Thursday, November 10, 2016

Cooking to heal your broken political heart

Reposted from my cooking blog Bleu Cheese and Red Wine

I read Slavenka Draculic's book "How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed" this summer while on sabbatical. I had long wanted to read it and I'm glad I did - its a bit dated but her look at the fall of communism and the rise of capitalism through the prism of women's eyes was much needed. She spoke about talking with women about the lousy way men have treated them while they sit in similar kitchens all over the former Yugoslavia cooking noodle soups. So many disappointing men, so much noodle soup.

Last night when I watched the miserable returns of the 2016 US Election, I felt broken hearted - its the strongest and most emotional I've ever felt about a political event. I was upset and shocked as the returns came in and I fled to be by myself as I often do when confronted with awful news. That morning (for it was 4:45am when I realized where it was going),  I treated myself gently and just let sleep heal me. But every time I woke up, I was reminded of the unpleasant news. I felt simultaneously like there had been a death and a breakup. The realization and the resulting emotions were shocking to me and I felt so sad - for the world will change in a dramatic way soon and not for the better for the people I work with - refugee women and children and the poor and vulnerable around the world.

So I turned to something comforting. I decided to make my family's famous spaghetti sauce. Just like the broken-hearted women of communist Croatia - it was time to retreat to the kitchen and cook and let the smell of spices and onions and broth and tomatoes comfort me. I will feed others and take care of myself and start to feel healing myself.

I made my father's famous spaghetti sauce. And listened to music and as the meal came together, a feeling of comfort and my old strength to fight is beginning to flow inside me. 




Friday, August 19, 2016

World Humanitarian Day 2016: South Sudan and Rape and Being an AidWorker




I just wrote about this in the Cassandra Complexity, a blog I help co-edit with friends but here's a rougher more personal account.
August 19 is World Humanitarian Day where humanitarian aid workers like me remember our colleagues who were killed in the line of duty. Today, I am also now thinking about the particular vulnerability that women face: being raped in the line of duty.  
A few days ago, the AP published a report about the South Sudanese army's attacks on a popular expatriate lodging, "Terrain House", in Juba, Sudan where three female expatriate aid workers were raped by multiple soldiers. The rage and sadness I felt about the UN's refusal to deploy peacekeepers to protect these civilians threw me into a sad dark place. I'm currently on sabbatical in Sarajevo, Bosnia and this sadness was compounded by all the dark European movies I had been watching at the Sarajevo Film Festival.  I cried through the movie Cameraperson because it had a lot of scenes that hit close to home - women chopping wood in Zalingei (reminded me of almost getting shot on my way to Kass in South Darfur), a baby being born and dying in Nigeria (reminded me of dying babies in Haiti post-earthquake in MSF's obstetric hospital, Afghanistan (the fear I felt there driving around at night), and scenes from Liberia (where I had my first security fright thanks to a dumbass Congolese man that I was traveling with). I was already feeling raw when I read this report. 
I then learned that the US Embassy (my Embassy!)  had also failed to do ANYTHING to protect these American citizens and had "made some phone calls." Eventually the Government of Sudan sent in someone to rescue the people but the local staff of the hotel and 3 women were left behind to be rescued the next day by a private security force. What must it have felt like to be the people "left behind"? I couldn't stop myself from instantly imagining myself as one of the three expatriate women left overnight with the rapist soldiers. It's every woman's worst nightmare. For my sanity, I had to stop. 
Aid workers started lamenting this issue and expressing our rage and sadness.  Female aid workers everywhere are deeply shaken by this event. Some are privately expressing how afraid they feel but that they feel worse for abandoning South Sudanese women who bear the brunt of the sexual violence. The most frustrating part was the false sense of security that being nearby the peacekeepers provided. Our so-called "safety and security systems" (including useless TRIP forms filled out on line) are not always going to be there. It's obvious that we, as women,  are usually alone out there sometimes, and as every woman everywhere in the world has learned since puberty, you have to take responsibility for your own safety and security.
Our "security professionals" are often ignoring women's needs or have REALLY outdated viewpoints on how women can protect themselves. In Bangkok, at the recent women's day- our security personnel at the UN told women that they should "smile more" and in Jordan, the UNHCR security personnel who was giving me a brief there said I should "dress decently" (to which I responded, since I'm a decent person anything I wear is, by definition, decent). 
I'm too angry and sad to write a more professional polished piece - so I give you instead, a piece that i wrote about this in 2012. It was inspired by events that took place in 2012 after I had finished a year working in Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan for the UN.  I took a Hostile Environment Awareness Training course before I went to Libya with the British government for the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. I was really nervous as in mid 2011, there had been an attack on the hotel where i had worked in Kabul right after I left and I realized I had never felt safe in that country. I didn't know how I would react to the simulated situation. I was most nervous about the "fake kidnapping" part - and as it turns out - I was fine, but one of my colleagues was not. She was a survivor and experienced a flashback during this section of the training. Our mostly male trainers had no psychologist on standby and were not prepared to support her so I was called in. In order to deal with it, I decided to take action and become an activist on this issue. 
Gender-based Violence and Security
This blog post was published by USAID to coincide with the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence event, “Who Takes Care of the Caregivers?  Providing Care and Safety for Staff in Gender-based Violence Settings,” taking place on Thursday, Nov. 29th 2012 in Washington DC, hosted by the Inter-Agency Gender Working Group, funded by USAID. It is no longer available online but a copy of it can be found hereThe Tips that I wrote for travelers can be found here
Gender-based Violence (GBV) is an issue that impacts aid workers – not just beneficiaries and not just staff that works in GBV settings. This post examines agencies’ duty to care for their workers by preventing and responding to GBV. 
“Keeping International Workers Safe:  Preventing and Responding to Gender-based Violence”
Sarah Martin, Consultant and Specialist on Prevention and Response to Gender-based Violence
The sexual assault of the journalists Lara Logan, Mona Eltahawy and two unnamed British and French journalists in Egypt shocked the world and brought the issue of gender-based violence (GBV) against Westerners working in conflict areas to the forefront. Clearly GBV does not only affect the "locals" in these areas. Not only are journalists at risk but also aid workers–and not just in conflict settings or in GBV program areas.
I recently interviewed a large cross section of women travelers who work in a number of fields (including international development, human rights, humanitarian action and international business) about their experiences as women while traveling and working overseas*.  Many of them brought up their frustration that sexual harassment and sexual assault were never raised in security trainings and that agencies refused to address this as a real security concern. Increasingly, aid agencies are providing more “realistic” security trainings that simulate “hostile environments to prepare their employees for gunfire, kidnappings and other events in the field.”  While some of these trainings talk about sexual assault, there are no discussions of how to prevent sexual assault or how to react or support colleagues if they are assaulted. Sexual harassment in the workplace as a security issue is often ignored. In addition, the purveyors of these trainings are mostly male and show little awareness to the issue of sexual assault or the gender concerns of female trainees. I recently attended one such training where one of the participants relived her own sexual assault from years ago while undergoing a simulated “kidnapping.” While they took her out of the simulation, there were no psychologists or female trainers available to talk to her. 
Female development and aid workers have the same security concerns as their male counterparts: crime and landmine accidents and armed robberies do not discriminate. Security measures, trainings, and manuals are the same for men and women, and most agencies take a ‘gender-blind’ approach to security. Most security officers are men, and many of them come from a military background. This gender-blind approach to security, however, leaves out a major issue.  Women also face another security threat that most men do not encounter – gender-based violence, namely sexual harassment and sexual violence.
Rape myths promote the false idea that women are only sexually assaulted by strangers. While this can happen, women are much more likely to be attacked by someone familiar to them – a co-worker, a driver, or a friend. Most of the women I interviewed shared stories about fending off sexual harassment by colleagues or actual cases of sexual assault in the field. 
Rarely is their organization prepared to handle these issues. While there has been some action taken on “building safe organizations” – the focus has been preventing sexual exploitation of our beneficiaries by our staff. But there is not sufficient attention paid to sexual harassment of our staff by our staff or adequate support for staff that have been sexually assaulted. There is little information in the security manuals that I have reviewed about what medical care a survivor may need or what rights a sexual assault survivor might have. Nor is there guidance on reporting to local authorities, human resources or guarantees of confidentiality. Responsible employers must be prepared to understand and deal with the fact that their employees might become victims of sexual assault [1] and should be prepared to support them. This means bringing the issue of sexual assault up in security trainings and sensitizing the trainers and security personnel on how to address the issue – but not by restricting women’s access to “dangerous areas” but by making sure female employees are informed of the dangers, provided with information on how to protect themselves, and given sensitive and adequate support by their organizations in case the worst happens.
[1] Global statistics show that 1 out of 3 women has experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault.
 * From the chapter I wrote entitled “Sexual Assault: Preventing And Responding As An International Travelers in the book Personal Security: A Guide for International Travelers, by Tanya Spencer, ISBN: 9781466559448 commissioned and published by Taylor and Francis, LLC.



Saturday, May 21, 2016

Spring time in the Balkans with Syrian and Afghan Refugees



So in April, I quit my job as the Regional GBV Advisor for the global GBV Working Group in Bangkok. I wanted to work on the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe and I had a great opportunity to do so by working with the International Rescue Committee as the "Initiatives Director for Women and Children's Protection" - sadly, by the time I had resigned and got here, the EU-Turkey deal was in place and the large migration had halted so there are far fewer migrants moving through Europe. But the job is still great and super interesting.

I'm living in Belgrade, Serbia (a place I never thought I would ever go) and I'm working with a small nice team of people here. They just found me an apartment that overlooks the big park here and I can walk down to the Danube. The beer is good, the meat is heavy and tasty, and I had better find a gym immediately or I will become as wide as I am tall. My job involves going to the different countries in the Balkans and looking at the needs of women and children migrants and seeing if IRC should open up programming and how to do it to support them. So it reminds me a bit of my Refugees International life where I go someplace for a short period of time and do intensive interviews with refugees, NGOs, and government officials and taken in vast amounts of information trying to understand the situation. But I then get to help design programs to address the needs which is wonderful. 

First up: I went to Berlin for 2 weeks and met with local volunteers, the government, German NGOs, and toured many of the shelters where Syrian and Afghan refugees are living. It was both super heartening to meet the German volunteers who were devoting time and resources to helping the refugees understand the really intense bureaucracy of German life but also really depressing to see that all the same problems we see in camps in Liberia, Jordan, Sri Lanka, and Haiti are happening in a rich Western country - no segregation of vulnerable young women from the men, rape of children by "volunteers" and attacks in toilets because of lack of lighting or locks on doors. People who are interested in volunteering are also naive and soon become angry or depressed at the "ingratitude" of Syrians who are often middle class educated people who would like to just have a job, thank you, so they can buy what they need and get on with their lives rather than throwing off their veils, putting on ripped jeans, and becoming Germans. I interviewed young adolescent girls, lesbians, single mothers, and women with three children. Every single one of them discussed some aspect of groping, sexual exploitation, assault, and harassment on the journey - from the sex-starved young men of Syria and Afghanistan but also from the authorities along the route but mostly by the smugglers. The men who they had entrusted their lives with to make the dangerous journey.

For my next assessment, I went to Albania - a country that I really had very little knowledge about. I hadn't seen "Taken" in which Albanian mobsters apparently play a huge role. I had vaguely read some information about their terrible communism. But mostly I knew them from a Simpson cartoon.  I was blown away by the kindness, the beauty of their country, and the cultural heritage they have. i read a fantastic book called A Chronicle in Stone by Ismael Kadare and fell in love with his hometown of Ghirokastra. However, I did not meet nor see a single refugee. I did spend 2 hours stuck on the Greek-Albanian border and driving through some seriously high mountains and eating some good food. 

Now, I've just visited the third country for my assignment - It's been very interesting in Bulgaria - we were inside all the camps. Apparently the Afghan men (and its thousands of them) have been instructed by the smugglers to destroy the lodgings for them and take photos so they can show how discriminatory everyone is against Afghans and it will "help them in their asylum cases." It won't. All it is doing is making everyone think they are animals. I keep hearing all these terrible things about them. It makes me sad. I fight back and say I've been to Afghanistan and the people there are kind, have lovely homes, and show amazing hospitality. I remind them that its not safe there and the war still rages on despite the lack of interest from Western media. 

There are SO MANY OF THESE YOUNG MEN. Young men - ages 15-17 (some younger but lying about their ages) with no future in Afghanistan, climbing through forests, swimming in rivers, and sleeping in these old Bulgarian army barracks. they only stay for one or two days and then they are off - looking for the promised land of Germany. Where Afghanistan is considered "post-conflict" and safe so they will be denied asylum status and  will probably disappear into the "illegal" sectors living in the shadows. The same "smugglers" who lie to them and bring them across the continent also move the illegal drugs and traffic people into sex work. The young men are bored and restless, there is nothing for them to do in the asylum centers so they smoke and loiter around. Still, they are children - when you talk to them about sports or games or their favorite food - you see the young boy inside. there are still girls here too - and because they are fearful of all these young men, they are trapped inside the centers - not allowed to really go outside and enjoy the spring, kept inside for their safety. I will be pushing for women's centers where we can bring them together to chat, meet each other, possibly form some friendships or alliances where they can open up and find support for the troubles they have. And trying to think of ways to reach these young men. Because we know they are also vulnerable and there is a trade in sex trafficking for young men too. Behind their bravado and their male posturing, they are also vulnerable children. Some of the nights, after spending all day in the asylum centers and processing all the information, we were so tired.  But as I drove through the countryside and saw the poppies and waving fields of grain and mountains, and elderflowers and breathed in the fresh air, I also felt pretty happy. 

Back to Belgrade tomorrow after a weekend in Sofia, Bulgaria and next up - Macedonia? Greece? Hungary? Stay tuned. 

My contract is only til July 1 but I have the opportunity to do this for a year, I'm still mulling it over but it looks like a move away from Asia may be in the books. I hope Simon Le Bon likes beef and loud Serbian music! 

xoxox

Monday, April 25, 2016

My Review of Guapa: My favorite book of 2016


GuapaGuapa by Saleem Haddad
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was written by my good friend Saleem Haddad - I met him when we worked together at Medecins Sans Frontieres and I recognized a special guy in that crowded London office. My review: I still think about things in this novel 10 days later - something that hasn't happened to me in a while. I recognized so many things in it that called out to me: Rasa's relationship with his Teta- their morning rituals, the silence around his father's fate, the living in a type of mausoleum but also the pain he felt around his mother and the suffocating silence. I'm not Arab but I grew up in a British household and felt many of those same emotions choking inside of me which I think is what makes me so hellbent on being open and speaking about all my taboos now. It made me really thing about the burden of being closeted and what it does to your emotions.

Things I loved: I felt so frustrated and angry at the scene in the wedding. it was so realistic - the whispered drunken asides from his shallow female friend, the mess of angst and emotion and love swirling around inside Rasa as he steadily drinks and argues with the waiter over his change. I just wanted a Hollywood happy ending - run off together! Be together. But that's not life. And the chaos towards the end was necessary. His mother crying as she chopped onions. His self-centered French friend and being forced out of embarrassment to accept the homeless man as his roommate.

Like some other reviewers, I think I would have liked more life inside Guapa. His friend Maj was the most uplifting character but I also wanted more of everything - more lush descriptions of falling in love, more lazy nights tangoing in a sequestered bedroom, more driving around tense parts of town, more revolution. I guess we can't have it all.

I also felt as if I shared Rasa's fatigue at the end of the novel - and that makes me think that the author did his job. My emotions were everywhere as I read it. And to me that is what I am looking for in reading - plunging into another world.

Thanks Saleem- for a fantastic novel. Can't wait to read number 2.




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