As a world-traveling humanitarian worker, Shannon O’Rourke ’07 brings an international perspective to the late IWU President Minor Myers’ oft-quoted urging for new graduates to go forth into the world “and do good.”
For O’Rourke, doing good in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) means providing access to education for children whose lives have been torn apart by a conflict that is entering its second decade.
O’Rourke is stationed in the heart of this conflict, in Goma, the capital of the war-torn province of North Kiva. Even as politicians and rebel leaders attempt to negotiate some definition of peace in North Kiva, armed groups continue small-scale fighting. A weak central government and armed rebels all seeking to control areas with access to mines rich in gold and coltan — a metallic ore used to produce many electronic devices — have created a toxic mix where “there is no peace, but only lulls between violence,” says O’Rourke.
Just outside Goma, internally displaced person camps ring the city, filled with Congolese who have fled their homes because of violence associated with a rebel force known as the M23 movement, as well as other armed groups. Peace talks between the central government and the M23 continue, but the death and suffering have not paused as numerous armed groups continue to fight.
In a piece published on the CNN website in February, Save the Congo founder Vava Tampa summed up the situation: “Invasions, proxy wars and humanitarian crises have senselessly shut down millions of lives, displaced millions more from their homes and left countless women and young girls brutally raped, with the world barely raising an eyebrow.”
O’Rourke is doing what she can to help. Her job with the non-profit Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) involves managing all education-in-emergencies programming for the organization in the Congo. The projects she oversees include constructing temporary schools or rebuilding ones that have been destroyed by violence, providing equipment and supplies and training teachers. She also coordinates “catch-up” classes for students who have missed school after fleeing their homes due to the war or whose schools were closed because occupiers have taken them over.
“There are over 2.4 million internally displaced people in the Congo, and that number continues to grow,” she says. “In one of the provinces where I work, about 500 schools have been damaged by the escalation of fighting since April 2012. There is much to be done.”
It’s work that, in many ways, began at Illinois Wesleyan, where O’Rourke made her first steps overseas. A political science and international studies double major, she gained a new perspective on the world through courses such as “Third World Women” and “Politics in Africa.”
As a junior, she studied abroad for a semester in Switzerland. For her research project, she worked with a World Trade Organization representative from the East African nation of Tanzania. “The experience pushed me to want to discover Africa firsthand,” says O’Rourke. “I simply made up my mind that I would go.”
From the experience, O’Rourke also realized “I wanted to expand my interest in international relations to international development as well.” But perhaps the greatest benefit of study abroad, she says, was simply learning to adapt to the culture and customs of a new country. “It’s not an easy transition the first time,” she says, “so having that experience as a student helped me when I needed to do it professionally as well.”
After graduation, O’Rourke received a Rotary Cultural Ambassador Scholarship to Senegal. To make the most of the opportunity, she extended her stay by taking an internship with a small non-profit called 10,000 Girls, which works to lower the soaring school dropout rate among girls in the Kaolack region of Senegal. As part of her internship, O’Rourke helped start a bookmobile to travel to villages in the region, where books are rare.
O’Rourke returned to the U.S. to earn a master’s degree in international development at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Her studies focused on international community development, empowering communities through education and capacity building — skills that would serve her well in what came next.
She returned to Africa in 2010 to serve as a site manager with FORGE, a developmental organization in the Meheba Refugee Settlement in Zambia. O’Rourke then moved to Kalonge in the DRC as a site program manager with International Medical Corps. She joined the Norwegian Refugee Council, Norway’s largest humanitarian foundation, in 2012. Recognized as one of the most important international aid organizations in the Congo, NRC is also a close partner with the United Nations to bring aid and support to the many who need assistance in the region.
In Goma, where O’Rourke is stationed, tens of thousands of people were displaced after M23 rebels seized the city of one million for several weeks in late 2012. DRC military and UN Peacekeeping trucks commonly patrol the roads, and there are blackouts several times a day, but life in Goma is not without some pleasures. “I love to dance, and it’s great to be in a place where music and dancing is such a big part of the culture,” says O’Rourke, who has judged competitions of breakdancers and hip hop artists in the city.
O’Rourke will earn another passport stamp in May when she travels to Hiroshima, Japan, as a representative to the Rotary Global Peace Forum. One of three such Rotary events to be held this year, the Hiroshima event’s theme is “Peace Through Service” — a theme that resonates throughout her post-college experiences.
Asked where her path may lead next, O’Rourke responds: “Good question, one of my family’s favorites. All I can say is I take life one step at a time.” What inspires the steps she has taken to go out into the world and do good? The answer can be found in a quote by Mahatma Gandhi that is among her favorites: “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.”