The woman who spends her life in areas wrecked by disasters

Two weeks before we meet in a Costa in Caerphilly Deb Barry was testifying about children’s rights in front of Congress in Washington DC. She barely knows what timezone she’s in – only that she needs to shoot off pretty quickly to get her jabs done, squeeze in a birthday gathering with friends and family, and then pack for a humanitarian trip to Calais in less than 24 hours. Standing in front of American and UN officials trying to convey the harsh realities in some of the world’s most inhospitable and war-torn countries isn’t where Deb feels at home however.

She’s much more comfortable sitting on a mud floor baked hard by an unforgiving sun teaching kids to express their feelings with simple coloured pens and paper. She’s visited and worked in 117 countries, she said, and there’s a handful of those which she feels grateful to have walked away with her life. There are papers she’s signed which mean she can’t be more specific.

And her strong Christian morals mean she’s unwilling to blame any one individual, saying she refuses to see countries as inherently bad. But she’s had to teach herself to sleep through gunfire. : Go here to see more stories about remarkable people from around Wales

Nothing seems to faze the 48-year-old from Abertridwr in Caerphilly. Apart, perhaps, from the fact she’s built her 25-year career as a humanitarian worker, many of them as a senior child protection adviser for Save the Children – she can’t still quite believe that. Her CV begins with the European Children’s Trust in 1999 as a director in Kosovo and works its way to the interim director of program operations for Save the Children International.

“I don’t know if I had a big dream at 17,” Deb said in an authoritative voice which could easily instil calm in even the most desperate of situations. Her gaze is steady and empathetic and her smile is warm and kind. What she did know at 17 was that she was seeing the violent civil unrest happening in Romania at the end of 1989 and had a profound sense within her that “this shouldn’t be happening”.

She was watching the end of 42 years of communist rule in Romania, which culminated in the show trial and execution of long-time Romanian Communist Party (PCR) general secretary Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena.

Deb Barry has worked for more than 25 years helping children in areas wrecked by war and natural disasters

Deb’s dad, a coal miner, told his daughter: “Stop complaining and go and do something about it.” So she did. She couldn’t do anything too crazy, simply collecting hygiene kits for the children and managing to convince an empty MFI truck returning to the continent to transport the kits over the Romanian border. “It was a time when your life could be changed,” Deb said. What she saw in Romania was “worse than on the TV screens,” she recalled.

“It was the smell and the silence,” she said. “The contrast between pandemonium and quiet. There were 40 children in this room but not a single sound came from them.” It was almost eerie, she added. From that initial trip delivering kits Deb started going over more regularly to volunteer.

She did a three-year course in child development at Ystrad Mynach College before throwing herself into helping children. She realised that simply owning something in the middle of turmoil, even something as basic as a blanket, could be a life-changing moment.

The woman who spends her life in areas wrecked by disastersMeeting refugee families in their tents in Iraq in 2013

“I’ve never had the mental space to think about politics,” she said. “I speak more on behalf of children and that’s extra-powerful.” What she means is that by focusing on the plight of children she can transcend political differences to a certain extent. Perhaps more so than a room of politicians in another country trying to thrash out various peace and trade deals.

“Politics make no sense to me,” she said. “It’s too hard to fathom.” In 2002 Deb went to work in Afghanistan. She went initially for three months but ended up living there for three years.

She said: “It dawned on me the amount of violence and intimidation they must see on a day-to-day basis and that they just can’t walk away from that. That was a defining moment for me and the reason I ended up staying in Afghanistan for so long. I knew that I always had the safety and that option of walking away – something that these children did not.

And I made a commitment there and then that I wanted to help change that story.” : The amazing story of a family’s escape from Afghanistan which inspired a sell-out play She can remember watching girls heading off to school in numerous Afghan schools for the first time in quarter of a century, the direct result of her work.

“After a year and a half of real work with community leaders, religious leaders, parents, caregivers, and the children themselves we finally got the agreement that first-grader girls could go to school in some of these rural communities,” Deb said. “It would have been the first time in 23 years that girls of this age could go to school and we did it in village after village after village. “The whole community came out. Boys and dads and granddads watching them go to school for the first time.

You find yourself saying: ‘I’ll just stay a bit longer until this happens’ and then you stay for the next something.” And she’ll never forget how, in 2004, she worked with Afghan children on writing the children’s manifesto which they presented to president Hamid Karzai together. He agreed to spend 15 minutes chatting to children but ended up staying for an hour and a half. “We’ve never made it about the politics,” she said, eyes bright in wonder. “It’s the ripple effect – that’s what we’re constantly thinking about.”

After Afghanistan Deb headed to Lebanon and then Ethiopia. “It would’ve been selfish to stay beyond 2006,” she said. “To go back I knew it would have been for me – they didn’t need me.” Instead she left it to the team of 1,500 staff in Afghanistan. Watching the country fall in August this year was one of the rare occasions she allowed herself to cry. “I’m not usually an emotional person but I just burst into tears and the only way I could cope was by keeping busy. I was stationed in Syria at the time delivering training and I decided to bake banana bread using an old family recipe for my colleagues which was a challenge in soaring temperatures of over 40 degrees and with no loaf tin or a whisk in sight.”

The woman who spends her life in areas wrecked by disastersThe 48-year-old was brought to tears by the fall of Kabul

As she watched the pictures of men and women desperately clambering onto planes in a bid to escape Kabul she couldn’t help but wonder if she’d worked with any of them.

The odds are she did at some point, she says sadly. “I was in the middle of Syria, wanting to be in Afghanistan, knowing that those children who were aged five or six and going to school for the first time in 2002 are now those parents who had such a big place in my heart.” But as Kabul fell a massive earthquake struck Haiti killing more than 2,200 people and leaving another 12,000 injured.

It was the worst disaster to strike Haiti since the 2010 earthquake and left 650,000 people in need of aid and assistance. Stuck in the biggest refugee camp in Syria, Deb started thinking of the inevitable cholera and disease that would follow as well as the needs of the Haitian children. She was being pulled in three different directions. “I thought my heart was going to explode,” she said.

In her early days Deb would somehow contain her emotion when she was confronted by such vast scale of destruction. “You hold it together and then get hit by an absolute wave of emotion when you get home,” she said. “You do learn how to deal with that and process that.”

The woman who spends her life in areas wrecked by disastersWorking with children in Malawi in 2019

She has a remarkably practical outlook on life despite all she’s seen. But then she’s learned that often children know what it is that gives them hope in hopeless situations – and it isn’t always what the world thinks. Take the results of the 2002 Children of Kabul report, which asked children about their life amid conflict.

In the middle of military gunfire and daily bombings it was actually the UN vehicles that came flying down the road that terrified them the most, Deb explained. So Save The Children set about training up traffic police to help kids cross the road so they could at least get to school safely and worked with the military and explained what it meant to children to feel safe and protected. “We go with children’s’ voices and then respond to that,” Deb said.

She is almost disbelieving as she remembers delivering training to Afghan road police at 5am in the morning. “We never force anything,” Deb added. “Nobody is going to listen to a foreign entity coming in and telling them what to do.” Or sitting in a tent in China following the Sichuan earthquake waiting in fear for the aftershocks to subside. “A little boy touched me on the arm and said: ‘It’ll be okay – we’re in a tent so nothing can fall on us’,” said Deb. “Children look at it in a completely different way.”

She’s learned to always carry pens and paper on her travels as what kids draw will give you a good sense of their emotional needs, she said. On day three of the Chinese earthquake she noticed children were drawing symbols and basic letters and worked out they were concerned they were missing their education. Children are “phenomenal” she said, adding: “They face all that fighting but they still want to go to school.” She can remember working in a school in Ukraine as the school on the next street over was being bombed to the ground.

The kids turned to her and pleaded: “Can we still finish class?” Even Shaun the Sheep has helped soothe a group of refugees who’d poured across the Iraqi border into Syria. Deb asked the mums what they wanted the most and they told her: “We would just love to sit and watch TV and laugh with our children.” Deb sprang into action and set up a crude big screen, powered by a diesel generator, and 400 women and children turned up to watch Shaun the Sheep in the middle of the camp.

It proved so popular she laid on several screenings.

The woman who spends her life in areas wrecked by disastersIt’s all about the children for Deb: ‘I’ve never had the mental space to think about politics’

Having grown up in a small Welsh valley she’s seen communities pull together and the strength that that can bring, citing the coal miners’ strike as “one of the hardest things the Welsh valleys have ever gone through”. The principles remain the same, she said, whether you’re in a refugee camp in Syria or a coal mining village in Merthyr Tydfil. It’s the reason why, stalled in her home town during the coronavirus pandemic, she helped out with the flood relief effort in Pontypridd after Storm Dennis in 2020.

“I couldn’t do this job if I didn’t have such a grounded family,” said Deb. Her 77-year-old mother never fails to turn up at Cardiff Airport and take her home from her latest travels. Her dad, who has since died, is the reason why she’s heading to Calais later in the week as it was him who first inspired her to work with refugees there when she was younger.

It’s her way of keeping his memory alive, she said.

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But before long she’ll be back on a flight to Washington DC advocating for the rights of children around the globe. Afghanistan is never far from her mind: “Those children I met and worked with in 2004 are now the parents and their parents are now the grandparents,” she said. “If I could start any programme again it would be to get the grandparents involved and capture what they learned and coped from experiences.” Save the Children has now restarted programmes in all 10 provinces where it operates in Afghanistan and is providing community-based education to primary school aged boys and girls as well as training teachers and providing essential teaching and learning materials.

Does she realise how much of a role model she is to both children and women, I ask. With a self-assuredness that comes from her years in the midst of turmoil she doesn’t hesitate to agree. She’s proud that a woman from a tiny village in south Wales can have such a profound impact on the lives of children around the world.

“Not bad for a woman from Abertridwr who doesn’t have a degree is it?” she grins.