Photo of Jannah Muhammad

Jannah Muhammad will be stationed in Dakar, Senegal, which is located in West Africa. But she will spend much of her time working in the neighboring countries of Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia. Photo courtesy of Jannah Muhammad

Jannah Muhammad and Kevin O’Brien, both of whom graduated from the Boston College School of Social Work in May, will work approximately 5,000 miles apart from each other for the next 12 months. But they’ll share the same goal: to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the world. 

Muhammad and O’Brien will design projects, draft grant proposals, and analyze programs to help fight poverty, promote prosperity, and respond to major emergencies in developing countries in Asia and Africa.

They’ll work for Catholic Relief Services, an international humanitarian organization that hired them as fellows even before they had finished internships for the agency this spring. Only 18 people in 2020 received fellowships from the organization, which works with institutions, nonprofits, and nongovernmental organizations around the world to help people on the basis of need, not creed, race, or nationality.

“To know that I’m going to be well prepared at the end of this fellowship to take on positions in development is awesome,” says Muhammad. “I’ll be able to do the work I’ve wanted to do for years.”

Muhammad will be stationed in Dakar, Senegal, which is located in West Africa. But she will spend much of her time working in the neighboring countries of Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia.

One of the things I value most is putting the community first. Those close to the problem should have the greatest say in how that problem is being addressed.
Jannah Muhammad, 2020 graduate of the Boston College School of Social Work

Muhammad will support The McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program in Guinea-Bissau by helping to build relationships with potential partners who can strengthen the initiative. The program, named after former senators George McGovern and Bob Dole, has provided food to 40 million children in 24 countries since it was created in 2002. World Vision, a humanitarian organization, reports that 65 million people in Africa did not get enough to eat in 2018, including more than 11 million people in West Africa. 

“One of the things I value most is putting the community first,” says Muhammad, who served in the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa, from 2013 to 2016. “Those close to the problem should have the greatest say in how that problem is being addressed.”

Muhammad says that her specifc responsibilties in The Gambia will be determined in the coming weeks. But she knows that she will team up with The Global Fund to help fight malaria, a disease caused by a parasite spread by certain types of mosquitoes. The World Health Organization reports that malaria infected approximately 200 million people in Africa in 2017, which accounted for 92 percent of all cases of the disease. 

“We have the tools and treatments to prevent and cure malaria,” The Global Fund, which distributes about $5 billion a year to fight AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, says on its website. “This is a fight we can win, if we build and maintain unwavering commitment.”

Photo of Kevin O'Brien

Kevin O’Brien will divide his time between Gaza and the West Bank, territories in the Middle East separated from each other by Israel.

O’Brien will divide his time between Gaza and the West Bank, territories in the Middle East separated from each other by Israel. He’ll draft and implement grants that provide healthcare and emergency shelter for people in Gaza who have been displaced from their homes and help farmers in the West Bank secure the money and resources they need to grow crops and raise livestock.

He says that one of the goals of the project in the West Bank is to support farmers who want to turn their livelihoods into businesses and sell their goods to customers at local markets. Al Jazeera reported in May that the novel coronavirus has crippled the agricultural industry in the West Bank, as closures imposed by the Palestian Authority to control the spread of the virus have made it particularly difficult for farmers to sell their livestock.

“I want to support their contributions to their community,” says O’Brien, “and help them get what they need to implement their vision for their small business.”

Muhammad and O’Brien say that their internship experiences at Catholic Relief Services have prepared them to excel in their fellowships for the humanitarian organization. O’Brien helped to bring clean water to families in Honduras and worked with children to teach them important life skills, such as how to save money. Muhammad helped to write three successful grant proposals in Niger, including one grant proposal that provided $125,000 to help healthcare professionals respond to the novel coronavirus in the country. 

“Catholic Relief Services is such a large worldwide organization,” says O’Brien, who also served as a member of the Peace Corps in Mozambique, where he worked with community members to improve health education and reduce the spread of HIV and malaria. “Coming in with internships already under our belts and going to different parts of the world to engage with the teams there gives us a better sense how globally connected we all are.”

Muhammad and O’Brien, both of whom studied in the global field of practice, credit their classes with helping them develop the technical acumen, thoughtfulness, and compassion required to work in other countries. Muhammad says the writing assignments in “Frameworks and Tools for Global Practice” sharpened her ability to craft persuasive grant proposals. O’Brien says electives focused on the topics of gender, climate change, and public health increased his capacity to understand the nuances and complexities of any given issue. 

“My professors brought a lot of challenging ideas and provided a framework that I plan to reflect on during the fellowship,” says O’Brien. “I’ll try to look at how whatever I’m doing relates to gender, climate change, and public health.”

Catholic Relief Services reports that 75 to 80 percent of fellows continue to work for the humanitarian organization after their fellowships end. Muhammad and O’Brien expressed interest in managing programs for the organization when they finish their fellowships. O’Brien says he wants to work in public health, with a particular emphasis on addressing health disparities. Muhammad says she wants to apply her skills to improve the health of women and children. 

“I’m open to see where it’s going to lead me,” says Muhammad. “I’ll go wherever I can be most helpful and most useful.”