Jewel Ali is a very organised person because she hates wasting time – a character trait that no doubt contributed to her becoming the UN's TT head of office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Port of Spain. Ali has worked with the local chapter of the UN for almost 15 years, eight of those in her current position.
“When I completed my first degree in management studies and economics in 2002, I lived in England for a while on a work/holiday visa. I took advantage of that because I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do then and I didn’t want to just sit around wasting time.”
When she returned home to get married, still unsure what she wanted to do, she started a master’s degree in economics “so as not to waste time.” While at UWI, St Augustine, she worked as a research assistant, then moved on to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Port of Spain.
“The chief of mission at IOM had just come to TT in 2006, so they were setting up office here. He needed someone to help with finance projects, so I got that job. Initially it was just for nine months, but then the project was extended for two years. He left after two years and I was officer in charge for two-three years. Then I officially got the role of head of office of in 2012 and became an official of the organisation.”
But even with all her academic and professional accomplishments, 40-year-old Ali sees herself as a simple Moruga girl whose navel string is buried deep in the land on which she grew up, and on which she built her house as an adult. Although she has an apartment in Maraval for logistical reasons, for her, Moruga will always be home.
“I am used to space, fresh air and being close to family. My whole support system is in south. If I had a choice, I would put the IOM office in south,” she said with a laugh.
A Merikin descendant, Ali spent her childhood on a 16-acre "playground" in Fifth Company Village, Moruga.
“As children we roamed free and ate whatever was in season. It’s unfortunate that our kids don’t get to experience that because of all the crime now.”
She said the principles on which she was raised worked well for her and she is committed to using them to raise her son and daughter.
“It’s important for people to have a foundation, so I need for my kids to have a strong sense of faith, to know the source and how to get to Him. I want them to be successful, yes, but kind and happy. I need them to know that happiness doesn’t come from another person.”
At IOM she’s also project co-ordinator and has worked on projects of all types – border management, regional security, counter-human-trafficking, smuggling, migration and development, and emergency response. She said because IOM is an inter-governmental agency, the organisation works along with the government.
“IOM work is very operational in terms of crisis. So, for instance, as head of office or project co-ordinator I would be responsible for liaising with the government to find out what the needs are. What are the different priorities with migration issues? It’s up to me to be very aware of all the different priorities, speak to head of agencies or permanent secretaries to get an idea of what the country needs.”
Since IOM doesn’t have a huge core funding, as head of office she is responsible for trying to get funding for projects.
“I have to look at the landscape, I know the things my organisation can do, and try to see if I could be able to articulate the needs, understand the context and then put it in a project form so that some donor might find it interesting and captivating enough to be able to fund it. Because largely speaking, without the funding there is none of us.”
She said it can be quite stressful because as a leader she is not responsible only for herself.
“You employ people, you’re thinking about their continuity. My team right now is all-female and it’s not so gender-balanced. And we have a lot of single-headed households. If we don’t have the projects we don’t have the jobs, so from that perspective it’s always difficult.”
In the beginning, she said, it was even more challenging because the job came with a lot of reading, travelling abroad, and late nights, and she had two young children.
“I had both of them back to back, so it was difficult finding that balance. I’m lucky I had both my parents to help.”
Among the many policies the IOM has worked on was a review of the Immigration Act and Regulations. It helped develop the policy on trafficking in persons, and reviewed three key pieces of legislation in 2019 from the Ministry of Labour.
“Because the Ministry of Labour has impact on migrants, and migrants is one of the core things of our development, we also helped the ministry with the development of the labour migration policy.”
The IOM also does a lot of capacity-building or training in areas such as human trafficking.
“Very often, for example, the counter-trafficking unit may wish to do a session with police officers. They would tell us what elements they want to work on and they may ask us to help with the training.”
The crisis in Venezuela, she said, led to inflows of migrants into TT, many of whom were registered and allowed to work. But then the covid19 pandemic hit and made things even more difficult for the migrants and TT citizens.
“Covid is like a crisis within a crisis, because you have people who came into the country and registered, got jobs but then lost their jobs. Many TT nationals too lost their jobs. And what that means is immediately people cannot make basic necessities. Not enough food, evictions.
"Part of our work at IOM is to try to provide direct assistance to migrants. And not just Venezuelans, all migrants. And we also provide assistance to the host community (TT).”
Ali said the IOM programming factors in working with migrants and nationals at a community level.
“Everybody is experiencing a lot of hardship, even pre-covid…We try to work with different agencies – governmental, churches, NGOs – because we don’t have resources to provide for everyone and we don’t want to duplicate what they are providing. We try to reach the most vulnerable with things such as hygiene and cleaning kits and food vouchers, etc.”
The language barrier often results in lack of information for migrants, and that is one of the things the IOM is addressing.
“We get information from the ministries with which we work and create information kits in English and Spanish that go with the vouchers we give out, so the migrants at least know where to get the help they need, whether it’s medical, work-related etc.”
She said the organisation also does a lot of data collection and analyses that are compiled into reports.
“We do reports to inform government and for accountability back to the migrants. We tell them what we found and what we are doing with the information.”
Because of the high demands placed on her by her family and career, Ali said she has no choice but to be organised.
“I schedule children and family time, work time, my beach time. Yes, I’m a beach bum. I often feel the need to connect with the water spirits,” she told WMN.
And even as she works well into the night on the details of her IOM projects, she is simultaneously working on a personal project that has been a dream since childhood.
“When I was small I would always say, ‘I want to be a businesswoman,’ and my brother used to say, ‘Minding people’s business,’ and I would cry,” she chuckled. But there are no tears now.
“My house was built on a large piece of land with many natural features. My plan is to build a B&B that is surrounded by nature. A quiet, intimate space with all modern amenities, but with the traditional warmth of the southern people.”
As together as she seems to have everything, though, Ali said there are times when she gets overwhelmed and she’s not okay.
“Almost two years ago, for example, I lost one of my best friends to suicide. I felt myself unravelling, because she was like my sister.”
But she sought the help she needed, and still goes to therapy every Wednesday morning. She encourages women to seek help if they know they need it and stop trying to be superwomen.
“Take a mental break. Ask for help, because it’s okay to not be okay. Be supportive of other women.”