Zohra was 18 when she started to work as an administrative officer with the United Nations. She was bright, innocent, hopeful and idealistic. Her country, unfortunately wasn’t.
She could maintain her feeling of hope and sense of idealism because she spent nine waking hours of her life with foreigners who told her that human rights is for everyone, even if she’s a woman.
One day, she received a fully-funded scholarship to study in the United States. I remember her smiling shyly as she approached me humbly to look at her scholarship application a few months ago. I thought to myself, how proud and confident she must be, now that she had been accepted to study abroad.
On the contrary, she was forced to turn down the scholarship because her family refused to allow her to travel alone, unaccompanied by a close relative. Losing her would also mean losing a huge income for her family since she was earning more than any other average Afghan men.
No reward for chivalry
Afewark and I became friends when I took a trip to Bahir Dar in Ethiopia two years ago. We met in a rambunctious local bar playing live traditional music. He was there celebrating with his best friend who had just graduated from the local university.
Perhaps it was his age, or perhaps it was mine. Either way, he came across as a young, vibrant and idealistic man. He was well-mannered, polite and engaging, all the essential criteria which gained my trust to meet up with him again the next day.
While we were walking along a busy but dimly lit alley in between two strips of restaurants, bars and clubs, a dark figure grabbed my mobile phone from the back and disappeared into the darkness. While I remained immobile and speechless, like the rest of the unperturbed spectators watching from a close distance, Afewark made a quick dash after the culprit (no wonder Ethiopians are famed for their physical endurance in long distance running).
After about five minutes, Afewark appeared crest-fallen and ashamed for not being able to rescue my phone and most importantly for me to experience such an unfortunate incident in his country.
When we reported this to two policemen who were patrolling within the vicinity, they accused Afewark of masterminding the whole crime. He argued with them but they insisted that he plotted with the snatch thief since it was uncommon to see a local man with a foreign woman. By then, not only was he ashamed, he was also defeated.
No pride and a lot of prejudices
Walking into Tom Dy Centre in Phnom Penh, I was confronted by a lush garden and an extremely clean and neat environment. So clean that it was difficult to imagine I was in Phnom Penh. Inside, there are about 60 girls from the age of 16 to 25, faces and names I no longer remember because there are so many of them and each one looks the same as the other — long jet-black hair, dark skinned and petite.
While the environment surrounding them looked and felt clean, the girls don’t. In fact, most of them carried a vacant expression on their faces, which also explains why I find it difficult to distinguish or remember them. In conclusion, they looked as if their spirit had abandoned them.
These girls are rescued victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Most of them have been sold by their own families as sexual slaves. With their innocence, trust and dignity robbed away at such a young age, what’s left are their bodies. Some have even died from AIDS. I often wonder, how many of them still have hope in them as they hang on to each day of blatant uncertainty and a life-long of undeserved stigmatisation.
Pause, rewind and play
I’ve started work again in Kuala Lumpur recently. Being used to working in the fields of Timor Leste, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Cambodia, I must confess that this is a huge shift for me. My current work pace is nonetheless hectic and demanding, more so than in all my previous jobs. I am confronted by a different kind of challenge, more bureaucratic and professionally driven in nature — one which I would have to subsequently learn to deal with.
I spent my first week relearning how to operate technologically advanced office machines, something many of us have taken for granted. When I informed the chief executive officer that my work performance is somehow hampered by my ineptness to operate such sophisticated equipment, he quipped, “You know, we have had this machine since three years ago. It’s not sophisticated. I think it’s you since you’ve worked in countries like….” Point taken.
Then, I’ve had disgruntled office members who are not pleased with my “slow” performance while I try to deal with 10 other priorities. I try to handle all of them as calmly as I can, sometimes more calmly than others would like me to be.
I’ve sat in meetings and observed discussions and debates about issues, what makes people upset and what causes such urgency. Sometimes, I do get riled up, but often I don’t.
When my friends look away uncomfortably at a beggar standing by our dining table, I look at them in the eyes and smile politely before turning them away.
If I don’t get upset when someone screams at me unjustly or when I don’t seem to be moved by the ugliness of my surrounding, does that mean I’m heartless? Does it mean I don’t care when I don’t get frustrated with what others feel as an urgency?
It may seem that way but it’s not, because at the end of the day, I’m able to sit back and think about the countries where I’ve been, where there are real people with real problems. The pressure we’re succumbing to in our daily professional environment is driven mainly by the notion of cost and benefit.
Do I use this as an excuse not to take action for every single request I’ve received? I hope not because I do go to bed soundly every night, feeling satisfied that I have done what I can and to the best of my ability. Trying to behave like a martyr when I’m not is not my style.
Today, my best friend who works in Afghanistan text-messaged me. It says: “Just to let you know I’m OK. I’m still in Sri Lanka on holidays.”
Six UN staff have been reported dead after a Taliban shoot-out and bombing in Kabul. It could have been her. It could have been me five years ago.
Whenever I feel the urge to dramatise my life unnecessarily, I pause for a moment and think about what I can achieve today, instead of worrying about what I can’t. Then, I’m being reminded by people like Zohra, Afewark and the Tom Dy girls how easy and blessed my life has been compared to theirs.
All names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals mentioned in this article.
This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 31 October 2009 under the same title.