From Toowoomba to the United Nations

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Nathan Dalton is proof that a kid from the bush can make it big on the international stage. The Toowoomba boy with a dream to help refugees, has taken his Griffith University Arts/Law degree to the New York headquarters of the United Nations (U.N.)

After 15 years at the front line of U.N. field missions in conflict zones around the world from Serbia to East Timor, he is now a political affairs officer for the UN’s Middle East Team, working towards peace in the troubled region.

And he’s encouraging others to not be daunted by the prospect of working for a behemoth of an organisation such as the United Nations with tentacles around the world, saying Australians have an important and valuable perspective in these tense negotiations.

“I come here every day now but it still gives me a buzz walking in,” Mr Dalton says. “I cover the Lebanon desk in the Middle East team, so generally meet with member state representatives who are on the security council, like the US, UK, France, Russia China, the P5 or permanent five”.

“When you think about the issues at play, life or death, often for people involved particularly if you’re working on something in the Middle East, Syria and Yemen are just ongoing stories of misery which we are struggling to address.

“When you’re in a peacekeeping environment your security might be under threat, its much more visible the suffering of the local population, and the challenges that they face in making do every day.”

Nathan Dalton now walks alongside representatives of 193 member states confronting the great issues of humanity such as climate change, peace and security and human rights.

He took me behind the scenes of United Nations’ headquarters, telling me how he made his way from the streets of Toowoomba and Brisbane, to the sites of some of the world’s most challenging conflicts.

“I was placed for a position with the United Nations mission in Kosovo with the department of peacekeeping, in the department of justice as a legal officer in 2003,” he says.

“You see some real change positive change happening. In Kosovo we spent several years trying to work on the justice system and by no means is it fixed or perfect even now, but we saw enough that you could see capacity.

“And we had local colleagues Kosovans, Albanians and Serbs working together in our department belying the animosities that might exist outside in the community.

“In Liberia seeing an election take place and people voting peacefully and freely. And electing a football super star George Weir as their next president, and seeing smiles on the people’s faces that this is a positive change in trying to address the corruption. I think we all play a small part. If we can contribute somewhat to that process that’s very rewarding.”

Nathan Dalton says looking back now he realises that his Griffith University law degree set him up perfectly for the humanitarian legal work he has done throughout his career. “I studied law and a Bachelor of Arts in Modern Asian studies at Griffith University Nathan campus,” he says.

“At school I studied Japanese, then decided I wanted to do law and somehow thought I would make something of those two in my future. I did a year on exchange in Japan before starting at Griffith.

“But after a couple of years of law I soon realised that I wasn’t going to go into business or corporate sector as I had maybe once thought, that I was very much motivated more by the human rights justice side of law.

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Griffith University graduate, Nathan Dalton

“In terms of how Griffith set me up for this type of life…it was the opening of the mind and I think a lot of the values Griffith university instills in people is a natural grounding for this kind of work.

“I know status wise a lot of people still gravitate towards the old sandstone universities but I know in my mind I’m very glad that I went to Griffith University and it was the natural springboard for the rest of my career.”

He says he never expected he would end up working for an esteemed organisation such as the UN, and encouraged other students to think outside the box.

“I think that’s most important for any student to keep in mind that whatever you might think might is going to happen in the next three to five or ten years, that might well happen, but the rest of your future is still open to possibility,” he says.

“A boy from Toowoomba has landed here in the Big Apple and is working with the United Nations, if it can happen for me it can happen for anyone”.

“For me this is just my life, it doesn’t necessarily feel exceptional. I’ve taken opportunities as they’ve come, worked towards creating the possibility for making these opportunities.”

He first moved to Sydney in 2001 to work on refugee immigration issues, and after some volunteer placements was sent by the United Nations to Kosovo. He has worked for the UN ever since. Three separate missions to Timor Leste followed before going to Liberia, then Jordan, and onto UN HQ in New York, with his wife and two small children.

“Something that I’m very conscious of is that a skill or experience that you might have at one point in time might not lead to something immediately, it might come into play 10 or 15 years down the track,” he says.

“The people I met 10 to 15 years ago I’m meeting again now in New York. I think that’s something to keep in mind that one thing leads to another.”

He gets back to Australia as often as he can, although the distance makes it difficult to visit family and friends often. “I was on the plane back home last year and I overheard someone say `New York is the new London’ and I cringed a little,” he says.

“There’s not that many of us so it’s always nice to bump into another Australian and share some Australianisms.

“You go home and you can drink water out of the tap, there’s always water coming out of the tap when you want it, there’s always power when you flick the light switch, you don’t have 20 hours of darkness or no power all day like you do in many parts of the world.

“You have clean toilets, you have buses and and trains they might not be the best in the world in Australia, but they’re not bad.

“And having those beautiful clean beaches and national parks I think that’s something as an Australian, the rest of the world is pretty messy out there.

“It’s one of those things when talking about refugees and migration, it’s natural for people to want to protect what they have and be wary of the unknown, at the same time it’s just as natural to open your heart and open your doors to those that need a helping hand and Australians like to think really that they like to give a fair go, they should act it.”

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Independent expert analysis and insights from Australia’s best political scientists and policy researchers.

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