In this debut memoir, O’Reilly recounts her experiences working with refugees and accuses a humanitarian aid agency of corruption and hypocrisy.
While visiting Zagreb, Croatia, in the year 2000, when she was in her 20s, the author met Agata, an Italian woman who was interning for the United Nations in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Agata had earned a master’s degree in human rights—something that the author, who once aspired to be a human rights lawyer, didn’t know was possible. O’Reilly moved to London in 2002 to pursue the same degree, and took a job in Uganda four years later, eager to trade her current life, which included the use of recreational drugs, for a “different kind of living on the edge.” In Kampala, she found a diverse refugee community seeking assistance, and her job was to assess suitability for relocation—a task for which she readily admits she was unprepared: “People’s lives hinged on conclusions that we were unqualified to make.” She encountered people who were fleeing war and persecution in Sudan, Eritrea, Rwanda, and Somalia, among other locations. With unalloyed frankness, O’Reilly accuses the agency for which she worked of callousness, venality, and general incompetence. She says that she encountered casual racism, sexual harassment, and a culture of cowardice; one high-ranking commissioner, she says, was found to have been guilty of sexual harassment, and then given an award upon his resignation. The author also poignantly chronicles the heartbreaking plights of those she was charged with helping. Overall, O’Reilly writes simply but elegantly, without a hint of sentimentality but with plenty of emotion and provocative thought. And although her criticism of her profession is scathing, she impressively doesn’t spare herself from scrutiny: “I was beginning to wonder if we were quick to accuse refugees of lying because it let us off the hook. If refugees were lying anyway, what did it matter if our work was sloppy, if we were lazy if we earned thousands of dollars per month while they lived in squalid camps and slums?”
A lucid critique of a humanitarian organization.