A voice for others

September 20, 2018

Alumni, Portrait

The issues that a child with autism faces are compounded when that child lives in a refugee camp or a conflict zone. When Melissa Diamond, ’15, realized this as an undergraduate, she was determined to help, even while she was still finishing up her studies.

In the northern reaches of Jordan, approximately two kilometers from the Syrian border, Melissa Diamond, ’15, feels right at home. A self-described “citizen of the world,” Diamond is in the process of launching a new program in Irbid, Jordan, through her organization, A Global Voice for Autism.

“I never exactly know where I’m going to be, but I really like it that way,” Diamond said. “At this moment, I’m based in Jordan. But give it a few months, and I could be in Turkey, Syria, back in the States, England — I really have no idea.”

A Global Voice for Autism provides support for and helps decrease the stigma of autism in refugee communities and conflict zones across the globe. Along with Irbid, the organization serves Mersin, Turkey; the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Jenin; and the Minneapolis Somali community in Diamond’s home state, Minnesota. It draws on a variety of resources, such as parent and teacher cooperatives, community education, sibling support, and self-development by working closely with local communities and behavioral and trauma specialists.

You don't have to be an expert to take action.

Diamond started the nonprofit after traveling to Jerusalem with other Richmond students through the office of the chaplaincy. There, she met a mother and her 4-year-old daughter with autism. The daughter was usually locked away in their home because of the stigma of autism in their West Bank community. The mother asked Diamond if she could help find a scholarship to receive support in the United States. The exchange prompted Diamond to think about how the life of a close friend of hers with autism would be different if she lived in another part of the world.

“That was the catalyzing moment,” Diamond said. “I never set out to start an organization. It was never what I expected to do and sure, it’s been a lot of work, but it really just kind of fell into place. The highlight is to be able to provide support in so many ways to families who don’t have anywhere else to turn, and to see that through the relationships of the community that have formed around this organization.”

As founder and executive director, Diamond manages staffers who train parents and teachers to support children with autism, handles partnerships with governments in the conflict zones, raises funds, and evaluates new communities that request programming, among other obligations. She’s also an in-demand speaker on autism, including appearances at the United Nations for World Autism Awareness Day in 2014 and 2017.

“The most powerful part of those experiences has been to be able to share the stories of families and people who are dually marginalized, both as refugees and as people with autism and developmental disabilities, that so often go untold,” she said. “But you don’t have to be an expert to take action. And if you see a change that needs to be made, you can start by calling out that change and calling for people to come together around it, and the right people will come.”