Alumna Works for Peace in World’s Newest Country
Political Science Grad Serves as Non-Governmental Mediator in South Sudan
Feb. 9, 2012
Little did UT Dallas alumna Tiffany Ornelas know that her campus leadership experience would prepare her for a humanitarian role that has taken her to the world's newest country, South Sudan, where she has helped mediate a conflict between feuding states.
Ornelas, who earned a master’s in public affairs in 2008 and a bachelor’s in political science in 2006 from the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, is an international civilian peacekeeper with Nonviolent Peaceforce, a non-governmental organization. She credits leadership roles in such campus groups as Sigma Lambda Alpha, the UT Dallas Chess Club and Student Government with helping her pursue a career in peacebuilding.
“I believe that all of these organizations in different ways showed me the importance of serving the community and service that I started to focus on non-governmental organizations, taking courses on non-governmental organizations at UT Dallas during my master’s, and then following this path,” she said.
Throughout most of last year, Ornelas was on a peacekeeping team that mediated a conflict between two border states – Mvolo County and Yirol West County – in South Sudan. The states have their own tribes and cultural practices that often clash with one another.
Ornelas said tensions increased when the Dinkas, a tribe of Yirol West, brought their cattle further south to graze into Mvolo, the people of which are primarily agriculturists. The cattle ruined crops, infuriating the Mvolo citizens. Conflict broke out.
“It was especially bad – the worst since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 between Sudan and South Sudan,” she said of the conflict. “All along the borders, people started to attack each other, burning homes, schools, churches. ... The actual number of deaths is still unconfirmed, but it was horrible.”
Approximately 70,000 people fled their homes to avoid the line of fire. Ornelas and her teammates participated in assessments of how many people had been displaced.
Ornelas and other partner non-governmental organizations worked tirelessly with tribal chiefs and local governments to mediate the situation through nonviolent strategies.
“When lives are on the line, it is not easy to sit back and take a break even when much is needed,” she said. “But on the flip side, this is the most rewarding part of it. We work on the grass-roots level, which allows us to build relationships with wonderful people who are directly affected by the conflict.”
Finally, in late May, Ornelas along with other peacekeepers accompanied rival chiefs from both states for an emotional dialogue that ultimately led to a declaration of peace. An official peace agreement was signed in June.
“These dialogues were amazing to be at especially being the only foreigner in the May dialogue,” she said. “It seems surreal at times.”
Ornelas said she hasn't feared for her safety while working in a tumultuous region.
“My main worries stem from health issues,” she said. “Living in the bush is not easy. There is little access to good health care sometimes. It can be difficult to find water if you're far into the bush. There are mosquitoes with malaria, worms, and heat exhaustion.”
In October, Ornelas went to Unity State, another part of South Sudan, where she assisted the United Nations Refugee Agency in providing emergency protection to refugees who were vulnerable to attacks in South Kordofan, Sudan. The agency registers the refugees and trains some of them on issues related to gender-based violence, child protection and community protection.
Ornelas also spent time helping refugees at a camp known as Yida in Unity State, South Sudan, which was subjected to a bomb attack on Nov. 10.
“Fortunately, no one was injured in the entire camp,” she wrote in an email. “We all were very lucky, as one of the bombs did not detonate and landed in the middle of the children's compound.”
Ornelas and her teammates are currently focusing on helping refugee students move from Yida to Panrieng, a county located a few hours south where they can receive education and be further from the South Sudan-Sudan border.
Ornelas is planning to return to the United States this year and live in San Francisco, where she will focus on human rights development work.
Tiffany Ornelas is a civilian peacekeeper with Nonviolent Peaceforce. She credits leadership roles in UT Dallas campus groups with preparing her for the job.
In October, Ornelas helped the United Nations Refugee Agency provide emergency protection to refugees under threat in South Kordofan on the South Sudan border.