International Director retires after 25 years of working to promote a dignified life for refugees

For 25 years, Ann Mary Olsen has worked to help those fleeing conflicts and disasters. Now she has decided to retire after seven years as International Director - a time period during which the organization has become Denmark’s largest international humanitarian organization.


"It's been an incredible journey."

This is how Ann Mary Olsen describes her time working for the Danish Refugee Council – not least the time since she took over as International Director in 2010. But it has also very literally been a time filled with journeys as Ann Mary Olsen has visited over 30 of the countries where the Danish Refugee Council has worked. These trips have often been to areas plagued by conflicts and disasters where she has witnessed some of the most cruel and brutal sides of humanity and met hundreds of people with tragic stories.

"Being a refugee is about loss - the loss of rights, loss of home, and loss of family members - too many losses," she says.

Regardless of the number of these stories, they never cease to make an impression, she says. This especially applies to her recent trip to Damascus in February.

"In many ways one can hardly understand that these people are able to continue living. Children can’t attend school and families are unable to support themselves. Entire cities have been destroyed. Actually, there isn’t much else than destruction. It’s extremely sad," she says, "Yet, it strikes me every time I talk to Syrian refugees and IDPs, how great their desire is to return home."

Ann Mary I Felten

Ann Mary Olsen during visit to a refugee camp for South Sudanse refugees in Ethiopia in April 2015.

Even after working with refugees for 25 years, it is still impossible to keep their stories from getting under your skin, Ann Mary Olsen says. But that also applies to the stories of optimism.

"While you see a lot of sadness and distress, I have also met a number of impressive strong families – and especially women. Often you end up leaving a meeting with a smile on your lip – especially after hearing stories of impressive resilience and hope," Ann Mary Olsen says: "Additionally, it has always meant a great deal to me to meet our people in the field and see the difference the Danish Refugee Council does by the fact that we are there."

The trip to Syria was Ann Mary Olsen's final trip for the Danish Refugee Council. She has decided to pass on the reins and retire.

"You have to have faith that we are making a difference"

Ann Mary Olsen started working for the Danish Refugee Council in 1992. At first she worked at the integration department in Roskilde, but she quickly became involved in the organization’s international efforts. In 1994 she was based in Bosnia and subsequent moved to Montenegro. This was the beginning of a long career centered on helping refugees, where the vast majority of them actually are, namely in territories close to the conflict, from which they fled.

"In the Balkans we initially thought that our job was to finalize our efforts there but ended up being there for 20 years. That trend is also true in the conflicts of today. It is vital to understand that recovery, emergency and development efforts take time if you want to avoid new conflicts," she says.

Based on her experiences, Ann Mary Olsen has had a strong focus on strategic and solution-oriented approaches in her work. This has become increasingly important as the number of displaced has grown in recent decades.

Ann Mary + Andreas Kamm

With Secretary General, Andreas Kamm, at the World Humanitarian Summit in Instanbul in May 2016. 

Today more than 65 million people are living as displaced around the globe – an increase of 75 percent since the mid-1990s according to the UNHCR. And there is no indication that this number will decline anytime soon. But despite the fact that the Danish Refugee Council’s tasks are bigger than ever, Ann Mary Olsen continues to have great faith in its work:

"You have to have faith that we are making a difference, and it helps meeting the people to whom we are making a difference. For us, the important thing is that we can at least help in making the situation bearable for the civilian victims. And there is an advantage in the fact that that we know what it takes to create solutions and that we know and are prepared to be involved for a long time."

Heading a department in massive growth

When Ann Mary Olsen returned to the head quarter in Copenhagen after her time in the Balkans, the International Department had only 10-15 employees managing projects of around 200 million kroner annually. Today, this figure is almost 13 times bigger and during the time Ann Mary Olsen has headed the department, its turnover has grown from around 700 million to over 2.6 billion kroner.

The Danish Refugee Council has developed from being a small Danish organization that primarily collaborated with others into a major international organization which is usually invited to sit at the table during important briefings and meetings. The organization’s growth is particularly important because it makes it possible to help more people, explains Ann Mary Olsen:

"It is clear that the growth is partly a result of the growing challenges, but additionally we increasingly positioned ourselves as experts in the subject of displacement. I am proud of the way the organization has developed - and of course also my own contribution to this development."

Ann Mary Olsen’s last day with the Danish Refugee Council is March 17, 2017, and this day will without a doubt be a day with some degree of sadness.

"I will definitely miss work and not least my wonderful and talented colleagues. And there is no doubt that I will continue to keep track of how the organization evolves. I can’t help with," she concludes.

A farewell reception for Ann Mary Olsen will take place on March 17 2017 at 2PM at the Danish Refugee Council.