Based in Paris, FRANCE, WOMBAT is a blog by CHRISTINA MACKENZIE. Her posts PORTRAY WOMEN THE WORLD OVER WHO'VE CHOSEN TO SERVE THEIR RESPECTIVE COUNTRIES IN THE DEFENCE SECTOR.

Rebecca Emerson-Keeler

Rebecca Emerson-Keeler

Rebecca Emerson-Keeler. Photo provided by Rebecca

Rebecca Emerson-Keeler. Photo provided by Rebecca

Rebecca stands apart amongst the women I've interviewed thus far because she deals with the end-result of conflict and fragile states: the refugees, the victims, human trafficking, terrorism.

The daughter of an English mother and an Indian father, she was raised by her maternal grandparents. Her admiration for her fighter pilot grandfather, whose name she adopted when she was 16, shines through when she talks about him and she readily admits that his stories “captured my imagination”. She was torn between wanting to own a bookshop and following in her grandfather's footsteps. She opted for the latter but her stint with the military establishment at the defence college at Shrivenham lasted no more than a month because, as she says with a laugh, of her “terrible attitude to authority” and her conviction that the “military approach is not the right way to solve problems.”

I spend a lot of time in ministries, sitting in smoky rooms, drinking strong coffee and negotiating

She got a Master's degree in Philosophy and English from the University of St Andrews in 2005 and says she finds that what she learnt in her philosophy classes is “more relevant every day than if I'd studied international relations.” She explains that “conflict sensitivity consists almost entirely of weighing up difficult questions,” and that her clients and the institutions she deals with: armed forces and international organisations, “have neither the space nor the time” to deal with these questions with the philosophical approach that, in her mind, they desperately require.

Like many young graduates she took her time finding her feet: she was a research assistant for a British member of parliament and then a freelance journalist before working as an occupied Palestinian territories researcher at the renowned Centre for Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews.

It was as an intern with the United Nations that she was deployed to Iraq, just after Saddam Hussein was toppled. Her mission: to protect refugees and guard against violence to women and girls. Her next move, with the Danish Refugee Council, was to Syria to support young refugees there. She fell in love with the country – and, one suspects, one of its inhabitants in particular – and she stayed for six years, leaving just before the conflict broke out. 

Although the consulting company she created in April 2012, Insaan Consulting, specialises in the Middle East and North Africa, she will not take on projects that involve Syria. “It hurts too much, I had too many friends there,” she says matter-of-factly, but one detects great sadness in her voice.

So, what does she actually do, on a day-to-day basis? “I spend a lot of time in ministries, sitting in smoky rooms, drinking strong coffee and negotiating,” she smiles. For example: making sure that aid funds are not actually being negative on the dynamics of the country; or, finding out from the Jordanian army exactly what skills and equipment they need; or, evaluating aid programmes to see whether or not they've actually made any difference.

And does the fact that she's a woman play against her in the Middle East? She shakes her head at my question. “The most issues I've had are with one of my main clients, the Ministry of Defence in the UK,” she says. “Because I'm half Indian, I'm not only female but an ethnic minority one and the old-school men in the MoD can't handle that,” she sighs. “In the West, women have to take on a masculine persona if they're to get on in a man's world. Ask any woman in the UK armed forces, and they'll tell you the same thing, as long as it's off the record,” she challenges.

In the Middle East, Rebecca tells me, “you get more respect, particularly if you're a consultant.” And if, like her, you speak Arabic fluently and understand the cultural context.

Not ones to balk at challenges, she and her horse-vet husband, appalled by the Brexit vote, upped and left the UK with their young daughter in two to make a life for themselves in France. 

She admits that having a child has made life challenging. “I'm trying to do less in high conflict environments,” she says, and her husband and daughter accompany her if she has to travel for long periods. “But I really need to find a nanny!” she wails, particularly as her daughter is approaching school-age. For the time being however, she's continuing with her job. “I love the Middle East, I care about what I can offer,” she says passionately.






Sofía Honrubia Checa

Sofía Honrubia Checa

Dr Eneka Idiart-Barsoum

Dr Eneka Idiart-Barsoum