Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Merry Christmas!

This is just a short note to wish you all a happy holidays! It’s been an exciting and hard year for me –

After two years at Refugees International, I was thrilled to be honored with May’s “Glamour Hero of the Month” in Glamour magazine. While it felt quite strange to be in the same category with the president of Chile and other genuine heroines, it was an honor – and helped revitalize me to remember what is important to me in my career. Awards! No, kidding – trying to represent and help the women in developing countries who have suffered amazing violence yet continue to show resilience and courage in the face of it all. I traveled to south Sudan this year and stayed on the banks of the Nile and met the Dinka people which was amazing – its like seeing the Nile as it was a millennia ago. However, it was my tenth mission and I was exhausted from dealing with collapsing tents and sleeping on the ground. After much deliberation – I realized I actually needed a vacation, I hadn’t had a proper vacation since starting at Refugees International. I needed a real relaxing vacation – not a run into a country and do as much as I could in four days vacation like I normally take.

I spent a week at the beach in South Carolina with my dad and sister and really unwound at Surfside beach, reliving my childhood – skeet ball at the arcade, minature golf in Myrtle Beach, and tomato sandwiches after sitting in the sun all day. I then went to Chicago to visit my friends Jamie Kelley, who I met back in Guatemala in 1999. Beer, Mexican food, and non-stop movie watching (including the Xmen) helped make me a little more normal. I then went to Mexico for the first time. It was wonderful! I traveled to Mexico City where new friends Bridget and Alberto put me up and showed me the amazingly vibrant city right during the pre-election festivities. I then traveled up into the mountains to a little artist’s/retiree community called San Miguel Allende – it was very relaxing. I alternated between sleeping in a hammock all day and reading in the plaza. I also went horseback riding and took a painting class. Heaven! After 10 days of much needed down time, I picked up the pace and headed down to Oaxaca to explore the indigenous culture there. There is a huge political protest still going on there over the treatment of teachers by the local governor of this very poor state. However, it was still quite interesting. I also tried the famous mole but was underwhelmed. I think I need to try it again because its supposed to be one of the most amazing dishes in the world.

After returning to work, rested and relaxed, I was immediately sent off to Beirut, Lebanon in the middle of the 1 month war between Hezbollah and Israel. It was a humbling experience to be in the middle of this war zone. While I was staying in the Christian area of Beirut that was unlikely to be bombed, I could hear and feel the nerve-wracking bombs at night and we did spend a lot of time in the targeted areas of South Beirut and the Beqaa valley. It was my first time in the Middle East and it was eye-opening and quite different than my experiences in Africa. My colleague, Kristele and I interviewed refugees living in parking garages under modern malls and conducted meetings in posh ice cream parlours. I met some wonderful Lebanese while there and will never listen to the constant news about the troubles in the Middle East in the same way again.

After a few months back in DC where my fat Siamese cat Simon dominated my time by insisting on sitting on my lap and snoozing all the time, it was time to head back into the field again. This time I traveled to Northern Uganda – where a 20 year civil war was possibly drawing to a close. I returned to south Sudan with my colleague Kavita and we spent a fruitless Thanksgiving chasing around the Lord’s Resistance Army negotiating team to try to interview them. We ended in Nairobi where I finished my schooling in Indian culture. Yes, Indian culture. Between the vibrant delicious Indian restaurants, the books on Indian politics I was reading, and the lessons on cricket I was receiving form Kavita – it was hard to remember I was in Africa sometimes. My trip in Nairobi culminated with a trip to the film Dhoom 2 where I learned all about the art of the Bollywood film. I then treated myself to a safari in the Serengeti to Masai Mara for two days. Believe it or not, it’s the first time I’ve seen the wildlife that Africa is so famous for (apart from watching a monkey run for its life in Sudan once). It was lovely – the animals are so amazing and beautiful. In my first game drive, I saw cheetahs, zebras, antelope, gazelles, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, wildebeest, vultures, and lions. The next morning, I was treated to a champagne breakfast on the banks of river filled with crocodiles and hippos! And the day was topped off by the pilot of the little 10 seater plane allowing me to take the co-pilot seat and fly back to Nairobi. Fabulous!

I returned to DC after a brief sojourn with old friends in Amsterdam for a few days. And a job interview with Doctors without Borders/Medecins sans Frontiers (www.msf.org ), an independent humanitarian medical aid organization that I really admire. After another weeks vacation in Playa del Carmen, Mexico (I could get used to all these vacations) where I went to celebrate my friend Bernice’s birthday, I returned home to some good and bad news. My father had slipped and fractured his pelvis and was hospitalized in Sumter, South Carolina. And I’ve been offered the job of Humanitarian Affairs Specialist with MSF in Amsterdam. The move to MSF would be amazing as would moving to Amsterdam. I would be able to really focus on gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS work with one of the pre-eminent medical organizations in the world. They are always the first organization into the conflict area and provide care and assistance to millions of desperate people world-wide. This would be an amazing opportunity to help them finetune their work for women survivors of rape and violence as well as advance their work on sexual exploitation and abuse and stigmatization of people infected with HIV/AIDS. Plus Washington DC is transient city with friends moving back and forth. I think its my turn to move out for a while.

I’m currently in Sumter where I am hanging out with my father in his hospital room and mulling over the job offer. Luckily, my fathers injury will only require rest and physical therapy – no surgery. He likes his therapists and seems to be back to his funny, cranky self again. Alyson and I brought over a fresh-baked batch of his favorite “Old Fashioned Rocks” cookies and his Christmas presents to his room this morning. We hope he’ll be out of the hospital soon – probably by New Years Eve – and I’ll stay in Sumter a little while longer and help him adjust to being back at home.

Well that was 2006 – it was a year of ups and downs – but on the balance, a very positive year. I look forward to more challenges and travels in the new year. As always, staying in touch with my friends is one of the things that keeps me going. I love hearing from you all and hope I’ll see more of you in the new year.

With love,
Sarah