Turana Baghirova has no ordinary job. As a protection field officer for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Azerbaijan, she helps to trace those who went missing during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, unearthing their fates and bringing closure to their loved ones.
“I knew it was going to be a challenging experience,” she remarks of her position, which she has held since December 2011. “I am exposed to the consequences of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict almost every day. However, I was fascinated to work with professionals who had worked in ‘hot spots’ such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Rwanda.”
Turana is an alumna of George Mason University’s Peace Operations master’s program, a unique course of study that prepares students to reestablish or preserve peace in areas rattled by conflict or natural disaster. The Peace Operations master’s program – the only such graduate program in the country – investigates the how-tos of international interventions, post-conflict reconstruction, diplomacy, security, and more.
“Studying peace operations at Mason helped deepen my academic and personal understanding of conflict resolution and peace studies,” says Turana. “The program gave me a solid base in both theory and practice – I took classes on human rights, refugee resettlement, mediation, and many others.”
Among those courses, Turana touts numerous workshops, simulation games, classroom discussions, and field visits with allowing her to propose sustainable solutions while writing papers on various hostilities. Specifically, she took special interest in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, writing a piece for one of her classes that was subsequently published in the Journal of Conflict Transformation: The Caucasus Edition.
“In my paper, I wrote about internally displaced people (IDPs) currently residing in the capital and other regions of Azerbaijan and their daily struggles with mental and health challenges,” Turana explains. “And now at the ICRC I work directly with refugees, IDPs, and the families of those who went missing during the clashes of 1991-1994.”
Turana warmly remembers her graduate school days as a “life-changing experience” that equipped her with the essential tools to perform this kind of challenging work. She also notes that the diversity among her fellow students alone was a lesson in working across cultural boundaries.
“The training I got in conflict resolution gave me a solid academic base, educated me on the notion of multiculturalism, and taught me how to be appreciative of different values and opinions,” she recalls. “The professionals I studied with were people of different backgrounds, beliefs, and cultures, but they all shared a vision of a peaceful and just world.”
That vision is one that Turana works toward daily. Her department at the ICRC is tasked with providing assistance to refugees, IDPs, and families of missing persons with everything from legal issues, such as employment and housing rights, to personal matters, including psychosocial support.
“I realize my job is emotional and challenging at times, but I believe being a humanitarian worker is my calling,” she asserts. “I love what I do, and I value every day because I am capable of helping those in need.”