Hooked on adventure
From civil war in Ethiopia to tsunami-ravaged Aceh, one woman is on a mission to help
MICHELE Lipner can clearly remember when she first became hooked on adventure.
It was 1991 and with a new degree in sociology under her belt, she travelled from her home in Columbia, Missouri, to Ethiopia as part of a program helping the country’s cattle, sheep and goat producers.
Ethiopia was engulfed in a civil war and within a month of Michele’s arrival, tanks were rolling into Addis Ababa as the long-time Marxist regime and its massive army was overthrown.
“I remember calling my mother because she thought I had evacuated to Kenya during all of this,” Michele recalls.
“It’s probably the wrong thing to say to your mother but I rang her and said ‘If anything happens to me it’s okay because it’s the first time in my life I feel like I’m alive and living’.”
She stayed in the troubled country for 12 months but the experience had ignited a passion for humanitarian work that continues to this day.
Now living on the Sunshine Coast, Michele’s days of international humanitarian work are behind her and her energy is focused on a community program distributing excess food to people in need.
It’s a far cry from post-conflict Kosovo and Afghanistan where she found herself over the 15 years following her time in Ethiopia.
First was a posting to the Republic of Georgia, after the break-up of the former Soviet Union, where she helped run post-conflict recovery programs, particularly focusing on training local doctors and healthcare professionals.
After Armenia, came Kosovo, where she ran a $20 million assistance program for US AID and helped deal with ethnic conflicts.
Nine months after the 9/11 bombings stunned the world, she was posted to northern Afghanistan where she was the UN’s representative in a region where local warlords were often in conflict with one another.
“I was one of the regional co-ordinators of the UN missions in Afghanistan – one of eight working there from 2002–2004 – after the US bombings,” she explains.
“The UN has this peace-keeping mechanism. It’s not just about blue helmets – it’s a whole civilian side of peace-keeping as well where you come in with a group of specialists and generalists.
“It’s a whole program that works in concert with the government to help move countries coming out of conflict into peace and stability – economic and social stability.
“These peace-keeping missions are usually a combination of civilian and military personnel who go into countries when conflicts are ending.
“I was the head of one of the regional offices and there to support the overall mission in Afghanistan, in the northern part of the country.”
It was while she was in Afghanistan that she met her future husband, Lt Colonel Chris Mead.
The UN mission had eight international military advisers to advise on military issues and Chris was deployed as Australia’s sole military presence in Afghanistan.
“There were no official UN troops on the ground at the time. He was seconded to the UN Mission by the Australian Government. He wore the Australian Army uniform and a blue beret denoting his role as a UN advisor,” Michele explains.
“We were having a lot of trouble with the warlords – people were getting killed and we were getting caught in the crossfire – so he was one of two military advisers deployed up there to try to help negotiate local peace settlements with the warlords and help deal with all the fighting.”
Michele and Chris fell in love and in late 2004 she moved to Australia to be with him in Canberra. But she didn’t stay still for long. Soon after her arrival, the Boxing Day tsunami hit, killing more than 230,000 people in 14 countries.
Within months, Michele was in Indonesia’s Aceh Province with the UN, as its role moved from emergency relief to humanitarian work.
It was only a four-month deployment but within a matter of weeks she had another life-changing experience when the region was hit by a second major quake.
“Many people don’t even remember the second quake happened,” she says.
“The first quake that caused the tsunami was a 9.7, which is unheard of.
“The second one, in March, was about an 8.3 and I was in the middle of that.
“I’m from California and I thought when I went to Aceh Province that I knew all about earthquakes … then I got caught up in an 8-plus earthquake and it was terrifying.
“I felt pretty overwhelmed, to the point where I was pretty traumatised. I had never done emergency response.
“I would go to sleep with clothes on and a glass of water beside the bed because I would wake up in the middle of the night not knowing if I was moving or if the room was moving and the only way I could tell was if I looked at the water in the glass.
“I’ve often said since then ‘give me warlords any day over a natural disaster’ – you can negotiate with a warlord but you can’t with nature.”
Michele returned to Canberra and Chris but soon realised she was suffering post traumatic stress.
In her words she eventually “got over it”, but the experience made her question her abilities for the first time.
“Up to that point I think that everything I did, I did intuitively and I grew and I learned and I got better,” she says.
“Now the whole international aid and development is focused on training people in advance and giving them the necessary skills but when I started in the early 90s – I started out in international aid and development as a country co-ordinator for Save The Children. I grew as I went along doing all these type of things.
“So I had a lot of self doubt and I still have a lot of self doubt – I should have done this more and I should have done that.
“But I am proud that I can reflect on moments that I know I made a difference.
“And if I know I made a difference in one person’s life, it’s worth it.”
After returning to Australia, Michele took on some consultancy work and co-ordinated the formulation of a document that detailed best practice for civilian and military personnel working side-by-side in conflict areas and emergencies overseas. Same Space, Different Mandates, which she describes as her “proudest achievement”, is now recognised as a definitive guide to best practice and is taken into the field by military and civilian personnel.
Michele and Chris moved to the Sunshine Coast in 2010 and with Chris continuing to work for the army and her most recent consultancy nearing an end, Michele looked for a new challenge.
She’d heard of an organisation called OzHarvest – a national food rescue project that distributes excess food to the needy.
It’s regional arm is called REAP and it’s into that organisation Michele has directed her passion for making a difference in the world.
“We rescue excess good food that might otherwise go to landfill for any number of reasons – excess, not being able to be sold because of overstocking, seconds and sometimes just because they don’t look good,” she explains.
“The reality is that a lot of the public is used to buying fruit and vegetables that look a certain way and if something doesn’t look that way it is visually unappealing and therefore there is a notion the food is not good or won’t taste as good. “So it is really hard for businesses to sell those products. “I have a picture on my phone of a bent banana, that looks like a V.
“Most people think of a banana as being shaped like a banana and so if you see something that doesn’t look like the product, it is far harder to sell.
I’ve often said since then ‘give me warlords any day over a natural disaster’ – you can negotiate with a warlord but you can’t with nature.
“If you have big tomatoes that have big indentations in them or slight bruising – they are still very good, still very tasty but it’s not something an average person would necessarily think as of quality, compared to what they might buy in the stores.
“Both at the farm levels and at the supermarket level, a lot of those products tend to be thrown away.
“The whole idea of Oz Harvest and REAP is to rescue that food before it can get to landfill and redistribute it to local community organisations – schools charities, various programs – who are providing meals or emergency hampers to vulnerable people.
“So we are accomplishing two things at once – keeping food away from landfill and also helping with a social problem which is the fact a lot people out there are hungry and rely on social services for food relief.”
It’s not just fruit and vegies that are distributed. There’s also meat, bakery items and tinned foods – anything that can be used to feed hungry people.
In just two years, 50,000kg of excess food has been donated to REAP in the Sunshine Coast.
With every kilogram of food creating three meals, even Michele acknowledges the achievement has been “remarkable”.
While food rescue is the cornerstone of the program, there are also advocacy and educational components – engaging with the community to help minimise food waste and support food security and sustainability in the area. It’s an area in which Michele is becoming more involved these days.
“When I first started the program two years go – in August 2014 – my focus was almost exclusively on identifying food suppliers and recipients and being able to provide a sufficient amount of food to be able to make a critical difference,” she says.
“To give a banana to an organisation means nothing but if I can give 30 or 40 or 50 kilos of food to an organisation then there is some security in them being able to provide some quality consistently to people who are in need.” Then there are the fundraising education programs. One called Cooking For a Cause is partly a team-building exercise for local businesses, with people attending a cooking demonstration with REAP volunteer cooks – sometimes celebrity chefs – and then making meals out of rescued food.
While she says she loves her new role, Michele also admits she misses the humanitarian work of her past.
“It was the first time in my adult life that I found I felt passionate about what I was doing …,” she said.
“I’ve had some amazing experiences and I feel very, very, very blessed …
“It wasn’t a nine-to-five job – you worked 24/7. You worked hard and you played hard and I was passionate about it. “So, of course, I crave that. But I’m too old for it now. “It took me until about six months ago before I finally said ‘move on’.”
Members of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) regional office in Mazar-i-Sharif farewelling Lt Colonel Chris Mead (centre, with Michele behind him) in 2004.
John Bulley donates meat products to Michele Lipner from REAP.
Michele Lipner travelled to Indonesia to carry out humanitarian work following the devastating 2004 tsunami.
People stand in line as they wait for their turn to get free petrol distributed by the government at a petrol station in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.