Jackie Kirk: 1968-2008

Jackie Kirk in 2004. / Photo courtesy of Andrew Kirk
Jackie Kirk in 2004. / Photo courtesy of Andrew Kirk

By Neale McDevitt

On August 13, gunmen opened fire on a pair of SUVs driving in Afghanistan’s Logar province, southeast of Kabul, killing three aid workers from the New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC) and one of the drivers. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the ambush of the clearly marked aid vehicles, saying its fighters attacked “the foreign invader forces.”

Jackie Kirk, who had just been appointed Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Education, was one of the IRC workers who died in the attack.

“This is truly tragic. Jackie was engaged in important work trying to improve the lives of people in Afghanistan, which was closely tied to her research on women’s access to education in developing countries,” said Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, echoing the sentiments of so many.

Last Christmas, Andrew and Jackie Kirk spoiled themselves and bought a piano. “Jackie loved music but she pretty much gave it up after graduating because she was so busy,” said Andrew Kirk, Associate Dean (Research and Graduate Education) in McGill’s Faculty of Engineering. “I was hoping the piano would entice her to make the time to sit down and play.”

Music had brought them together as undergraduates at the University of Bristol. She was studying German and Italian; he was a young engineering student. Both auditioned for a spot as trombonist in the university orchestra.

Neither made the cut and, as a result, the pair spent the year as members of the school’s less prestigious wind band “complaining about the snobbishness of orchestra musicians,” Andy Kirk said, smiling. “That was the beginning of our relationship and we got married in 1992.”

After their wedding, the couple jumped around the world as Andy completed his PhD in physics at London’s King’s College and pursued post-doc research in Brussels and Tokyo. At every stop, Jackie pursued her passion: teaching.

“Jackie was an amazing teacher,” Andy said. “To her every single child mattered greatly and she had clear objectives for each one.” In the days and weeks since his wife’s death, Andy has received many, many emails, some from parents who remembered her fondly as “the best teacher their child had ever had.”

The couple moved to Montreal in 1996, when Andy was appointed an assistant professor at McGill’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Undaunted by the visa restrictions that made it impossible for her to teach, Jackie volunteered at local schools where she began working with immigrant children. “That’s when she became very interested in trying to help children from conflict-affected countries,” Andy said.

Fueled by a growing sense of duty, Jackie enrolled at McGill where she did her PhD in Education under the guidance of Claudia Mitchell. Not surprisingly, her dissertation focused on how the lives of female teachers in Pakistan affected their work in the classroom.

Jackie began working with the IRC in 2004 as an advisor on teacher-training programs and on development programs for schools. Hopping from one country to the next, she helped rebuild education systems in such war-torn places as Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo, and in the Aceh region of Indonesia following the devastating tsunami of 2004. “I was encouraging her to settle down and get a nice professorship somewhere,” Andy said. “But she loved being on the road.

“She wore out so many suitcases every year – it seemed like we were always buying a new one.”

When asked if his late wife ever found her work demoralizing, Andy was quick to point out that she usually worked in countries that were being reconstructed. “Her work filled her with so much hope and optimism because she was there helping build something beneficial, something that would help the children” he said. “She always came home charged up and excited about what she was doing.”

But, as committed as she was to the IRC, Jackie insisted on having a 70-per-cent appointment because, at any given moment she had a half-dozen other projects on the go. UNESCO, the World Food Program and the International Network for Education Emergency were just some of the agencies she was heavily involved in. She had also co-founded the Journal of Girlhood Studies (the first issue is due out this fall) and had begun work on organizing a seminar series on education in developing countries with colleagues at McGill and UQUÀM.

“I don’t know where she got the energy from,” Andy said. “She basically lived on lettuce, mango and gallons of weak tea.”

At the time of her death, Jackie had made a name for herself worldwide as an authority on education in post-conflict situations – with a particular interest in the education of girls. “She used to say that 70 million girls in the world couldn’t go to school,” Andy said, “and she really believed it was her mission to help them all.”

In the end, the death of Jackie Kirk and her IRC colleagues precipitated a wave of international outrage against the Taliban. But it also triggered the IRC’s decision to immediately suspend all its humanitarian relief efforts in Afghanistan – exactly what the Taliban sought. And while Andy Kirk has received numerous messages from people pledging to keep Jackie’s memory alive by continuing her work, it remains to be seen if anyone will step forward now that the risk is so high.

“Jackie left so much unfinished,” Andy said. “So many books that were almost done, so many plans and projects – it is such a tragedy in terms of her potential. She should have done so much…”