

5. What advice would you offer to women interested in pursuing a career in international development?

Nancy: Find strength in the compromises. Stand up for yourself.  Embrace allies who support you.

Deka: What I’ve learned over my career is: there will always be obstacles that stand in your way. But, your work ethic can speak volumes and help to break down these barriers. Work hard, don’t go for shortcuts and believe in yourself.

Andrea: It is the most demanding and rewarding job, but it’s not easy. Work hours are rarely 9 to 5 pm.  The environment is very transient, friends and colleagues are constantly moving away. There are also times when I walk into a meeting full of men and sit at the table – they look at me puzzled and ask, “Well, who are you? We were expecting your boss.” You can’t let this bother you. It’s more important for you to be decisive, speak up, and make your voice heard.

Khadija: Afghanistan is a very difficult place to be a woman. Opportunities for women here are so rare; my advice to Afghan women is don’t let a single one pass you by!

Bing: Use your passions to make this world a better place to live. 


To learn more about professional opportunities at Relief International, visit our careers page