Briar Thompson Profile

Briar Thompson (New Zealand & Somerville 2012) is currently studying for a Master of Public Policy at the University of Oxford.  Briar holds an MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies from the University of Oxford, and a BCS (Honours) in Public Relations from the University of Waikato. During her studies in Hamilton, New Zealand, she was a Volunteer Service Worker for Refugee Services, working with resettled refugee families in Hamilton, and has completed a Certificate in Refugee Resettlement Support. 

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Briar Thompson: My family home is in Whangarei, but I’ve lived in a number of places around the country so I’d say New Zealand generally.

Rhodes Project: Do you have any mentors?

Briar Thompson: My parents have been wonderful mentors, and when I was just about to start high school an older girl who I’d known from childhood and who was already at the school I was going to go to, decided to take me under her wing.  She used to meet with me at lunchtimes once a month or so to check that everything was going ok with me.  When I got to university there were several lecturers who challenged me to set higher goals and not to settle for things, and convinced me to set my sights higher and higher, and to work harder to achieve these goals.

Rhodes Project: What has surprised you most about Oxford?

Briar Thompson: How much the grey bothers me!  I’ve lived most of my life in New Zealand, and briefly in Spain, and both places are pretty sunny.  It’s amazing how much the weather affects my experience – even in winter we have a lot of sunny days back home, and here I feel like the majority of the year, whether it’s cold or hot, it is usually grey and overcast.  It really affects my mood and I miss the sunshine, but it’s brilliant when the sun does come out and everyone goes mad and runs out to sit on the grass!  I’d never realised how much the weather is entangled in how people feel.

Rhodes Project: When did you first become passionate about human rights and the work you’ve done with refugees?

Briar Thompson: When I was in intermediate school in New Zealand, my principal at the time pulled me aside and said “There’s this new program that the Office of the Children’s Commissioner are running and they want a Young People’s Reference Group – would you apply?”  I was under the age limit at the time (I was twelve) but applied anyway and got it, and so I’d be in Wellington for a weekend every six to eight weeks, and we’d consult on human rights issues that affected young people – that carried on until I was 17.  When I got to university I missed advocacy work so I got involved in a bunch of projects that would mean I could continue that sort of work.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favourite past project?

Briar Thompson: I don’t really like picking favourites, but volunteering for Refugee Services was fantastic.  I was working with a Colombian family who had been in a camp in Ecuador, and they’d been resettled to New Zealand.  There were lots of children in the family, so it was pretty intense at times.  There were 4 volunteers assigned to this family, and in the first few weeks we visited them almost every day trying to get everything sorted, and over the next 6 months we slowed down the visits to encourage their independence.

It also involved heaps of human rights work and advocacy, because at times they were treated quite differently by social services – usually people were fine, but things like the right to an interpreter weren’t always upheld which would cause all sorts of issues.  We were there to make sure that the family got what they were entitled to, and that the services provided interpreters – I can speak a bit of Spanish, but I couldn’t possibly have translated the complex documents the family were being asked to sign.

I’ve also just returned from teaching maths and English in Jamaica to 13 year olds who were on the TEACH Caribbean summer school program.  It was a lot of hard work, but really rewarding to see the difference that these kids can make to their grades when they put in the effort and with a smaller class size, allowing teachers more room to help students with their individual problem areas.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me a little bit about your research?

Briar Thompson: For my MSc dissertation, I examined how the protection needs of people vulnerable to displacement because of environmental stress might be provided in future by comparing and critiquing two approaches. One was a ‘rights based’ approach which essentially says “It doesn’t really matter what caused the person to be displaced, if these basic human rights have been violated then the threshold for providing protection has been met,” whereas the other approach, a ‘causal’ approach,  says “These people should be provided protection because they’re environmentally displaced”. There are many problems with the latter, especially in proving a causal link between environmental change and displacement.  People in this position fall outside the refugee convention, so my dissertation looked at these two approaches as possible ways to move forward with the debate in order to provide some kind of protection in future.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part of your work?

Briar Thompson: I think this is a classic communications student response, but misunderstandings.  While working with resettled refugees, often the most frustrating aspects were communication misunderstandings, or when people are just not really aware of the situation resettled refugees – and refugees in general – are in.  There is a lot of confusion amongst many members of the public over  the difference between a refugee, an asylum seeker, an economic migrant, an immigrant, and other people entering the country, and what makes people part of one of those categories.  We encountered a lot of people conflating refugees with economic migrants, and there is animosity in some areas that aren’t doing so well economically toward people that they perceive to be economic migrants, and so refugees can often get caught up in that and be treated differently.  It’s been playing out in the Australian media with asylum seekers recently as well, and it really frustrates me.

In a sense I’ve encountered similar challenges while taking the course in Oxford – all throughout the year my classmates and I had really intense conversations and discussions about refugee and forced migration issues, but then if we talked about it to someone outside of the course who didn’t have as much familiarity with it we often came across these stereotypes and attitudes towards various migrant groups, either because the person had had some negative encounter involving a migrant, or because they had just read dreadful news stories that were one sided.  It was quite tough to try and dissect and challenge the preconceptions people held about refugees and various other migrant groups.

Rhodes Project: What is the most rewarding part of your work?

Briar Thompson: The most rewarding part of working with the Colombian family was seeing each member in the family become more confident, independent and comfortable with where they were, and feeling like they could navigate situations and do whatever they needed day-to-day by themselves.  In the first week they knew nothing of the area, and it was all quite overwhelming.  The other volunteers and I helped with lots of initial tasks, like enrolling the children in school, or going to the doctor.  As time went on the family called on us less as they could do more and more things by themselves, and in the end they would really only call on us to invite us to social events.  They invited me and the other volunteers to a Latin American cultural festival they were performing in – all the kids were part of a dance group, and they had lots of friends there. We were also invited to a few incredible birthday parties, and it was wonderful to see them building a large social network very quickly.  At the end of the six months that we were officially assigned to the family, although they still needed some occasional help with some things, they had a solid platform to continue rebuilding their lives from.

Rhodes Project: Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?

Briar Thompson: There isn’t one specific job I’m aiming for, but I’d like to be working in public service. At this stage I’m not really sure what that will look like, whether it will be international organisations, government, or the NGO sector, but eventually I’d like to be back in the Pacific region.  The likelihood of that happening soon is relatively small – the positions I’ve found back home aren’t really entry level, so it would be a good idea to build up some experience in the Northern hemisphere first before working my way closer to home.

Rhodes Project: If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?

Briar Thompson: Well, you know in The Matrix how people could just plug those things into their heads and learn whatever they wanted?  Perhaps that...or even just the ability to learn things incredibly fast, so if I needed to learn a new language I could do that really quickly, or if I needed to learn martial arts that’d be great!  Even if there were only five slots so I could only have five of these extra knowledge boosters at a time – for example - if I needed to learn martial arts I could get rid of French or vice versa – that’d be fine with me!

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