Master’s Thesis Defended

There hasn’t been much to blog about while in London, other than catching up on old stuff from the summer so that I can remember it when I’m old, if I want to. However, in November I went back to Sweden one last time to defend my Master’s thesis as the final requirement to earn my NOHA Master of International Humanitarian Action. Before we get to that, two photos from London: the first is the view from my office as the sun was setting one day in September; the second is one of many ladybugs that lived in the lampshade in my bedroom for several months and occasionally ventured out to visit me down below.



At the very end of October, with loads of help from my parents, I finally finished my Master’s thesis. It had been over a year since I began, and I was VERY happy to have it done. I flew to Sweden on November 4th to defend it on the 6th. Flying from London to Sweden:


The train station beneath Arlanda Airport, to catch my train to Uppsala:


My thesis is the reason I spent so much time in Thailand last year, as I was (among other things) carrying out research among Karen refugees from Burma in the largest refugee camp in Thailand. While I was there, I met a photojournalist named Dave Tacon, who kindly agreed to let me use one of his photos of a KNLA soldier in Karen State for my thesis cover page. Check out his different photo albums and magazine covers at This is what my thesis cover looks like:


If you want to know what it’s about, the very short abstract explains my topic: Identity Formation and Armed Conflict: A Case Study of Young Karen Long-term Refugees in Mae La Refugee Camp.

After I successfully defended my thesis, which also involved meeting a bunch of this year’s NOHA students, I was invited to a party they were holding, which was lots of fun (as all parties seem to be when I’m with humanitarian students / workers).


I reluctantly left picturesque and relaxed Uppsala on November 8th to return to busy and smelly London, and on my last walk along the River Fyris for what will likely be many years, grabbed one last photo of a familiar sight:


Though London’s not my favourite city in the world, I’m still thoroughly enjoying my humanitarian logistics internship with Merlin (Medical Emergency Relief International). Speaking of which, the next round of Merlin internships in programmes, logistics, donor partnerships, finance, and communications (12 internships in total) are now posted on their website, with an application deadline of January 5th. Check out if you’re interested, and feel free to contact me if you’ve got any questions about it.

March in Sweden

I spent all of March in Uppsala, Sweden, working on my thesis and searching online for jobs and an internship to finish up my degree requirements. I didn’t take a whole lot of photos as I spent most of my time in my apartment or in the library, away from natural light and human time schedules.

Descending the escalator at Arlanda airport to the subterranean train station when I arrived at the end of February:

It wasn’t particularly warm when I arrived in Sweden – definitely nothing close to the 30+ weather I’d been experiencing in Burma a few days earlier!

Here’s the River Fyris, frozen over and covered in snow, with Uppsala Cathedral in the background:

A few more shots of the River Fyris from other parts of town on different days:

After arranging an internship through a contact I made on a train in Burma, I headed to Stockholm to get a visa to enter China. Walking back from the embassy, which is in the middle of nowhere past the Djurgården area of town, the water was really well frozen. Check out how thick this saltwater ice is – at least 4 inches!

Back in Uppsala, when I wasn’t being a hermit in my apartment or the library, I was generally cycling to one café or another to catch up with friends. This is one of the many, many nice cafés in Uppsala. Going for fika is definitely one of the best things about Uppsala, and perhaps Sweden as a whole.

When my friend Namiko (she studied with me in New Zealand, years ago) was visiting for a few days, I took her to the cemetary next to my area of the university to show her the family grave of the Hammarskjöld family, which includes the grave of Dag Hammarskjöld, the celebrated 2nd Secretary General of the UN who died after his plane crashed (perhaps shot down) in Africa in 1961.

We also headed over to the castle, where I showed her the cannon pointed toward the cathedral. Many years ago, in order to maintain his position of power, the king arranged for these cannon to point directly at the cathedral so that the head of the Church of Sweden would think twice before doing anything to challenge the power of the king.

Having arranged an internship in Asia starting in April, I left Sweden earlier than expected – on April 1st of all days. More on that in the posts to come…

Merry Christmas etc from me to you

Dear friends and family,

Merry Christmas! I don’t normally send mass letters out, but I’m making an exception because I’ve been out of touch with a lot of you lately, and I haven’t updated my blog much since I arrived in Sweden three months ago.

Hmm… where to begin? I guess I can start with my studies. My program at Uppsala Universitet, the oldest university in Scandinavia, is called a Master’s degree in International Humanitarian Action. Our entire program is taught in English, and the Swedish government pays our tuition, as they do for all Master’s students in Sweden regardless of citizenship. We’re 19 students in the program in Uppsala, and there are 6 other universities in the Network on Humanitarian Action that offer this degree, so in total there are roughly 140 students across 7 universities in 7 countries in Europe. We take one course at a time here, for about 3 weeks each, and so far we’ve studied Anthropology, Public Health, Management, and International Law. Each time we start a new class, we change to a new building and new prof, so our program sort of mirrors the life I’ve been living recently – always spending some time in one place, then having to shift headquarters to a new location, then shift again, etc.

At the moment, my thesis idea is to do a bit of field research in a refugee camp and try to see if there’s any link between a child growing up as a refugee in a camp and the prospects for that child to join or support armed movements in his/her country of origin. The current tentative plan is to do that research in Northern Thailand, an area of the world I very much enjoyed visiting three years ago, as there are a number of large camps for Burmese refugees there. There are a bunch of potential problems with the idea, but we’ll see how it pans out. One interesting thing about this thesis is that I’m collaborating with three of my friends in the program to make a joint project out of four individual theses. Each person has a different topic, but we have a common framework and a fairly solid basis for combining the four into one publishable document/book a year from now. Hopefully the concept will work.

Uppsala itself is a small city, about the same size as Dunedin, where I lived in New Zealand in 2005. Like Dunedin, Uppsala is very much a student town, with over 40,000 students at two universities. Uppsala Universitet is a good university, super old (founded in 1477), and its buildings are spread through the centre of the city sort of similar to the Catholic university in Leuven, Belgium. There’s a small river running through the middle of Uppsala, and the buildings along both sides are pretty old and neat looking. They’ve got all sorts of Christmas lights and decorations up on city property now, which is really nice.

It gets pitch dark by 3pm and the sun is only back up by 830 or 9 in the morning, so the Swedes make a big deal of having decorative lights up at this time of year to help prevent depression. For instance, almost every home has a candle stand thing with 7 candles (they’re almost all just candle-shaped lamps now, due to hundreds of fires over the years). They put them in the window, so you can see them from outside as well; most homes and businesses have them in more than one window.

It’s much colder in Uppsala than it is in Vancouver. I wear a scarf every day, and I have to wear more than just a tee-shirt under my jacket! In Vancouver I often only wore a tee shirt and a windbreaker in the middle of winter, no problem. On my walk home last week in Uppsala, I had to put my scarf over my face, then the condensation from my breath froze and made the scarf turn solid! I also had little ice crystals in my goatee, like those people in movies about Antarctica, but not as many ice crystals and no frostbite or goggle tan for me – yet. I live 7 km outside of the city centre, in an area surrounded by fields and forest, so I get a nice cycle ride most days to and from uni. There’s a gravel path along the river which I often take when I’m not in a rush, very nice! Most of the river is now frozen over, and soon I reckon it will be safe to walk on, though I won’t be testing that theory. February is the coldest month here, so it’s only going to get colder and colder and colder.

I live alone in a furnished bachelor pad, which is basically a big room with my bed, desk, table, TV, kitchen, and my own bathroom and shower. Every single thing in the room is from Ikea. Seriously. The room includes all the pots, pans, plates, etc, etc that I need, and every single one is Ikea. The flooring, the windows, the curtains, the wardrobe, every single thing is from Ikea. Weird. I might be moving at the start of January, though, as there is a small room becoming available in my friend’s apartment and it’s more than $200 cheaper per month, and I wouldn’t have to spend money on the bus anymore on days when I can’t cycle, as I would be in town already, within walking distance of everything. Very tempting.

I’ve been trying to learn Swedish, but haven’t had so much time to devote to it. I took a 6 week beginner’s course, 30 hours in total of classes, which was very helpful and has given me a rough foundation for further learning, and I’ll take the next level class starting at the end of January. Everyone here speaks English and all our classes are in English so the normal effect of being immersed in a culture is not as great here, and it’s therefore not as easy to pick up the language. I hope to be moderately fluent by April or May.

Right now, as I write this letter to all of you, I’m in the guest room of my friend Vania’s family in Göteborg (known in English as Gothenburg) a very long way from Uppsala. Vania is in New Zealand, but I figured it would be nice to meet her parents and sister on my way to Copenhagen, so I’m staying two nights here. Gothenburg is the second largest city in Sweden, after Stockholm, and has a population of about half a million people. It’s a really beautiful city – I spent 4 hours walking alone around the town centre today, just walking and looking at everything around me and people-watching.

Last night I walked around Liseberg, the largest amusement park in Scandinavia, where Vania used to work and where her sister Sonia still works. It’s open for a bit during the Christmas season and really decked out with holiday cheer, and then again in the summer months. Sonia took me to a party with her coworkers at a local nightclub last night, which was super fun. We had to stand in line for about an hour and I may have done permanent damage to my bladder while waiting in that line-up, but the party was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed meeting a bunch of Sonia’s friends, all of whom were very friendly.

Mohammad and Jinus Ranjbar (Vania and Sonia’s parents) are terrific hosts, and Jinus is a very good cook too – we had reeeeeeally good Persian food last night: rice with berberis berries, which are sort of similar in taste to cranberries or foxberries, but different, and very Iranian. And some tasty, tasty chicken and salad. And they gave me some mango green tea, which is pretty much the best non-chai tea I’ve ever had. Just thought I’d throw that out there.

Tomorrow morning I’m back on track, (literally, the train track) on my way to Copenhagen. I’ll be spending Christmas there with my friend Mike, who’s from Vancouver but has spent the last year in Paris. My friend Nina (coincidentally Vania’s flatmate when they were exchange students at UBC) lives in Copenhagen, and when I asked her by email if she could meet up with us at some point, she offered us her apartment! She’s going home to stay with her family for Christmas, so she’s giving me and Mike the key to the apartment in central Copenhagen – talk about a lucky break for two poor students! Now we can afford a decent Christmas meal :-)

Not sure what adventures we’ll get up to in Copenhagen, but I will try to put some photos and stories up on the blog afterward. As of now I have no New Year’s Eve plans, so I could be anywhere doing anything. I will probably end up back in Uppsala by then, and try to find a few friends who haven’t left town.

Oh, and I shaved my head again. Well, I didn’t shave it – the hair dresser lady did. I’ve only had it shaved once before, back in June when I was getting too much cinder block dust in my hair on the construction site in Cameroon. With running water for only a few hours each morning and a few hours each evening, it was no good returning home with cement forming in my hair from the sweat and cinder dust, and not being able to wash it out. I let it grow back until it was way too long and ugly, then got a haircut from a friend to look more respectable, but decided to get it buzzed on my way to the train yesterday in Uppsala. It’s way more convenient for toque-wearing (beanie-wearing if you’re not from Canada), as toque-hair is really unbelievably ridiculous as well as hard to fix without water.

Well, that covers just about everything! I hope each of you has a wonderful Christmas and New Year, and I’d love to get an update from you on your life – it doesn’t have to be this long, though ;-)

All the best,


After those few days readjusting to Europe following my summer in Cameroon, I stopped for two nights in Paris at Mike’s place then headed eastward for Bochum, Germany to begin my Master’s program in International Humanitarian Action. But Germany is not Sweden, you say, and you are right. I told you all I was going to Sweden, not Germany!

The thing is, there are 7 partner universities across Europe offering this degree with various specializations in the second semester, and we all go to one place for the first two weeks: an Intensive Programme or IP.

Bochum is a rather lacklustre and depressing town, with drunks sitting around all day at the train station just boozin it up, and the second most depressing university campus I have seen in my entire life (first place remains SFU Burnaby Mountain campus, which is eerily similar to this one and built in 1965, around the same time that Ruhr University Bochum was built).

The best day out of the IP in my opinion was our day trip out to the THW training grounds. THW is a volunteer-based organisation run by the German Government. They do rescue stuff with really cool machines and dogs and stuff. Here are some pics from our demo day:

Super organized for mission departure within just hours of receiving a call. All these THW cases of equipment are designed to be taken in the same manner as normal passengers take their luggage on a 737 airplane, which makes it very easy to get the cases processed at the airport and loaded onto the plane in minutes:

Training area for collapsed building / rubble rescues:

This is a camera with a ring of LED lights around the edge. It can be dropped down fairly small holes and has a speaker and microphone on it to communicate with a person trapped under rubble. It allows the rescuers to see in there as well as figure out the condition of the victim and best approach, if they can get the camera to fit and not get obstructed.

This dog has just been let loose to find a person trapped in the rubble. The dog was really fast and accurate!

This is not a gun, it’s another camera! This one telescopes even longer than shown, and the tip with the camera lens on it can move from side to side!

Close-up showing maximum right angle bend of the camera tip:

They also do water and sanitation, and this huge tub is an important component of their portable water purification facility. They just need a source of non-salt water and fuel (they have enough fuel for a day or two usually, then need to find local sources) to process thousands upon thousands of litres of clean, crazily-filtered and chlorinated drinking water which has extremely high health standards.

This is the head of the water purification team. He LOVES his technology, and I don’t blame him! Any Engineer would be happy to have a look at the neat filtering technology they’re using and the interesting way they’ve set it all up for ultimate portability and durability. Like their cases above, this filtering equipment all stores in containers specifically designed to fit in standard airplane holds:

That night, my old flatmate Marcus managed to catch a train from his home in Munster to my hotel in Bochum. Marcus and I were two of five people living in a house together in Dunedin, New Zealand for a year in 2005 and he and I spent a month backpacking Australia together. We had a great time talking about all sorts of random stuff and catching up on old times.

On the 13th, we had a huge Karaoke Night at a local bar, organized by one of the students, Ruslan. Almost everyone was there, which means >100 out of the 140 program participants. It was a tonne of fun and very memorable.

September 14th was the last day of our program in Bochum, and I was not sad to take this photo as Danielle, Greg, and Tanaji left Ruhr University Bochum campus for the last time:

Next stop: Sweeeeeeeeeeeeden!