As a child, Sheilagh Henry envisioned herself in distant lands, doing exceptional things. As an adult, she saw her vision materialize.
“When I was about 11 years old, our teacher asked us to draw a picture of our future,” says Henry, who completed an M.Sc. in international rural planning and development at U of G in 1998.
“I drew a picture of myself on the edge of the Nile River, in an adobe hut with a cat and a dog, helping people. I knew from the time I was young that I wanted to travel the world.”
Her career as a senior humanitarian affairs officer with the United Nations took her around the world, including to Sudan in 2015. To take the edge off her extremely demanding work there, she took up sailing lessons on the Nile.
Henry was eight years old when her mother, a single parent, packed up Sheilagh and her sister and moved to a village in England. From there, they travelled throughout Europe and into the Soviet Union.
Henry went on to work in many troubled countries, including Ethiopia, Angola, Indonesia and Afghanistan.
In the immediate aftermath of a disaster situation – tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes – numerous international agencies and NGOs descend to administer aid, she says. Henry typically worked in coordination roles.
“When there’s a disaster, we’re the ones that make sure there’s coverage for all of those affected,” she says. “We do needs assessment, information analysis and mapping, and then provide that information to all of the actors out there, so that they know what areas and which beneficiaries are being covered and which ones are not.”
Like her mother, Henry is a courageous world traveller. After her seven-year posting in Afghanistan, and accompanied by her then husband, she drove 11,000 kilometres from Afghanistan to Cork, Ireland, in a 1969 VW Bug. The trip took four months.
Humanitarian aid workers are generally type A personalities possessing a sense of invincibility, she says. For her, a devastating attack in Sudan in 2016 changed that.
“I was coming home from the office. We were not far from a refugee camp. Two South Sudanese refugees on a motorcycle were coming behind me. I had a backpack on, strapped to both shoulders.”
The motorcycle passenger grabbed the backpack, pulling Henry to the ground and dragging her along the gravel road. She reached for the man’s shoulder and tried to pull herself up.
“I knew from the time I was young that I wanted to travel the world.”
“In a few seconds, everything changed for me. He was off balance and being pulled off the motorcycle. He bit down on my thumb and let go of the backpack.”
Her thumb and tendons were torn off, and she suffered badly damaged muscle and bone. But the ordeal didn’t end there. Once off the motorcycle, the man began to beat her.
Extensive reconstructive surgery reattached the thumb, but it no longer functions properly. She needed months of therapy to heal from post-traumatic stress disorder. She hasn’t been overseas since.
Asked what drove her to do the work she did, Henry sounds more like a realist than an idealist.
“I honestly believe that there is nothing that any human does in the world that isn’t selfish,” she says. “Even if you think you are doing a selfless act, you do it because you feel good about it.”
Henry believes it is crucial to question one’s place and work in the world. Are you doing what you need to be doing? Finding herself questioning and envisioning again, she is planning another epic road trip.
“I want to drive from Alaska to Argentina in a classic VW Kombi van. That will prepare me to go back overseas. I’m getting ready to dive back in.”