Former Kincardine resident appointed to new World Refugee Council


By Barb McKay

Though her roots are undeniably small town, Jessie Thomson’s view of the world and humanity is anything but.

The Kincardine native is a Canadian leader when it comes to humanitarian aid work as senior director of CARE Canada’s Humanitarian Assistance and Emergency Team, earning her an appointment as a councillor to the newly-formed World Refugee Council. The council was established to build on the New York Declaration, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016 and the process to negotiate a Global Compact on Refugees, being led by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees where Thomson began her work with refugees as a volunteer.

The World Refugee Council is chaired by former Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy and supported by the Government of Canada.

“That this council has Canadian leadership is really exciting,” Thomson said last Wednesday from her office in Ottawa. “There’s a great opportunity for Canada to play a role as an honest broker in a world that is polarized. I’m excited to represent Canada in this.”

According to a statement from the Centre for International Governance Innovation, which worked with the Canadian government to launch the World Refugee Council, the council’s mandate is to offer advice on “broad-reaching reform and innovation to reinvigorate the global refugee system and will develop a transformative agenda to help ensure that international co-operation for refugees is predictable, equitable and just.”

That agenda will include conducting research and providing recommendations on structural reform, including how to best manage refugee movement and explore emerging technologies that could better protect refugees. The council is expected to gather for the first time next month in Geneva, Switzerland.

Thomson’s experience as a policy advisor and a team leader will be a welcome addition to the World Refugee Council. After graduating high school in Kincardine, she attended the University of Toronto and volunteered with a private refugee sponsorship program that connected refugee students with U of T programs. In 2001, Thomson met a refugee student from Pakistan and the two became good friends. That connection sparked her interest in humanitarian aid work. She has been with CARE Canada for six years – five in her role as a senior director.

One of the greatest strengths Thomson brings to her job is her ability to relate to the people she is helping. She has spent years visiting countries in the Middle East and Africa and listening to the personal stories of families who were forced to leave their homes with no prospect of ever returning. She said she can’t imagine not being able to come back to Kincardine and that is part of what fuels her work.

“Refugees are regular people who were working and living their lives. They didn’t deserve this.”

The number of refugees worldwide has surpassed 21 million and continues to grow. It’s the highest number Thomson has seen in her career. A significant number of refugees come from Syria as the conflict there enters its sixth year. But there are also new crises in Africa, as well as unresolved situations in countries such as Somalia – some that have gone on for so long there is concern they have been all but forgotten about by the rest of the world.

Thomson said there is growing awareness around the global refugee situation, particularly after images of the body of three-year-old Syrian boy AylanKurdi appeared in mainstream news all over the world. But people are polarized, she said, and that is where the challenge lies. The majority of refugees are hosted in developing countries and other countries are nervous about becoming involved.

“We need to look at ways to respond more effectively to the situation and that can be done collectively and not ‘us versus them,’” Thomson said. “There are massive challenges and we need to band together rather than trying to do it on our own, piecemeal. This is really in our power to respond to but we have to work together as a global community, and that is hard.”

Helping others is part of the human experience, she noted, and Canada’s reputation for being welcoming makes it an appropriate leader in the effort to manage the refugee crisis.

The World Refugee Council will be co-chaired by JakayaKikwete, former president of Tanzania;HinaJilani, an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan; and Rita Süssmuth, immigration reform advocate and former president of the German Bundestag. The deputy co-chair is Paul Heinbecker, former ambassador to Germany. Other council members include academic leaders, foundation heads, former political leaders and 2011 Nobel Prize winner and Liberian peace activist LeymahGbowee.