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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.

No humanity here: the voices of asylum seeking children

23 Mar

There is no humanity here… that thing, I can promise you (Asylum seeking child in Norway)

I was lucky to go see Nowhere Home on Thursday night,  a documentary screened as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London this year. Lucky because of many things: I’ve always wanted to go to this festival but this is the first time I am in one of the cities it’s held. The documentary is fantastic, and I got to see the director, the Norwegian Margreth Olin, for a Q&A session afterwards.

The movie exposes the Norwegian treatment of asylum-seeking unaccompanied children.  Basically, unaccompanied children under 15 years receive similar treatment to those national children under the State’s custody and are under the responsibility of the Child Protection Agency.  However, children from the ages of 15 – 18 are under the responsibility of the Norwegian Immigration Directorate (UDI); a practice criticized by the Committee on the Rights of the Child,  along with the fact that children are not given effective protection by their guardians, that the asylum procedures take too long and that age determining procedures are indecent, culturally insensitive and generally unreliable.

If you are one of these children between 15 – 18, you will be allowed to stay in a reception center where you get a roof over your head and food. However, you have no access to education (except for the preparation they give you for the day of your return, according to Olin).  As an 18th birthday present you get a ticket back to your country of origin.

The painful stories of 20 children are portrayed in this film, most of them are from Afghanistan or Iraq, and some from different African countries. Three particular stories are developed more in-depth; one is the story of Hassan and Hussein from Afghanistan, two brothers who are left alone after their families were slaughtered. The youngest, Hussein, was stabbed the same day his family was murdered, he was only 11 years old. In Norway, he suffers from severe PTSD and his legs are paralysed. They are alone against the system.

Goli, an Iraqi Kurd who is returned to Kurdistan the day after he turned 18,  is another one of the main characters in this film.  After the murder of his dad, his mom married another man who physically abused him. He has countless scars in his body, some a gift from his stepfather, but the majority are self inflicted. He narrates with pride that he beat his stepfather: he hurts himself more that anyone could. He can’t control it, he states, he can’t control his acts. When the authorities call his family upon his return, they receive a clear threat that if they send him, his stepfather will kill him.

The hardest part of watching these children’s testimonies is identifying the one common trait between them: utter hopelessness. No dreams, no future. They live, as one of them said, awaiting the day they turn 18 and are sent back, in his words, to their deaths.

But Norway isn’t alone in this. The Swedish Migration Board leads the European Return Platform for Unaccompanied Minors (ERPUM), an EU project funded by the Return Fund – Community Actions. The Project partners are Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK. The projects make it possible to effectively and rapidly return rejected asylum-seeking children.  As the Platform’s website announces, it has established contacts and will cooperate with the governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the former has been described as UNICEF in 2010 as the “world’s most dangerous place to be a child”.

According to UNHCR, 17.700 unaccompanied children claimed asylum in 2011 in 69 countries. The majority of them from Somalia and Afghanistan, at least 12,000  are thought to enter the EU each year.  12,000 children! God forbid they will destroy the EU’s economy!

Living in the UK, I find myself constantly disappointed by the anti-immigration media coverage of refugee and migrant issues.  Disappointment is a understatement, I’m being polite.  Are refugees really a burden for these countries? The UK for example, is home to less than 2% of the world’s refugees, while 80% of the worlds refugees live in developing countries. However,  we are still constantly enlightened by The Daily Mail‘s brilliant reporting on the issue. This, however, is a matter for another blog post.

The documentary has some amazing reflections made by Olin and the children she interviewed. Some stayed with me and have been bouncing around my head for the last 24 hours:

What kind of humanity are we talking about, when we stop seeing the individual? What kind of societies are we living in, when we treat children from another nationality as criminals and less deserving than our own?

Hussein, one of the children interviewed, states in the beginning of the movie: ‘God divided happiness and sorrow, he gave some people sorrow and other people happiness. I am one of the people living in sorrow’. I wish I could think otherwise, but there is little in the treatment of asylum seekers in these countries that gives me that possibility.

Olin believes change might happen in Norway, her activism has had individual impact in some cases and hopefully will have a more general one impact on policy too. It is possible to make a difference.

She starts her movie by making viewers imagine Norwegian children swimming to shore from a boat, desperate and vulnerable, and then being rejected by authorities. Do we really need to do this to be able to demand the respect for these children’s human rights? It all seems to point at that fact that we do.

One of the powerful reflections one of these kids makes seems appropriate to end this. After knowing one of them was granted a leave to remain on human rights grounds, he says: They say he can stay because of human rights concerns. Does this mean I’m not human?  I wish I could explain what that means, legally, to him. I have been working with refugees and asylum seekers for some time, so as a lawyer, I know I could. But not as a person. That, I simply cannot do.

Let’s all cry for da poor widdle rapists

22 Mar

This week in the little town of Steubenville, Ohio, two man-boy-monsters were convicted of rape. Ma’lik Richmond, 16, and Trent Mays, 17, were found “delinquent” (juvi court code for “guilty”) after prosecutors presented copious evidence proving that they had digitally raped a 16 year-old girl while she was virtually unconscious (blacked out from booze, though recent allegations indicate she may have been roofied). This evidence wasn’t hard to come by, seein’ as how the man-boy-monsters photographed the victim’s limp, urine-soaked body, texted/Tweeted the pictures for everyone to see, and posted a 12-minute video to YouTube bragging about their conquests. (Can one be charged with “idiocy” in addition to rape? And is that an aggravating or mitigating factor?) For a detailed and gut-churning account of the more than 350,000 text messages from the 17+ phones confiscated for evidence during the investigation, read this article from Yahoo Sports. (And can I just say, I’m fucking embarrassed that I just linked to Yahoo Sports as a thorough journalistic source. Do your job, mass media outlets.)

Because they are minors, the perps received relatively short sentences — a minimum of one year in juvenile detention for Richmond, two years for Mays (added time for distributing photos of a naked minor), with the possibility of remaining in juvi until they are 21, at which time the case will be reassessed.

Both teens will also have to register with the sexual offenders registry, meaning that they will always and forever be linked with this rape.  From now until the day they die (or until Congress ends the registry, whichever comes first), their neighbors, colleagues, employers, prospective mates, and future children will always be able to trace them to this heinous crime. (For the record, I absolutely despise the sex offender registry, though I understand and am sympathetic to its origin and purpose.)

Everything about this tale is tragic. That said, let us remember that the tragedy stems from the actions of the rapists and centers around the effects on the victim.

Apparently CNN missed that memo. The network is currently taking a beating for its sympathetic (to the rapists!) coverage of the sentencing hearing. Nothing like two semi-handsome budding football stars crying in open court to make middle America feel twangs of sympathy. Reporter Poppy Harlow told anchorwoman Candy Crowley (yes, those are real names; I can’t make shit like that up): “I’ve never experienced anything like it, Candy. It was incredibly emotional — incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.”

Needless to say, other news outlets and the general public wasted no time in condemning Poppy, Candy and the rest of the Lollypop Kids for their failure to recognize that (a) the rapists brought this shitstorm on themselves, and (b) the victim — remember her, the little girl who was raped? —  is picking up the pieces of her life after it actually fell apart.

Many are comparing CNN’s coverage to a two-year-old story by the Onion, a satirical website that has been prescient in much of its coverage recently. Life imitating art?

In a three-way tie for “Most Shitastic Coverage of the Steubenville Rape,” CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC all aired the first name of the victim on live television. Really? You don’t think bleeping out the victim’s name would have been a wise use of the seven-second delay? Or is that only reserved for when Bono drops an F-bomb during his Golden Globes acceptance speech?

I find the Steubenville rape deeply disturbing at a very personal level. There have been a few times in my life that I have witnessed or been the victim of sexual harassment or (I now realize) rape. I was in my late teens or early twenties, so older than these kids, but I was a special kind of naive. I had no idea that what I was witnessing or experiencing “counted” as anything criminal. All I knew is that it made me feel icky — the kind of icky that is impervious to hot showers and heavy drinking.

So what made me not tell someone on the French train that an employee had tried to molest me while I was alone in a sleeper car? What made me not call the cops when I, in bed with a girlfriend sleeping off a bender at a close friend’s house, awoke to find a friend — who had been sleeping on the couch in the living room — dry humping me in his tighty-whities with his hand down my pants? (Although I did tell my brother a few days later and he, much to his credit, never once said “well, at least you learned a lesson”. Instead he called the dude and calmly threatened to kill him if he ever came near me again. So there’s that.) Why didn’t I intervene when a situation eerily similar to the Steubenville rapes unfolded before me at a small house party, except the rapists (and yes, now I realize they were rapists) wielded a VHS camcorder instead of cell phones and had no social media website to upload the video to?

Why did I stay silent? Because of the victim-blaming assholes that came out in droves following the sentencing of Richmond and Mays. “Public Shaming“, a Tumblr blog devoted to calling out social media douchebags, features three pages of posts to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other forums espousing the “slut was asking for it”/”she shares responsibility” mentality. Public Shaming came across such gems as:

image

and

image

Then you have “Why don’t we have a Dumb Fucking Whore Registry? Now that would be justice” by the aptly named Judgy Bitch. Charming. She argues that the unconscious girl (who was dragged from party to party, finger repeatedly, urinated on, and left naked on a stranger’s couch) was not actually raped. Rather, it was a case of “boys being boys” and “stupid whores being stupid whores.”  (Did I mention there’s a 12 minute video of the boys bragging about “how hard she got raped”? So by THEIR definition, let alone that of the Ohio criminal code, she was raped.)

And you wonder why I, like so many scared teens, stayed silent.

In my mid-twenties, a bit older and a bit wiser, I began to fight back. One incredibly strange night, a large man began beating his teeny-tiny girlfriend outside my friend’s apartment while we were having a party. (We didn’t know either of them.) He dragged her across the lawn by her hair while she kicked and screamed, pulled her between two buildings, pinned her down across his lap like a small child, and repeatedly punched her face while she wailed. After all the guys at the party refused to help her, I ran up, grabbed the woman, and kept running with her until I got behind a closed door. Cops were called, statements taken, and the biggest asshole at the party (now a US Marshall) yelled at me for butting into the business of others. I was shamed for, uh, I still don’t know — my action highlighting his inaction? (I realize this was not actually a rape incident. Still, you get the idea.)

In Steubenville: this is rape culture’s Abu Grhaib [warning: graphic (though pixilated) photo included], Laurie Penny from the NewStatesmen is able to articulate the importance of the Steubenville rape far better than I:

The pictures from Steubenville don’t just show a girl being raped. They show that rape being condoned, encouraged, celebrated. What type of culture could possibly produce such pictures? Only one in which women’s autonomy and right to safety counts for so little that these rapists, and those who held the cameras, felt themselves ‘perfectly justified’… The Steubenville rapists claim that, when they drove a passed-out girl from party to party, slinging her into and out-of cars like a deflated sex-dolly and sticking their fingers inside her, they didn’t know they were doing anything wrong. That’s plausible, although it’s no defence. It’s plausible if, and only if, you have internalised the assumption that women are not real human beings, just bodies to be manipulated with or without consent, pieces of wet and willing meat there for you to use for your pleasure. There’s a word for what happens when one group of people sees another as less than human and insists on its right to hurt and humiliate them for fun. It’s an everyday word that is often misused to refer to something outside of ourselves. The word is ‘evil’… Anyone can be outspoken about Steubenville after the fact. The question is: who will stand up when the next Jane Doe is attacked, without expectation of thanks or acclaim, at risk of derision and ostracism or worse, and speak out about all the other Steubenvilles that are still taking place, and will continue to until enough people say ‘stop’?

Could the horror inflicted upon Jane Doe be a catalyst for change? Maybe. A Change.org petition calling on CNN to apologize for its coverage has over 200,000 signatures. Internet terrorists/hacktivists (depending on your point of view) Anonymous (@YourAnonNews) has steadfastly refused to let the rape go gentle into that good night. It continues to build a case against the “rape crew”, compiling and releasing additional information implicating a huge number of people. Some argue that Anonymous has gone too far — that most people involved in the case, including the victim, just want the mess to go away. But isn’t victim shaming and rape culture part of the reason they want everything to go away?

From the ashes of this soul-destroying story rises one anecdote that gives me hope for humanity. The aforementioned Yahoo Sports article highlights what seems to be the only teen in the greater Steubenville Metro Area with morals. Sean McGhee, Richmond’s cousin and Mays’ best friend, was at one of the parties attended by Jane Doe. He saw her stumbling and slurring and knew she was shitcanned. So that night, when rumors (and photos) began to surface of Mays and Richmond abusing her, he confronted his best friend and his cousin via text: “…you are dead wrong. I am going to choke the [redacted] out of you for that. You could go to jail for life for that. What the [redacted].”

Maybe there’s hope after all.

[To get a full breakdown of the photos, video, and timeline of events, see So you’re tired of hearing about rape culture? Warning, graphic. Because, you know, a girl was raped. And that shit is horrible.]

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