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Working at what can be done

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Change requires understanding, writes David Ellery, and a year overseas helped prepare the future Amnesty International lobbyist.

Amnesty International's government relations adviser, Tamara Lions.

Amnesty International's government relations adviser, Tamara Lions. Photo: Rohan Thomson

A gap year student exchange to Costa Rica in the early 2000s helped to shape the course of Tamara Lions' life and work.

A Canberran for five years, she is the government relations adviser with Amnesty International and works out of the organisation's office in Civic.

Her work involves using the skills she honed working with a firm of Canberra lobbyists to act as an advocate for Amnesty's efforts to encourage Australians, including the government and government agencies, to ease oppression across the world.

Born in 1982 and brought up by a father who works as a sustainability consultant and a mother who is a physiotherapist, Lions said she benefited from having parents who looked beyond the obvious and encouraged their three children to ask why things are the way they are.

''That leads to you wanting to change things,'' she said. ''I was also lucky enough to be part of a generation that has a wide range of information available to us [about conditions of life overseas] thanks to the internet. A lot of people my age have that social consciousness.''

By the time Lions decided to travel to Costa Rica, she had already developed a keen interest in Second and Third World countries and realised the way of life she had grown up with was far from the norm for the majority of the world's population.

The material wealth and freedom of expression most Australians took for granted simply did not exist in many other parts of the globe.

Costa Rica, while considered by the thousands of tourists who visited every week to be a tropical paradise, was in many ways a case in point.

''The country was seen as somewhere people [Westerners] could go to party,'' Lions said. ''It was a place for fun and recreation. My experience was that this was part of the picture but that there were more complex societal issues as well.''

Lions, who had travelled to the country under the auspices of an exchange program, was placed with a family she described as ''middle class'' by Costa Rican standards.

''Olger Lopez, the father, was self-employed,'' she said. ''He had a van and used to supply small stores, the types of places travellers rarely frequented, with confectionery and other stock items. He used to love to take me out on his routes where I could see what life was like in the smaller towns.''

Lions, who returned to Australia to study economics and social studies before completing a master's degree in international studies, believes the world does change and that organisations such as Amnesty International can help ensure that change is for the better.

Letter writing is still a core part of Amnesty's armoury and, with the crises in Syria and Gaza, the organisation is as busy as it has ever been. Closer to home she is particularly interested in west Papuan and Burmese politics, and the people there whose problems the world has largely forgotten about.

''Change [towards greater liberty and respect for the rights of the individual] may be slow but it is inevitable,'' she said. ''The problems come when governments are afraid to change. Working for Amnesty is about informed change, drawing attention to issues and areas where change is needed.''

Lions, who says that her time at Amnesty has yet to dent her generally optimistic view of the world, accepts many people are sceptical of those who work to make the world a better place. ''A lot of people see us as idealists, perhaps dreamers,'' she says, unselfconsciously paraphrasing John Lennon's Imagine. ''But that's not true; you become a realist. You accept that you do what you can.''

Lions, who was recently involved in persuading the federal government to support measures designed to control the arms trade, has nothing but respect for Amnesty's small but zealous band of volunteers.

She admits, perhaps to her own disadvantage, that she would work for nothing if she had to.

''One of the reasons I found Amnesty so attractive was that I could use the skills I had developed working for a firm of lobbyists to follow my conscience. This is a truly independent organisation. It is very rare to find an organisation that is free of economic, political or religious interests,'' she says.

Canberra seems likely to remain her permanent home for the foreseeable future. ''I enjoy it [the city],'' she said.

''There are like-minded people here. It is a very intelligent community where people are perceptive and more preoccupied with actual achievement than status.''

Lions came to the city with her partner, Lewis, a businessman who had taken her to China and Taiwan when he was working there.

While reluctant to predict the future, her response when asked what the world would be like a decade from now is quietly hopeful. ''I would like to think it will be a more evolved place,'' she said. ''That we will value and respect each other more and that people will start thinking about sustaining each other in the same way we are now learning to think about sustaining the environment.''

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