FSU Alumni Association

Getting the Hell Out of Hell

Barbara Pierce
Asked to put his life on hold to guide thousands of refugees through a tumultuous war zone toward new homes and fresh hope, David Ward said yes — and never looked back


Photo by AJ Studios Photography

David Ward (B.A. ’11, J.D. ’15), a fifth-generation Floridian, double Seminole and Jacksonville resident who had spent little time outside the Sunshine State, was far from home indeed: a Kurdish-held region of northern Iraq near the ravaged city of Mosul.

“I was traveling with a team of Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers to see the results of ISIS incursions in the area,” Ward said, “and getting briefed along the way. They said, ‘We’re going to a town near the front lines. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to go.’” 

But Ward, in the grip of a powerful adrenaline rush, was in no mood to turn back. Entering the town, the group climbed onto the roof of the village church to look around. “My translator, Ahmed [not his real name], pointed to a water tower a mile or so away and said, ‘That is Daesh [ISIS].’” 

That was the moment Ward realized he was inside an active war zone. “The town seemed empty, but soldiers were clearing buildings and kicking down doors,” he said. “There was a 50-50 chance that bullets could be fired in our direction. Suddenly I got goose bumps and realized the gravity of where I was. This wasn’t playing cowboy — this was real life on the edge of the world.”

What made the moment all the more surreal was how suddenly it had eclipsed Ward’s previous accomplished, commendable but distinctly less dramatic life as a freshly minted attorney making his way in the corporate world.

Answering the call

Just a few days earlier, in June 2016, Ward had been in his office at iMobile3, a small Jacksonville-based technology firm owned by a fellow FSU alumnus with whom he worked as general counsel, when he got a call from an old friend.

“He said he was in Amman, Jordan, and needed me on a plane there the next day.”

The friend was Peter Marocco. The two had met while Ward, then still in law school, was doing a gubernatorial fellowship in Tallahassee, and they had stayed in touch. 

“I knew Pete was doing some humanitarian work in the Middle East, but that was it,” said Ward. “All he told me was, ‘I need someone whom I can trust – and who can synthesize information from a lot of different sources and help me make sense of it.’”

Understandably apprehensive as well as intrigued, Ward said he was “70-30 for saying no.” But his then-girlfriend (now fiancée), Ashleigh Lollie (J.D. ’16), who had just earned her own law degree from FSU, was having none of it. Even though the two were just beginning to build a life together, “she told me it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and she didn’t want me kicking myself years later that I’d passed it up.”

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the Islamic State in Sinjar, walk toward the Syrian border. Photo by Rodi Said/Reuters

With a current passport, a provocative call to action and his sweetheart’s encouragement, Ward decided to go for it. “My CEO said, ‘Are you serious?’ And I said, ‘I’ll be back next Monday.’”

By the final leg of his circuitous journey from Jacksonville to Queen Alia Airport in Amman, Jordan, Ward was the only Westerner on the plane. When the pilot announced that he was rerouting the flight to avoid Syrian air space, Ward began to realize what he’d got himself into.

Meeting up with Marocco in the city, Ward got his first marching orders and got to work. And what he had envisioned as basically a highly unusual long weekend would stretch into an extraordinary seven months.

Peter Marocco is not the sort of guy young attorneys typically hang with. Somewhere in his early 40s, he is one of those resolute types who embrace risk as enthusiastically as most of us avoid it and has the impressive, somewhat mysterious résumé to prove it. A former member of the Marines in Force Recon, Marocco is now a contractor with Patriot Group International (PGI), a global enterprise that provides intelligence, defense and private services on six continents – including, as the PGI website puts it, “austere and high-threat locations.”

The blasted terrain, viciously disputed territories and devastated towns across which the Syrian refugee crisis was playing out certainly fit that description. 

Project with no playbook

Marocco had been approached a few months earlier by a group of wealthy Americans seeking to help out at least some of the estimated 11 million Syrians who had been displaced by their nation’s grinding and grisly civil war. 

To be sure, there were already many intergovernmental organizations on the scene, including UNICEF, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the European Commission’s ECHO (European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations). Also in the mix were high-profile nongovernmental organizations such as the International Red Cross and World Vision, as well as religious entities such as the Vatican and the Greek Orthodox Church and local Muslim, Jewish and Yazidi leaders. 

But the size and scope of these overlapping rescue efforts meant that many people were falling through the cracks. “These big groups are great for major rollouts, such as setting up a camp in Jordan or Lebanon for 5,000 refugees,” Ward said. “But where do these people go next? They have been displaced from destroyed homes and cities and stuck in limbo for years. They have no way to make a living. And they don’t have a clear path to resettlement in a safe country.” 

TOP: David Ward and Peter Marocco at work in Jordan. BOTTOM: Ward with his translator in Amman, Jordan. (The face of the translator has been blurred to protect his identity.)

Scrutinizing the crowded, chaotic chessboard of rescue operations, Marocco had determined that an off-the-books approach was needed to get thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees resettled in Australia – the goal his American investors had specifically chosen to support. All of the families on whom he and his team would focus had family members in Australia – a requirement for the country’s so-called “family stream” Syrian immigration visa program – so the process may have seemed, at first glance, fairly straightforward.

In reality it was, in Marocco’s words, “a project with no playbook.” Guiding these desperate refugees through a bureaucratic and logistical no-man’s-land to safety was more like playing a frenetically paced survival game set in a hall of mirrors, where the rules of engagement changed second by second and slip-ups could have deadly consequences. 

“From one week to the next, people and resources you relied on are suddenly not in the same place,” Marocco explained. “For example, you may be on your way to an airstrip when you find out that the local government just imposed new departure procedures, taxes or security checks. So you need to be constantly taking calculated risks and updating contingencies, because the best-case scenario never unfolds the way you planned.”

Sometimes the only way out was through territory controlled by groups, such as Hezbollah, that were viewed as adversarial. “If you were to say that this area was absolutely ‘off-limits’ due to the perceived dangers,” Marocco said, “you would likely miss an opportunity to save several lives.”

Then there was Australia’s well-meaning but massive immigration bureaucracy to contend with. “We had to work through a plethora of paperwork, sometimes 50 or 60 pages’ worth,” Ward said. 

Of course, like the immigration infrastructure of every other country, Australia’s required that refugee resettlement visa applications include passports. “But what if they had fled their now-destroyed or ISIS-occupied homes without their passports in the middle of the night?”

Untangling knots — and lining up trucks;

That’s where Ward came in. Marocco had already begun assembling a skilled team that knew its way around the Mideast and military-style logistics when he reached out to his young friend from Florida. “He was determined to operate in a nimble way to get these people resettled,” Ward said. “And who is more nimble than special forces guys?

“I am certainly no military asset,” he readily noted. “But if you need someone with the skills to quickly scan and accurately summarize a 50-page document, think on his feet and negotiate with an embassy official, I’m your guy.”

Ward’s first big test came within days after he arrived. Marocco’s first rescue mission was ramping up, and other players on the ground, from NGO officials to exhausted refugees, were watching closely. 

“They wanted to see if we would succeed and keep the commitments we had made to this family,” Marocco said. “If we failed, trust would be nearly impossible to rebuild, and our next efforts would be infinitely more difficult.”

David Ward and Peter Marocco, wearing a blue shirt, in Kurdistan, in territory recently wrested from ISIS control. On that day, the two were surveying the current state of refugee needs and movements so they could best assist those most in need as they fled ISIS.

A broken window reveals the destruction dealt by the Islamic State in an abandoned town in northern Iraq.

Diving into the fray, Ward allocated the necessary assets, untangled a series of bureaucratic knots and arranged the family’s departure in a span of 17 hours. “Thanks to David,” said Marocco, “our very first mission became a proof of concept for our process that met the highest standards of integrity.”

As the team’s operations continued over the following months, Ward’s passport accumulated a blizzard of seals, stamps and visas as he moved back and forth among Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Israel. He also spent about six weeks in Australia, working with local nonprofit and church groups to organize welcome procedures for the incoming refugees. And he was doing it all on an average of four hours’ sleep a night.

Ward’s tireless work ethic and prodigious abilities with people and paperwork so impressed Marocco that he was soon named the team’s director of operations. Not that Ward could share the news of his promotion with his family. “When I spoke with Ashleigh and my folks,” he said, “all I could say was, ‘I can’t tell you where I am right now or what I’m doing, but I’m safe.’”

What he was doing would have been nearly impossible to explain anyway. Over the course of just about any 24-hour period, Ward found himself handling tasks ranging from nuanced negotiations with government officials and religious leaders to lining up trucks and vans to get families across the desert. 

“There’s no Enterprise Rent-a-Car in Kurdistan,” Ward said. “So you have to think about the ins and outs of every little thing, because they won’t get solved unless someone spends half a day working on it.”

‘Shock to the senses’

Though he never would have envisioned putting his degree from FSU’s College of Law to this particular use, Ward found himself calling on some of the things he had learned there. “We were taught the importance of critical thinking and of being concise, clear and crisp in interpersonal communication. 

“Looking back on it,” he said with a wry smile, “FSU law prepared me for coming to terms with a tribal chief in Iraq.” 

Ward especially treasures his memories of the small human moments he shared with his charges. “I had tea on a Tuesday with a family who had been living for years in a concrete compound in Beirut with nothing but a few suitcases before we stepped in,” he recalled. “The following Saturday, I met them at the airport in Melbourne.”

Many reminded Ward of his own family. “I met people who were writers, teachers, doctors,” he said. “But they had simply been stripped of that sense of place that comes from having a home, and it was heart-wrenching.” 

The day before they were resettled in a country thousands of miles away, David Ward meets with a Syrian family in their home in Lebanon. (The faces of minors have been blurred to protect their identities.) Over afternoon tea, they discussed travel logistics and checked that all last-minute documentation had been obtained. Ward usually visited with a family in their home on a daily basis.

Yet another layer of anguish was palpable among the young women, members of a distinct Kurdish religious group known as Yazidi, who had been sexually brutalized by ISIS and, sometimes with the team’s help, narrowly escaped with their lives. 

“They were just in a daze,” he said. “Looking into the face of someone who has been through such hell that they are saying they wish they had died — it was just a complete shock to the senses.”

But there were also lighter moments and expressions of gratitude that needed no words. 

One evening, a refugee with whom Ward and Ahmed were chatting offered Ward a cigarette. “I shook my head, meaning ‘No, thanks,’ because I don’t smoke,” Ward said. “So he offered me the cigarette again. I refused again, and he offered again. He was clearly exasperated, maybe even offended. So I asked Ahmed to please tell the gentleman that I didn’t smoke.

“Ahmed talked with him for a few moments, then turned to me and said, ‘He’s offering you a cigarette because, other than his passport, that is all he has.’ So I smoked a cigarette with him.”

New view of the world

Jobs like these don’t come with standard performance reviews, but Marocco is profuse in his praise of Ward’s contributions. “David was a phenomenal asset to the program,” he said. “He brought incredible attention to detail and could spot dangerous discrepancies on the spot. He stayed positive and productive in a rapidly changing environment. 

“There’s no question in my mind that had we not brought David on the team, I would have had to bring three people on to accomplish what he did.” 

What Ward, Marocco and their teammates, who wound down their rescue efforts late last year, accomplished was impressive indeed. When the dust settled on their mission, more than 4,000 people, including many families with young children, were resettled in Australia. 

Working to reconcile the dreamlike texture of the past several months with the near-miraculous results he helped make possible, Ward is still processing the experience.  

“I would hardly call myself an expert on the Mideast refugee crisis now, but I have a new depth of understanding,” he said. “It was a real paradigm shift for me. It opened my eyes, informed my personal politics and forever changed my view of the world.”

In addition to returning to his work at iMobile3, Ward now operates a corporate consulting firm appropriately named Vires Strategy. When friends and business acquaintances find out how he spent the last year and the inevitable questions arise, the one most consistently asked is what comes next. 

While Ward remains in touch with Marocco and the two talk from time to time, “my business partner and boss would hurt me if I left again,” he said with a laugh. “And I’m in no hurry to spend large blocks of time away from my loved ones anytime soon. So, at least for the foreseeable future, I plan to stay here at home in Florida.”

That said, Ward is definitely not the same man who got on that plane in Jacksonville last June. “I came back with a lot more compassion and empathy for what other people have been through,” he said. “That is something I now strive for every day.”  


Barbara Pierce is a writer and marketing communication consultant in Miami.