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Tanya Zayed: an uncurable optimist


Some people can really draw a crowd. On October 19, at the Saint Paul University Alumni of the Year award ceremony, close to one hundred members of the University community as well as many relatives and friends gathered on campus to highlight the remarkable career of activist Tanya Zayed, who has a master’s in Conflict Studies (2008). We met with this exceptional woman who is the pride of SPU.

A man’s world

Known mainly for her work with the Roméo Dallaire Foundation’s Child Soldiers Initiative, Tanya Zayed has been working in the humanitarian field for 17 years. Today, as a child protection officer with the United Nations Refugee Agency, the SPU graduate paints a telling portrait of a world that remains primarily male, whether in Geneva or in Kinshasa:

As a woman in this field, I have been harassed, threatened and silenced. I have had to protect my physical well-being by all possible means and have suffered the condescension of my peers despite my proven expertise. People have chastised me for not being a wife or mother. I wat told I was too fat, too short, too happy.

Tanya Zayed

A beacon of hope

Why keep going, then? Because beyond the risks and the misogyny, she has found a source of hope: the young men and young women with whom she works. “We often say that youth are the future. That’s not true,” she says. “They are the present. Their extraordinary courage, generosity and resilience show it: it is us who have to keep up with them as they are actively changing the world."

Tanya Zayed


Tanya Zayed has many such life lessons to share, especially with students who are getting ready to follow in her footsteps. Often faced with the intractable nature of conflicts and the seriousness of injustices, she has had to find the tools she needed to stay on her feet. “It took time, but I finally learned to define myself other than by my work. Above all, I learned that we need to be as compassionate with ourselves as we are with others.”


Distant horizons

After flying in from Geneva on the day of the ceremony, Tanya Zayed was leaving Ottawa a few days later for Nigeria, where she was preparing to meet with survivors of violence carried out by the terrorist group Boko Haram. And after that? She doesn’t know yet. “Being a consultant involves a lot of uncertainty,” she admits.

One thing, however, remains steadfast in her. “To quote the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, I would say that like the Palestinians, those of us who work in the humanitarian field have an incurable disease: hope.” 


My advice to students

After your B.A.: “Take a break to get some professional experience and mature. Believe me, this will be beneficial for you when you do a master’s. The professors will see a difference.”

During your master’s: “Seize every practical learning opportunity that you are offered. Look beyond the academic environment. Take part in discussions.”

Before moving to the international level: “First get involved at the local level. If you don’t volunteer in your own community, how can you justify your involvement internationally? There needs to be a natural progression.”

In your work with at-risk groups: “Be patient. Don’t presume you have the solution. Develop your listening skills.”

Throughout your career: “Never forget: you are not your work. Your work is only one part of who you are.”

Tanya Zayed

My advice to universities

“Offer courses on work-life balance and ethics in all programs of study. These are essential skills, especially in humanitarian work. We have to learn to recognize our limits and demand the right to speak openly about them.”

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