Alison Criado-Perez has seen more than her fair share of war. As a registered nurse working with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), she’s worked in the Central African Republic assisting those affected by the brutal conflict within the country, helped evacuate the war-wounded from Misrata in Libya at the height of fighting, and provided healthcare to thousands of refugees in South Sudan.
She’s also been on the ground during the Ebola Crisis, travelled to parts of Columbia only accessible by canoe, and worked with a team rescuing migrants and refugees from the Mediterranean Sea. However, this wasn’t always the plan. Originally pursuing a career in fashion at Vogue, before stumbling into nursing, it wasn’t until a “traumatic” divorce in her 50s that Alison was able to fulfil her dream of travelling the globe to help the world’s most vulnerable.
“My divorce was actually one of the most traumatic things that happened to me in my life,” she tells me. “But it gave me the opportunity that I could go and do this thing I’ve always really wanted to do, [something] which I think is quite difficult to combine with a married life, so that was like a silver lining to a black cloud.” It wasn’t an easy transition though – she found it “overwhelming” at first.
“It was sort of gradually this little gem in my brain started working, saying ‘maybe, maybe, maybe’. I thought I didn’t have the guts to do it, but you just need to take small steps in the right direction. And step by step by step – and then suddenly there I was being offered a job in the Central African Republic.” MSF is now one of the biggest parts of her life, something Alison has absolutely no regrets about. She talks to RightsInfo about just how it’s changed her world.
Image Credit: Medecins Sans Frontieres
What was the most important thing that your parents taught you?
I think the values they gave me, like honesty and fairness. Values that, if you get given them as a child, stick with you forever. I think the other thing is a belief in myself. Particularly my father, [they] had more confidence in me. I was quite timid as a child, but he saw the depths of me, more than I think I did. I think he thought I would be able to do things, which I wasn’t able to see in me when I was a child. That’s something really important – believing in yourself was a good thing to be taught.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, I didn’t really have any particularly burning ambitions. There is a picture of me when I was about five dressed up in a little nurse’s uniform, but I’m not sure that stayed with me. I didn’t have a burning desire to be a nurse at all. In fact, when I started working I wanted to study fashion.
It would never have occurred to me, I just found this sort of thing inside me wanting to take care of people.
I did that for a bit and then I went off to South Africa for one reason or another, and I couldn’t get a job. The people I was staying with, [the woman] worked in a care home. If I was prepared to work on night duty, I could have a job – so I did that and absolutely fell in love with it. I wrote back to my parents and said I wanted to come back and train as a nurse, so that’s what I did. It would never have occurred to me, I just found this sort of thing inside of me wanting to take care of people.
A child runs through a refugee camp in Calais. Image Credit: EngageJoe / Flickr
What makes you frustrated in terms of rights?
I suppose if I had this discussion with my daughter [feminist and journalist Caroline Criado-Perez] she would be absolutely passionate about all the things that are wrong. I don’t think I get terribly upset, but I do get a bit frustrated about this whole thing about the Dubs Amendment [a scheme launched in the UK to settle unaccompanied child refugees, which was later scrapped by the Government after just a few hundred children had been placed].
I’ve seen the reality. People don’t know the facts, they’re not always given the facts. I do, very strongly, feel that we’re not doing enough.
When I was working on the Mediterranean Search and Rescue, we had at that stage taken something like 300 refugees – and I was embarrassed to say I was British, [especially] when I looked at countries like Turkey or those surrounding Syria and the number of people they were taking in. It was just embarrassing to say I was British.
I’ve seen the reality. A lot of people I’ve spoken to [about refugees], their first reaction is maybe a bit negative. When I tell them about the people I see and why they’re leaving, they change their mind – it’s because they don’t know the facts, they’re not always given all the facts. I do, very strongly, feel that we’re not doing enough.
What does ambition mean to you?
I wouldn’t know that I’d call myself ambitious, but maybe I am? To me it means following your dreams, having a goal and trying to reach it. I think one of my maxims in life is that I only regret the things I haven’t done.
So for me, you need to always take that first step, even if you feel you might not succeed, you need to take that first step towards whatever it is. I remember somebody telling me how lucky I was because of all the things I’ve done in my life, but it’s a question of putting yourself in a position where things can happen – they’re not going to fall into your lap, you have to go out and look for them.
Believer, Atheist or Agnostic?
I think [what has had an impact] is having to travel to so many countries and see how strongly people believe. I’ve lived in Buddist countries, I’ve lived in Muslim countries, in Christian countries and seen how strongly they believe their religion is the true religion. In my mind, there is no one religion. I do think it’s important, and maybe there is some universal spirit or a life force, but I don’t fit into any one particular religion above any other.
Image Credit: Medecins Sans Frontieres
Do you feel more aware of your human rights because of what you’ve seen abroad?
Absolutely. My first experience of travelling abroad, when I went overland to Nepal in the 70s, acquaintances, people I knew just got thrown into jail with no trial at all. I was just shocked that this happened, but it made you realise what we have in this country is freedom.
For me, I’m very much aware that we live in this country and the thing I am so grateful for is the freedom to choose my life, the sort of life I want to live, the way I want to live. In many countries of the world girls just don’t have that, they don’t have that possibility.
What does dignity in dying mean to you?
My mother’s death. She had all of her family around her; her daughters and her son-in-law and her granddaughter, and I think she actually waited for my ex-husband to arrive and then she just quietly became unconscious. It was very peaceful, and that was dignified. The absolute opposite was people dying from Ebola, which for me is one of the horrible flashback memories I have. I can barely talk about it, it upsets me so much.
It was very peaceful and dignified. The absolute opposite was people dying from Ebola. I can barely talk about it.
Ebola in particular, because contact is difficult, means their family members couldn’t go in. One of the reasons Ebola spreads so fast is that one of the funeral rites is to wash the body, but if the body has got Ebola all the viruses are on the outside of the skin, so it is incredibly infectious. We [the nurses] went in, but you couldn’t go in for more than a certain amount of time because you’d pass out [due to the heat]. So people would get sick and sometimes they would die on their own, which is just awful – that you’re not able to give the care you want to give.
[That mission] was one of the ones that marked me most, but was also very fulfilling and rewarding when people were cured and discharged. You’d take them back to the village and they’d be greeted with such warmth, and that was amazing.
An Ebola clinic in Guinea. Image Credit: United Nations Photo / Flickr
How are you trying to change the world and impact human rights?
Each mission is different and everyone is important. I think rescuing the refugees from the Mediterranean and being able to hear their stories at least helped. It’s only a small thing that we can do – we’re there for a few days on the boat and then they’re off on their own – but for that short while you can listen to their stories and take care of their medical needs, and then you have the first-hand knowledge you can use for advocacy. You can talk about it and you can tell people what’s really happening – this is why these people left their countries – and, hopefully, that message gets filtered through and the negative attitudes might change a bit.
Sometimes you think what you’re doing is just a little grain in the sand, but put it all together. It’s a cumulative thing.
It is one of the things that I really enjoy doing when I’m back in this country; I give a lot of talks and presentations. I don’t think I can change the world, but hopefully what I can do is inspire people to carry on and do this kind of work. Sometimes you think what you’re doing is just a little grain in the sand, but put it all together. It’s a cumulative thing, you don’t know all the ripple effects it will have. It might have a lot more ripples that go out. Everything that we do affects other people.
And finally, what is the meaning of life?
Well, that’s very hard isn’t it? I would say the warmth of human communication – relating to each other, and the warmth that gives you. Two people sharing a smile to make a bond. I’ve met some wonderful people around the world, of all different religions and nationalities. To me that’s one of the most important things, as well as appreciating the beauty of our world. The beauty of the natural world; the oceans, the mountains, the wildlife… It’s a very beautiful world we live in.