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A Life of Service

Maria Camila Garzon-Ruiz ’12 Forges a Career in Protection

Maria Camila Garzon-Ruiz ’12 has worked towards assisting those in situations of great vulnerability. A descendant of refugees who fled Lebanon due to religious persecution, Garzon-Ruiz grew up in Colombia, a country that up until 2018 held the highest number of internally displaced people globally (6 million) resulting from over six decades of violent conflict.

“I grew up seeing many of my own countrymen displaced, begging for food and having nowhere to go,” she says. “This was something that troubled me a lot.”

When she moved to the Middle East in 2004 — first to Saudi Arabia, then Bahrain and finally Jordan — she noticed there were many people at risk of gender-based violence, sexual and labor exploitation exactly like her compatriots back in Colombia, except here they were largely immigrants. By the time Syria overtook Colombia as the country with the greatest internally-displaced population (7.6 million), Garzon-Ruiz had left Jordan to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in international studies at Texas A&M University.

Immediately following her graduation, she enrolled in a Master’s program in human rights and humanitarian action at L’institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po).

Living in Paris from 2015 to 2017, Garzon-Ruiz witnessed the height of the European migrant crisis as the number of Syrian asylum-seekers continually increased. While she volunteered with student organizations providing assistance to refugees, she longed to be back in the Middle East, working on the ground to effect change directly.

“My utmost frustration was and is to be away from the region during a time of great suffering,” she says. 

Garzon-Ruiz currently works at Heartland Alliance International (HAI), an international nonprofit organization based in Chicago. HAI implements access to justice programs, which Garzon-Ruiz defines as providing protection and support to anyone who has suffered persecution and/or a violation to their human rights, with particular focus on individuals in the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa.

In her role as a senior program officer, Garzon-Ruiz focuses her efforts on understanding patterns of humanitarian need and determining gaps in service delivery for all HAI focus regions. Her job consists of identifying funding mechanisms, critically engaging in the design process and leading her team to develop humanitarian assistance projects, ensuring that capacity building of local communities is at the heart of designs.

“The idea is to have a transfer of knowledge and to build the capacity of local organizations,” she explains. “This way, when you leave, other people are already set up to continue the delivery of services.”

To further ensure the longevity of humanitarian assistance, Garzon-Ruiz sees community service at schools as key to molding future generations of humanitarian workers and informed global citizens.

“School is a place where we learn and refine what it means to be a member of a society and what our civic duties look like,” she says. “Community service can allow you to interact with a population that you usually don’t interact with. You then have your eyes wide open to the reality of this individual’s life, and then can come back and can speak to your experience.”

While high schoolers may not have developed the professional and technical skills to provide high-level support, there are plenty of ways for interested students to get involved, as organizations are always in need of more manpower and work directly for and with the community. She encourages students to identify trustworthy organizations working in service areas they are interested in and reach out to offer their help in whatever capacity is needed.

One particular area where Garzon-Ruiz sees high schoolers as having great potential impact is in addressing tensions between the beneficiaries of humanitarian services and host community members, who may often feel that their needs are being neglected in order to prioritize those of an other.

“This can cause resentment, xenophobia, and other tensions to build up,” Garzon-Ruiz says. “One way high schoolers can mitigate this is by communicating with both groups, by facilitating spaces where they can all interact together. It could even be sports, arts, music — just something that reminds individuals that they have more things in common than differences.”