A medical student’s journey into the world of UN humanitarian work

Niveta Ramakrishnan describes the United Nations’ training for humanitarian work abroad

“Hey fam!” followed by a chuckle. That is the last greeting you would expect from a training paediatric cardiac surgeon, tackling the Irish refugee crisis in her spare time. Yet so it was, meeting the bubbly 21 year old Niveta Ramakrishnan in the foyer of the Irish Film Institute. Shoulders back, standing tall and relaxed, she grabbed a coffee before sitting down to explain some of her work and the range of possibilities available to students to both contribute and learn about the refugee crisis in Ireland.

Living in the centre of town, Ramakrishnan quickly establishes herself as a friendly, yet serious character, spanning organisations from the Irish Red Cross to the United Nations Training School Ireland, to the National Youth Council of Ireland. Originally from India, Ramakrishnan shared her story and how she had ended up in Dublin. “I came to Ireland five years ago by myself, for my Leaving Certificate. In 2012 I got the opportunity to go to NASA and at the time, had no plans to go to Ireland or to study abroad. Before that, I had only been on family holidays to places like Sri Lanka.” Highlighting the importance of following one’s passion, Ramakrishnan described how, while she felt engaged by the subject, it was medicine that resonated with her and so she continued to explore her options.

Unsure of how to proceed, she talked to her father who told her, “change is the only constant”. This clearly played a pivotal role in Ramakrishnan’s life. She emotionally described her father’s encouraging and reassuring attitude towards her education. When he asked her whether she would like to study abroad, she claimed she didn’t think too far ahead because she wouldn’t have gone through with it. Instead, when Ireland was recommended to her for its friendly and open culture, Ramakrishnan said: “I thought this one step would take me one step closer to my life goals though. And so, I did fifth and sixth year in the Institute of Higher Education on Leeson Street. After that, I went to the Royal College of Surgeons (RCSI), and chose the six year programme.”

“You know for sure it was happening because you were getting it straight from the source.”

From there, Ramakrishnan dipped her feet in whatever interested her. Sampling societies from the Surgical to the Inspirational Ideas society, it was the Hiking and Trekking society where she met two students in the year above who were interested in helping with the refugee crisis. “As students, we felt obliged to help. We have a high student population from the Arabic nations which can be used to integrate refugees into the communities. And so we contacted the Irish Red Cross in order to try and break down barriers.” The three students went on to become the representatives for the RCSI in Fáilte: Facing the Global Refugee Crisis, led by the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins.

Having established a name for herself, Ramakrishnan was approached by Patrick Mullan from the Irish Air Corp. With his involvement in the United Nations Training School, Mullan suggested Ramakrishnan attend some of their civilian courses to further develop the skills necessary in humanitarian work. Crediting Thomas Fitzpatrick, Jim Hannigan, and Timothy O’Brien as equally important in her journey, it was at this point Ramakrishnan wholeheartedly pursued work with the UN.

Ramakrishnan applied to the RCSI to miss term time and attend the two-week long training in the Curragh. Once approved, she attended and soon found herself the only civilian in a military context. “Oh my goodness”, she laughed, “they said, it’s going to be students, probably in their 20s or 30s. They were all in their 50s and officers! I did get a lot out of it, because what you read in newspapers is not the entire picture. There, people had seen it with their own eyes, had their own stories and expressed how as peacekeepers they would have to address the situation. All the experiences that were shared were very powerful because it was all happening, and you know for sure it was happening because you were getting it straight from the source.”

“Ramakrishnan was to analyse a case study based in Syria, providing her with real-world awareness of what human rights violations meant in a real context.”

Evidently finding little trouble with the course despite her older peers, Ramakrishnan found herself being asked to come back for the Civil Military Relations Course. Calling it the most popular course offered, Ramakrishnan said it was the experience that changed everything for her. Primarily attended as pre-deployment training for military personal, the course was more practical and engaging than her previous two weeks. With a syndicate exercise where they had to analyse the human rights and violations in different areas, Ramakrishnan was to analyse a case study based in Syria, providing her with real-world awareness of what human rights violations meant in a real context. Next, participants were challenged to learn about humanitarian work through action rather than words. To foster awareness about cultural and gender issues, each student assumed a role. Little villages were set up around the Curragh, and split into teams of ten. The teams were then required to do a roleplay, going to these villages, and conducting assessments for military preparedness. These highlighted the key lessons from the complimentary lectures.

“The situations are adapted to the participants in the course. There was a cholera outbreak and I had to talk to the military and negotiate the EpiPens and the resources available in the area”, Ramakrishnan explained. “I had to go to them and tell them I needed a civil engineer and whatever else we needed. As the civilian space is less structured than a military context where there’s a chain of command, it was about learning how to get what was required.” Laughing, she explained that it wasn’t always as straightforward as knowing who to go to. “They put me in a kidnapping situation where I had to run. The civilian is doing their work, and hostiles arrive. The military have to escort the civilian safely from the area.”

Humbled by the experience, she explained: “I realised in terms of the situation like that, you need to be able to protect yourself and the people around you in order to protect the intellectual property that we all have. That, for me, was thought provoking.” Comparing surgery to the missions carried out, she talked of the importance of knowing what each stage of the procedure would bring. Ramakrishnan asserts the importance of anticipating how each stage of a planned mission could unfold, and what actions should be carried out and when.

“You need to be able to protect yourself and the people around you, in order to protect the intellectual property that we all have.”

While still passionate about medicine, she described the second course made her feel as if she had an obligation to help. “I had a teary conversation with my dad about what to do.” Fortunately, she was offered a place as a Syndicate Mentor to go back and share her experience and help teach the course. In this way, she felt she could contribute to the ongoing efforts of the humanitarian cause, particularly within the military-medicine area. Where her education and experience will take her, she remains uncertain: “I’ve never had a plan B or C in my life. I just pursue what interests me.” With her open mind, Ramakrishnan clearly has no problem shifting her pursuits. She once again returned to her father’s words: “You need to keep changing to be the better version of yourself”.

Sam Cox

Sam Cox is a Staff Videographer at Trinity News. He is a Senior Sophister Psychology student, and a former Crossword Editor, Features Editor and Assistant Features Editor.