On Thanksgiving, Kathy O’Donovan wanted to make sure that each of her 11 children knew she was thinking of them, even if they couldn’t make it home to the Yukon for the holiday.
She asked one of the kids to send a text message to her eldest, Diarmuid O’Donovan Jr.
“It was just to check in and say we were thinking about him and we love him on Thanksgiving,” daughter Catherine O’Donovan said.
They got a reply: “He texted back: ‘All’s well, I’m safe. Don’t text me again for security reasons.’”
Those are the kind of messages you get, even on Thanksgiving, when your son is working for the United Nations in volatile Syria.
The eldest O’Donovan is a security advisor with the UN. His latest posting has him working alongside the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month.
The Hague-based organization was formed in 1997 and gained worldwide attention in August when the United Nations asked for help investigating possible chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
Officials are now back in the country as part of a U.S.-Russia-led deal with Syria to destroy all chemical weapon production facilities and weapons-filling equipment in the country.
“He was deployed pretty much immediately,” Catherine said of her brother’s work. “He was deployed to The Hague and they began the planning and then they went right to Damascus and began the inspecting and verifying.”
His job is to keep to those on the ground safe.
“He goes and co-ordinates the logistics of the mission and maps the area safely,” Catherine said. “Normally the OPCW doesn’t require this because they don’t typically go into a war that is actually happening – they generally go after or in periods beforehand.”
Diarmuid graduated from F.H. Collins Secondary School before going to military college and joining the Canadian Navy.
After 13 years with the armed forces, he began working with the UN five years ago.
In that time he has been posted in Afghanistan, Nepal and Haiti. Most recently he took a job at the UN head office in New York City, which is what led to his deployment to Syria.
“When he got to New York we all thought, ‘Oh good, he’s safe.’ But he failed to tell Mom what countries he was in charge of,” Catherine said.
“He’s a security advisor, he’s in charge of safety and security for the Middle East and north Africa,” his mom said.
The family is clearly proud of the work the former Yukoner is doing.
“I’m very proud of him, but I’m afraid that sometimes the constant worry overtakes that,” Kathy said, laughing and pointing to her grey hair.
“My mom is a very loving, worrying mother,” Catherine said. “She worries quite constantly about Diarm and really about all of us.
“Diarm has just given her more things to worry about than some of the rest.”
The family sometimes tries to “tiptoe” around Kathy and protect her from hearing about some of the danger her son may be in, Catherine said.
“However, I’m really good at adding two and two,” the matriarch added.
The family says they’ve been proud of their brother since long before the Nobel Peace Prize was announced.
“We were very proud of the fact that he was a UN security advisor. We were very proud that the was in Syria helping these people. We were very proud when he was a navigational officer with navy. He’s done amazing things with himself,” Catherine said.
Security concerns, combined with a lack of infrastructure in the country, means Diarmuid can’t exactly pick up a phone and call home whenever he wants.
That makes any news from him extra special. In his latest email, he wrote about the OPCW winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Although I don’t receive any formal recognition, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to help and work with this organization,” Catherine said, reading from her BlackBerry.
Last the family heard, Diarmuid expected to be in Syria for about another month.
He is hoping to be home by Christmas.
Contact Ashley Joannou at