A Cool Head on the Front Lines

Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award winner Maria Kristensen, F02, helps people displaced by war in sites from Sudan to Afghanistan
Maria Kristensen in Chechnya
Maria Kristensen in Chechnya. “I have a lot of faith in humanity, in spite of seeing the worst that we are capable of,” she said. Photo: Courtesy of Maria Kristensen
January 31, 2017

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For Maria Kristensen, F02, hearing gunfire at night in Darfur was so common that even when it sounded closer than usual, she went back to sleep. But one morning in the winter of 2006, after a particularly loud night, she and her colleagues found a note on the gate of their guarded compound. An armed group had attacked the neighboring Norwegian Refugee Council camp the night before, wounding an aid worker and forcing them to flee. The note warned that the next target would be the camp of the Danish Refugee Council. Her camp.

The violence, part of a series of assaults on Danish diplomatic missions, was triggered by a Danish newspaper printing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. Among the expatriate staff, the reactions were mixed. While some froze up, Kristensen sprang into action, despite it being only her second humanitarian mission. “You never know what you’re capable of until you’re tested,” she said. “I happened to be the calm one.”

In short order, she packed up their valuables, sent home the national staff and drove her colleagues to safety at the African Union camp nearby. They soon discovered there were not enough critical goods to accommodate them there, so Kristensen returned to the Danish camp to collect essentials for her colleagues, under the protection of AU soldiers she recruited. They made it just in time. When they drove away from the compound, she saw her home for the previous seven months go up in flames.

Two weeks after being evacuated to Denmark, Kristensen returned to Darfur to continue her work. For the next year, she and her local colleagues drove through remote desert areas to find displaced people who lived far from any aid camp and assess their needs. She eventually rose to the position of head of the office and deputy regional manager for the Danish Refugee Council. Since then, she has led humanitarian missions in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Western Sahara, Ukraine, South Sudan and Russia's North Caucasus region.

In recognition of her many professional accomplishments as well as her selflessness and composure under pressure, Kristensen is this year’s recipient of the annual Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award (FWLA). The award was established in 2014 by the Fletcher Board of Advisors and the school’s executive leadership to honor outstanding female graduates who are making a meaningful impact in the world.

“Maria’s courageous leadership and sharp negotiating skills have been deployed in many dangerous and complicated situations,” said Leslie Puth, F11, chair of the FWLA committee. “Her extraordinary capacity to identify and promote life-altering solutions for marginalized and threatened communities, whether displaced persons in Chechnya or Bedouins in the Western Sahara, shows her deep commitment to the fundamental right of all people to dignity.”

While she’s honored by the recognition, Kristensen tried to deflect the attention. “I represent all the people working in the humanitarian sector,” she said.

A Focus on Peacekeeping

Growing up in rural Denmark, Kristensen was a quiet, sensitive child who was drawn to helping others—and she loved family trips. At age 20, she embarked on a life-changing solo expedition through Southeast Asia, spending significant time with tribes in Indonesia’s Papua province. Intrigued by the different realities of the wider world, she left the University of Southern Denmark, where she was studying international trade and economics, for a semester abroad at the University of Northern British Columbia, where she studied peacekeeping and realized it might be her calling. When she returned to Denmark, she switched her focus to development economics.

Later, at Fletcher, she helped revive PRAXIS, the journal of human security, and organize the International Development Conference at Harvard. She also learned that “it’s OK to be human and to trust your emotional intelligence,” an insight that would guide her through difficult missions.

In the summer before her second year at Fletcher, she interned for the Danish Refugee Council in northern Uganda, confirming her new career path. “Not only was it a perfect match,” she said, “but Fletcher prepared me well for the crazy situations you find yourself in in this sector.”

After graduating, she worked as a research associate in conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations -- an important job, but one where she spent a lot of time at her desk. When she received an offer from the Danish Refugee Council three years later, it took her just 10 days to pack up her New York life for Darfur. “I was so happy to be in a place where what I was doing was directly relevant,” she said. “I witnessed some of the worst of mankind, but the work we did really mattered.”

In 2011, for her work relocating internally displaced persons from abandoned factory buildings to single-family homes in Grozny, Chechnya, under extremely difficult conditions, she was honored with the Ole Lippmann Memorial Award given by the Lippmann Foundation. The award, named after the leader of the Danish resistance during World War II, is given out once every five years to an individual who has demonstrated “noteworthy contributions to Danish industry or to medical, humanitarian or public service sectors.”

These days Kristensen is based in Copenhagen, where she helps the Danish arm of Save the Children with strategic planning and donor partnerships. After years in the field, adjusting to an office has been a struggle, but she sees it as a way to make a larger impact.

Helping people displaced by armed conflict, she has often felt powerless to stop the violence, which has taken a toll on her emotionally. But she has also witnessed a great deal of strength, compassion and sacrifice. “I have a lot of faith in humanity,” she said, “in spite of seeing the worst that we are capable of.”

The Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award ceremony will take place on March 27.

Divya Amladi can be reached at divya.amladi@tufts.edu.

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