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Should I Stay or Should I Go? – A Somewhat Personal Humanitarian Dilemma

18 Oct

Seven years ago I broke up with someone I thought previously I would end up growing old with. I did it over the phone. I was convinced that being with someone like him would stand in the way of my real dream: to become an international human rights lawyer and contribute, if at all, to bring the tiniest change to some of the suffering and injustices I see and read about every day. They’ve haunted my dreams for as long as I can remember.

He was a family person, worked in the family business; never saw himself living abroad let alone in places that are “difficult”. It just wasn’t compatible with what I felt I needed to do. I was doing my Masters in Lund and already living in another country. Meeting people with the same dreams as mine from all over the world made it all the more real very quickly: the sea of possibilities. It only took a few months before I made that call. Perhaps it only formalized a decision I made by leaving in the first place.

It was a decisive moment. I was deciding for my career, for my ambitions. I now realize such decisions are not linked with the person you’re with but with all your future persons and possibilities. They are linked to your own choice of personal versus professional.

I ended up marrying a wonderful man who didn’t have those close ties to the Motherland. Someone who also gives importance to my career. He even moved to my home country where I found a job close to my dreams and heart (ironic, huh?) and it was due to his sacrifice to his own career that our relationship really made it. Today the tables have turned and it’s my time to make that move: I’ve done it! I’ve always hated men who drag their wives through the world to “look after” them and their family while they thrive in their careers; I could then not become a woman who asks for that.

So I moved to Europe to give him his chance and I’m starting from scratch in the highly competitive and brutally discouraging world of the humanitarian and not-for-profit sector. The opportunities fly before my eyes and I want to grab them all. It’s like a surreal scene from a Lynch movie in which I’m a paralyzed woman (or small man?) and there’s a group of rainbow colored birds waiting for me to catch them, at least one. But I can’t touch them.

Opportunities in the humanitarian field present themselves increasingly, as various parts of the world collapse and their peoples suffer. It’s sad, but true. Our professional opportunities thrive with war and persecution. Syria, Mali, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, the DRC: one simple P11 away from your dreams at a very high cost. Your personal life. Your chances of becoming the triumphant feminist that was able to have it all and who didn’t have to choose vanish before your eyes. And one memory comes to mind.

Katarina Tomasesvski. She passed away during the time I was doing my Masters in Lund. One of those female warriors who I so admire: former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education. I met her once briefly and of course she never said anything about this, but I bet she had to choose. One of those pioneers that proved others wrong and became a “full on career woman”. She broke the ceiling but if I am not mistaken, died alone.

I’ll never forget the empty-gut feeling I got when I entered the RWI Library to find all her books she’d kindly donated in her will, piled in the Library’s big room against the walls, waiting to be catalogued. I never told anyone, but I took one. I still have it. It was a book on my thesis topic, but more than that, it was a piece of her life, a representation of that dilemma. No one else in her life seemed to have claimed her books; mine are so precious to me that I couldn’t believe it. So I claimed one, for me and for her.[1]

She and many women working on humanitarian issues make that choice every day.  They give it all for their calling, for their beliefs and (a lot of the times) for the organization they work for. Take for example, UNHCR, the UN agency with the highest divorce rates amongst staff members. You still see many “old school” men who found a wife to rotate every 3-4 years with them, but you rarely see women their age having that same experience. I never met one actually, yet I met several men. I would say though, for younger generations it’s more equal (though not totally). In any case, I’ve met many men and woman who make that choice everyday.[2]

I want more. I want it all. It makes me feel like a feminist failure not making that choice, as I see the birds becoming Neil Gaiman’s hunger birds, I close my eyes and just try to survive. I definitely thought it would be easier. I have contacts, I thought, with the organizations I’ve worked for. I have people who can speak for me and my work (I swear I’m pretty good!).

Naive as I was, this is not enough. You give these organizations your personal time, your family time and frequently, your sanity, your health and your sleep. I used to travel 2-3 weeks in a month and sacrificed a lot for my work (those who think frequent work travel is fun have never done it). You loose your figure from all the hotel food and say hi to your eye bags from nights of office work that you only get to do then. Yet the loyalty or appreciation you receive from the organization is best known for its absence. People may think you’re great but even when someone will go the extra mile for you, the organizational structure and values, its functioning, prevents any kind of good human resources policies and loyalty to be effective.

Only when you’re living the possibility of this choice is when you realize why all those colleagues who already made it joke sarcastically about how the failure with partner number 2 or 3 coincided with their amazing time in Bosnia, Rwanda or Kenya. So I still want it all, and even if it is considerably much harder to find an opportunity that doesn’t involve going to a “no family duty station” (and let’s not even get the risk of death, kidnapping and other harms in certain stations, that’s for another post), I will make the same choice everyday.

It’s a bitter-sweet taste. Some days more bitter than anything. And as personal as this post has turned out to be, it’s a reflection on the humanitarian system and what it requires of persons wanting to work in aid and development. We have created a system that allows highly passionate individuals to fully live only one kind of passion. It’s also perhaps a somewhat jealous tribute to all my amazing friends and colleagues, and the ones I don’t know, who make a different choice than mine everyday. The ones willing to sacrifice almost all for this calling. To them, chapeau! But they shouldn’t have to make this choice.

I guess I am still not one of them, and probably never will be, but the internal debate doesn’t go away. I have it with myself as I sit at my desk applying for much less exciting jobs that ultimately have less impact. Then I see Katarina’s book sitting on my shelf and I decide on the same route everyday, over and over again. What an exhausting journey this is!


[1] Allow me to clarify that all these facts are my own assumptions. I have no clue if someone in her life wanted them and she still decided to donate them to the library. I’m using her as a metaphor for many women (and men) I’ve met in for this situation and, mostly, using her example because that was the feeling I had at that moment.

[2] I also want to say, these people are not entirely alone. Many of my amazing friends who have made this choice have a strong network of friends and colleagues who become their family and I don’t want to paint them as sad people at all. That is, however, not to say that they have indeed sacrificed a lot, mainly family life, or even the possibility to have a family, for this compromise they have with their work.

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