03 November, 2011

"Where poor people are treated like the enemy..."

It's a tight race between this song and "This F***ing Job" by Drive-By Truckers for my nomination for our new national anthem.
I can't find a great video of her performing this song (here's one though), so here are the lyrics. In fairness, here are the DBT lyrics.
Released back in 1996 and just as damned spot on perfect today as ever. 
Given the report out from Brookings regarding the reemergence of concentrated poverty in this country (well worth anyone's time), seems a fitting song for the day.

Iris DeMent, "Living in the Wasteland of the Free"

We got preachers dealing in politics and diamond mines
and their speech is growing increasingly unkind
They say they are Christ's disciples
but they don't look like Jesus to me
and it feels like I am living in the wasteland of the free

We got politicians running races on corporate cash
Now don't tell me they don't turn around and kiss them peoples' ass
You may call me old-fashioned
but that don't fit my picture of a true democracy
and it feels like I am living in the wasteland of the free

We got CEO's making two hundred times the workers' pay
but they'll fight like hell against raising the minimum wage
and If you don't like it, mister, they'll ship your job
to some third-world country 'cross the sea
and it feels like I am living in the wasteland of the free

Living in the wasteland of the free
where the poor have now become the enemy
Let's blame our troubles on the weak ones
Sounds like some kind of Hitler remedy
Living in the wasteland of the free

We got little kids with guns fighting inner city wars
So what do we do, we put these little kids behind prison doors
and we call ourselves the advanced civilization
that sounds like crap to me
and it feels like I am living in the wasteland of the free

We got high-school kids running 'round in Calvin Klein and Guess
who cannot pass a sixth-grade reading test
but if you ask them, they can tell you
the name of every crotch on MTV
and it feels like I am living in the wasteland of the free

We kill for oil, then we throw a party when we win
Some guy refuses to fight, and we call that the sin
but he's standing up for what he believes in
and that seems pretty damned American to me
and it feels like I am living in the wasteland of the free

Living in the wasteland of the free
where the poor have now become the enemy
Let's blame our troubles on the weak ones
Sounds like some kind of Hitler remedy
Living in the wasteland of the free

While we sit gloating in our greatness
justice is sinking to the bottom of the sea
Living in the wasteland of the free
Living in the wasteland of the free
Living in the wasteland of the free


08 October, 2011

Visual Aids

Modern Living II by Taromeet
Modern Living II, a photo by Taromeet on Flickr.
Been on a bit of a writing tear, working on some stories that have been festering in my head for too long. Also been out in the wilds backpacking. Until I string some words together here, I'll try to placate you with some new images over on my Flickr page.

15 September, 2011

A Must-Read

This was shared by a friend and though I posted it to Twitter and FB, I believe it needs to be read. Please pass it along.
Know your rights.

Some real Shock and Awe: Racially profiled and cuffed in Detroit 

11 September, 2011

New (old) city, new start...

Reading: Sandman Vol 1 by Gaiman, et al; Regeneration Through Violence by Slotkin; Reading Like a Writer by Prose
Listening to: Lots of Woody Guthrie (as always); Mitch Barrett
Recently enjoyed: Clear Creek (KY) Festival '11

I've sort of flown the white flag on today, but that's alright. My playing hermit today will hopefully help me  finally get started with some sort of routine to help me get some things moving in life, not the least of which being my own physical form.

Things have come some sort of full-circle and I'm back in Louisville, where I lived when I started this blog in 2005. I was offered a position with a scrappy community center on the southside that serves a low-income neighborhood that has a significant refugee population. The director, very much an old-school, roll-up-your-sleeves sort of social worker, knows me well and offered an immediate solution with some interesting possibilities for the future. I'll be stepping back and working the office, for now, while also taking on a slew of projects large and small. Over the next several months I'll be transitioning into the position of Community & Family Liaison. Other than getting me back out in the community, the position is a new one for the center and I'll get to have a say shaping just what my role will be. What I do know is that I'll be working with the local international community; families who use our center; city, state & agency/nonprofit representatives and more. I'll be blogging more about our programs and future goals and plans as I go.

For the foreseeable future I am actually living at the center, which used to be a small Catholic school. The living quarters were for the nuns and everyone still refers to it as the convent. That I, once referred to by a nun at school as the "Spawn of Satan," am now living in a convent (former though it may be), is a source of amusement to many. Two Americorps volunteers live in the apartment as well and it all seems to work alright. It's actually a nice space and having grown out of a certain level of materialism I truly enjoy the limited space. The whole thing feels very Jane Adams/Hull House-ish at times, which is a good thing in my book.

In addition to work, I'm trying to settle in, get involved, develop a better practice of writing, and work on my photography. And I'm trying to remember to be patient with myself and the universe. I am really trying. It's nice to reconnect with the family I have here and start making new connections. I miss my ocean and my Glades, but I just couldn't find work in Florida (at least in my areas). While many complain that Louisville is a big small town, that can actually be really helpful in times like these. Add to that a great cost-of-living, active arts & activist communities, a significantly diverse international population, some amazing architecture (which I'll get around to shooting soon), and a truly local economy (locals supporting locals), it wasn't a hard decision to say "yes."

Having jumped straight into work about eight hours after arriving in town, I think today everything sort of caught up to me. Well, that and all the asado I ate at my cousin's house last night...and likely the small, but heavy desk I moved upstairs & into my room late last night. Or maybe it's the many changes, wins, loses & draws I've experienced personally over the last ten years. To quote Henry Jones, Jr., PhD: "It's not the years; it's the mileage."

For now, it's time to brew some tea and crack a book for pleasure.

25 August, 2011


Pondering lightly: Is Kovarian actually an aged Amy, at war with the Doctor and sending her daughter against him, blaming him for all she's lost in some timeline? And, something about wiping out the Silence just doesn't feel right to me. None of you know what I'm talking about, right? *sigh* Saturday, people. Saturday.

Enjoying: Irene's feeder bands and walking over to gawk at a stormy sea. Also hoping the good folks in the Bahamas made it through alright.

Car will finally be ready at the dealership tomorrow, so picking it up that evening and hitting the road for new territories and gainful employment this weekend. More news to come once I arrive at my destination. Epic day of solo driving on tap.
Cheers all.

18 August, 2011

A bit more flux

Excuse the mess as I rejigger things on the blog. I'll get everything sorted soon-ish.

I made the decision on my very own this evening to leave the state for the small city job. When I lined up everything in the here and there - the place, the job, the community, the possibilities... - the decision was vastly easier. It'll be a slim year, but a good start.

So, I'll likely leave the middle of next week. I'll share more details as I get them. I feel good about the decision, but it'll take a little time to sink in.

I wear a jetpack now. Jetpacks are cool.

This turned up on the Interwebs somewhere and I adore it. Science fiction. historical fiction. Dragons and aliens and faraway, never before places! Oh my! If it's good, it's just good fiction. Read (or watch or listen to) something you wouldn't normally reach for on the shelf and you may discover something wonderful.

Further dispatches from the job front

Another update from yet another fellow grad:

"Submitted a bunch of job applications to the cruel gaping maw of the employment market. Hopefully they won't get lost in the ether like the last two dozen."

Meanwhile, I remain in limbo for another day. The out of state job awaits and they need an answer, but I am still trying to get a decision out of the job here in my home state. I refuse to get backed into a situation where I end up with no job at all, but feel like I'm walking the edge on this. Making calls and everything will be sorted one way or another in the morning. I've just been in an utter fog this week. Even reading, which usually is a huge help to me in rough times, has been a challenge.

Fish or cut bait, world!

16 August, 2011

Bit of nonsense

So, I had to give in and buy a car after six years of traipsing about. Sadly, they're still quite a necessity in the hard-headed, auto-centric U.S. Settled on a Honda Fit: reliable, affordable, decent footprint. It'll be here by next week.

Just had to add this, as a nearly life-long Whovian: Somebody at Honda is a Doctor Who fan. Seriously. The color of my car is called Vortex Blue and is basically pearly TARDIS blue. And it's bigger on the inside.
Didn't put it together until now, but...
I am amused.

15 August, 2011

A Conundrum (Well, not quite yet.)

I may have two options for employment. Finally. However, between the two rises a dilemma.

The first position would be with a small, but successful community organization primarily serving immigrants and refugees. It would be back in a nice small city I worked in before moving to Syria in 2006. Actually, the job they think I'm a perfect fit for won't be available until next summer. In the mean time, I'll run the front desk and take on a bunch of other things that need doing. The job next year would involve working with refugee families and the community at-large. It would be a creative, interesting, satisfying job in a really lovely community.

The second remains only a possibility at the moment. I received a call from our local school district this morning inviting me to interview for a position on the crisis intervention team, part of their Safe Schools department. I would be part of a group that works to create safe, healthy schools. In my preliminary interview, with four members of the team, they described their job as one where you work with everyone from students and their families to the district superintendent. It's a multifaceted approach drawing on community work, data analysis, policy work. They may work with one school for just a month, but another for the whole year. You may be assigned to a school, but you'll also be working at other schools throughout the district. Though not an subject I've worked on, it does sound interesting. At the last second, after accepting the non-profit job, I was called back in for a second interview for this position.

The hitch is really one for any of us wanting to work in non-profits: How to survive and plan for a future on a typical non-profit salary?

The community job, at least for the next year, would pay little more than minimum wage. They're throwing in medical coverage and an on-site studio apartment, which is huge and the only way to survive, really. Next year I might earn something in the low 20s, but would be lucky to earn something in the 30s in my lifetime.

The schools job would pay more, offer more benefits and offer hope of a pension (though a dim one given the politics in Florida these days) in 20 years.

The community the non-profit job is in would offer chances to network with other agencies and organizations. I could probably pick up work writing reports for folks or doing small project work.

Low paying, well-meaning jobs with no retirement sounds far more terrifying at this point of life. On one hand, I am desperate to get involved, to rumble, get my hands dirty making change. On the other, I'd rather not be eating cat food from the tin when I'm old. But how to stave off guilty feelings about working for The Man?

It's just another thing that doesn't get discussed in certain circles. Talk of pension is too 'corporate' for some or just not a serious option for some organizations. Thus, my generation will end up in the same place as those trying to find a dignified way to retire today. Yet with tuition, student loan debt and financial insecurity rising for both individuals and non-profits, financial issues around staff retention need to be taken up in a more substantive way by the sector.

I'll keep you posted.
A decision - mine or not - will be made on Wednesday.

11 August, 2011

Random family photo (Maternal edition)

My grand-dad, no idea of the date (c.1930?), likely in his hometown of New Orleans.

Random family photo (Paternal edition)

Guy on left, speaking into mike (dark suit), is my grandfather. Guy next to him on the right, in the grey suit? Anyone?
Banner over the door is a big hint.

More dispatches from the front lines of the REAL crisis (JOBS, you numpties!)

Here are excerpts from an email received from a very good friend and fellow MSW grad today. I think about him a lot because he has far more on his shoulders than I: small child, mortgage, car payments...And with his wife employed full-time in a good job, they can't just pull up stakes to follow a job like I can.

He's a brilliant guy with tons of experience and now a graduate degree.
All the right moves, yes?
And still no job.
"I wish I could at least get started (before my fucking 40th Birthday in September).  In my worst nightmares, I never dreamed that I would still be looking for work at this point.  I would say "a job instead of "work", but "work" meets my sentiments better.  When I need a "pick me up", I read through all of the rejection emails and letters.

I have had a few interviews, but received three rejection calls last week.  I am truly scared because soon another 75+ MSSW students will graduate in the next two weeks...

I know I sound whiny and I guess I am, but I have not called any friends (or emailed much either) because I am embarrassed to be still unemployed."

08 August, 2011

Still lives

In between job searches I am finally getting around to scanning photos from my mom and dad's families. Most of the ones I have are from dad's side, left to me by my wonderful great-aunt before she passed away while I was in college. Most of those are from my great-grandmother, pictured above when she graduated from Mary Hardin Baylor College in Texas, and include some really neat photos of her life in Tucson, Arizona with my great-grandfather in the very early years on the 20th century. Might share some. I think they're pretty fascinating and not just because it's family.

04 August, 2011

Sticks & stones may break my bones...

...then I'll crawl over and bring you down by gnawing off your feet. Count on it.

01 August, 2011

Playlist for the day

Wishing everyone I know & don't know out there a blessed and generous Ramadan, especially those struggling for their lives and freedom in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Somalia and elsewhere.

When I mentioned I wanted a resolution to my country's irresponsible, manufactured debt ceiling crisis for my birthday yesterday, this was not the outcome I had in mind, but it's hardly surprising given the toxic political environment. Shared sacrifice? Hardly. The word union can be heard in several of these songs and you can hear it literally, referring to organized labor, or as a general call for people to come together, across boundaries and issues to try to turn things around for the majority in this country and the world.

They often teach us the words as kids, but never their real meaning. A subtle, timeless call to action.

About the Spanish Civil War, but could just as easily be about the poverty and injustice that surround us every day but that we choose to not really see. Also, do yourself a favor and Google the International Brigades.

I could keep going with favorites: Tiburon by Ruben Blades; How Will the Wolf Survive by Los Lobos; Strange Fruit by Lewis Allen (perf. by Nina Simone, of course); Free & Equal Blues by Josh White; The Jam; The Wire; Black Flag; Izanzaren; Marcel Khalifa; Grandmaster Flash; Public Enemy...But go find your own inspiration.

25 July, 2011

The good times keep a-rollin' on

Here's another snapshot of the job hunt landscape, courtesy of an email I received today from a fellow UT School of Social Work grad:

"[Another fellow grad] was saying she applied for a basic Program Specialist I job through TX HHSC and actually got an interview. They told her they had received 600 applications!!! They interviewed 6, but then she didn't get it. How crazy is that? 600 applicants for one job that isn't even that great!"

So much for saving the world. Save yourselves!

20 July, 2011

Ruminations at the true conclusion of graduate school

Reading: Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman; On Writing by Eudora Welty
Slowly working through: Kelby's books on Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS5
Playing with: My Yashica D
Listening to: Janelle Monae, Mavis Staples, Billy Bragg
Wondering: Are pirates passe?
I finally received my very pricey piece of paper yesterday.

Appropriately, my first diploma got lost in the mail, never to be heard from again. For what I paid for my education (Loan debt as of today: $57K and accruing interest), I damned well expect to receive something to show for it. I opened the cardboard envelope and checked that it was actually in there - albeit heavily wrinkled in two spots - and promptly stowed it in a desk drawer. Grad school is slowly fading into the dust clouds in my rear view, but the future is just as cloudy, if not darker.

Oh, a growth industry,” someone joked with me two years ago, when I began work on a master’s of social work. And that has been the expectation from all parties: me; friends; fellow students; faculty; members of the general public. It’s a time of grinding need in my country and so those choosing to enter a helping profession such as social work should be relatively immune from on-going employment woes. I have experience, education, intelligence, and compassion. What could go wrong?

I believed that right up until this week, when my one and only call back and interview in two months of searching led to naught. I am not sure if I was fooling myself during the two and a half years of my program. I am not sure if it's that nobody knows how bad things are until they are in the midst of it. Certainty is becoming an antique.

I do know that I am now a master’s level social worker with skills in communications, project management, community outreach and organizing, casework, policy advocacy, and research. I have worked internationally and have a pretty solid grasp of two languages. I have classroom teaching experience. Sure mine is a bit of an unusual background, but it’s rich with experience, at least in the right person’s eyes.

And yet, here I am, living with my mom for the foreseeable future while I hunt for jobs here, there, and everywhere. I am extremely grateful, especially when she reiterates that I am welcome to stay for as long as I need.

My horizons have narrowed significantly. I have gone from wanting to end poverty and save the world (only slightly joking there) to simply wanting to pay off my student loans and not be broke when I am my mother’s age. I am luckier than many I know: no children; no car or mortgage payments (no car at all at the moment); a bit of money in the bank in case of emergency (or to buy a few months of temporary health insurance); the ability to relocate. Having worked in the county assistance office in Austin for a year, I am extremely grateful for being housed, fed, healthy, and loved.  And, I’ve only been at this for two months, not two years. Yes, I’m lucky, for now.

Yet, “Living in a van, down by the river” is threatening to become the punchline to my life, but the joke is no longer funny.

I arrived home from Geneva and my internship with UNHCR finally feeling I wanted to settle in somewhere and give my all to an organization and a community. To be a part of something. To nurture some projects and positive change.

You’ll have a job by your birthday,” my mother said, not long after I arrived.
My birthday is in less than two weeks. Her tone and projections have shifted.
It’ll just take time,” she says now when my frustration shows.

I don’t mean to wallow. It drags me down that along with me, several really great friends that graduated with me are in the same boat. Energy, good intentions, compassion and brains going to waste. I know millions are wedged in the dinghy, with more trying to climb aboard every day, and the creaky thing is still taking on water.

Now I’m worried because the August graduates are about to be unleashed on the job market,” wrote one friend in an email, describing his job search as "soul-crushing."

Another classmate posted a comment about only receiving two almost interviews out of 45 applications. “It’s all who you know,” she wrote.

Experience + graduate degree = good job.
The jig is up. The old formulas no longer compute. Hunker down and shelter in place.

At my school, my concentration within social work is known as Community and Administrative Leadership, CAL for short, which means everything from public policy to nonprofit management to community work. What I don’t have is a Clinical background, the other side of social work, meaning mental health and counseling. Not my area of interest or expertise and it would be negligent for me to even try to fill such a position.

I interned for a year at Travis County as a social worker intern and my role was to work with clients who had seen a caseworker for direct assistance with rent and utilities. I didn’t write checks, much to many people’s dismay and confusion, but I could help them enroll in assistance programs, refer them to other community services, and just hear them out for an hour. It wasn’t at all what I had hoped to do with my experience and degree. It was frustrating enough to hand over the phone number for Section 8 to a client, knowing full well how ridiculously long the waiting list is. As with so much of our assistance network in this country, I might help them maintain, but never really recover their footing. It was a difficult year, but I did help some folks, gained new skills, and was well-reviewed by colleagues and superiors.

After receiving no word back on my initial applications for non-profits, I branched out to vacancy announcements for social worker positions, assuming I had the education and experience necessary. Unfortunately, announcements for every Social Worker position I have so far seen emphasize the need for clinical experience and include counseling or mental health treatment as part of the job responsibilities. I'm a bit confused as to how a social worker can't get a social worker job, but there you have it.

Social work seemed a good choice for someone wanting to advance as a do-gooder. I wanted to work for positive change in communities and throw my activist mentality and skills at meaningful work. The social work profession supposedly keeps person at the heart of all efforts. I had seen too many projects and programs that have lost sight of people or never even bothered with them in the first place. Social justice is also supposed to be a cornerstone of the profession, which certainly suited me. A degree in social work was touted as something I could use in a multitude of ways.

Thing is, I ended up with an awful lot of questions: What happened to meso- and macro-? Why was poverty never mentioned in my program, save one class, in a substantive manner? Why are we dealing with symptoms and not solutions? Systemic change, anyone?

“Sometimes, you know, you get busy with work and life and you have to just put that social justice thing down,” said one girl during an open discussion on the first day of our practice seminar, a course that would run concurrently with our year-long first internship.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but then I call bullshit and you are not a social worker.”
Well, I did say it gently.

My experience, so far, has left me feeling that whatever it is we define as social work, at least in this country, is not about change, but maintenance of the status quo. I better understand why Alinsky, bless him, couldn't stand social workers. It’s a shame, really, because I have friends in the program, both Clinical and CAL, who want to do so much more and who are just as sharp and rebellious-minded as Saul. We just chose to invest in a system that I believe no longer values such spirit. What would Jane Adams do, indeed?

I tried to describe the feeling once by saying I'd never felt more a part of The System or The Man (or however you want to phrase it) as I did during my graduate education. It wasn’t an education rich with critical thinking, it was a training regiment, and I’m not sure at the moment what it prepared me for. Yes, I could have left when my doubts reared up after a year, but then I would have been stuck with too many credits to transfer to another degree, the prospect of starting from scratch carrying a significant existing loan debt. And calling for change was like shouting into the wind.

It's a lousy time to have a degree that you have to explain to people. I saw an article recently that asked the question, “Should you be able to sue for an inadequate education?” Basically, should you be able to recoup your money if you’re not happy with the product. Interesting question. At the least, how do you define ‘inadequate’?

But that’s all passed and no going back. So, what now? Well, I’ll keep looking, sending my CV to the farthest reaches and every friend and family member I can. Finding a job is, indeed, a full-time job. I’m applying to work as a substitute teacher for the coming school year. I’m gauging where to begin volunteering my time in the community. Reconnecting with a few old friends. Trying to stay fit and healthy. Thankfully, as Billy Bragg notes, the beach is still free and I'm soaking in the sea most evenings to try to quiet my mind.

Just as important, if not more so, I am finally back to personal practices of writing and photography, working on projects I’ve neglected for far too long. I am extraordinarily thankful to find a haven in both. I'll start sharing more of that as I go, whether you want it or not.

I'm not just worried about me though. As a country, we have forgotten that things like roads, firemen, libraries, schools and sidewalks cost money. We've forgotten where the money for those things comes from. We've forgotten that nobody in their right mind goes into teaching to get rich. True, it's not a calling for everyone, but when teachers become public enemy #1, when science and knowledge are vilified like witchcraft, when compassion and calls for equality (or even simple tolerance) are shouted down, we've really gone round the bend as a society and I'm not sure how we get back because, most importantly, we've totally jettisoned the idea of working together and compromise in favor of a scorched Earth approach. The truth is that nobody ever wins those scenarios. Civility is passe. We could all use a refresher run through of Kindergarten: share, work together, inside voice, compromise, don’t eat paste. Do not try to tell me some people out there don’t act like their dipping into the Elmer’s a bit too often. If we don’t climb out of our trenches soon, I’m not sure what’ll be left and that’s heartbreaking here in the 21st century. This was the future once, the glorious, shining chrome future. The shine is certainly off though.

I haven't given up on the world yet. I can't. When I've tried it never lasts long. I am willing to throw in and work with anyone who wants to make things better for the majority for who the world just doesn't work.Anyone. Well, provided their idea of debate isn't shouting into somebody's face from a distance of a half-inch. I’m not sure what you’ll see from me here moving forward. I’ll keep writing, maybe you’ll keep reading, and hopefully you’ll speak up.

28 May, 2011

And arriving from way out in left field...

Mind blown from: Doctor Who, "The Almost People" (Thank you, Interwebs!)
Working on: Final touches of my final draft of my project report for UNHCR
Worried about: When everybody else at HQ gets to make changes to said report
Listening to: Gil Scott Heron (R.I.P.)

Huh. So. Uuuummm....
This showed up in my inbox late yesterday:

"Several weeks ago, you should have received a hard copy letter from my office indicating that you were named an alternate for an award to Jordan. While your alternate status for that country has not changed, I got word from my colleagues at the U.S. Department of State about a grant opportunity in Tunisia that’s recently opened.  In looking through the applications of the remaining alternate candidates for the Near East/North Africa region, they felt that your project might be one that could be workable/transferable to this new location. While the Fulbright program is not able to actually offer you a grant at this time, I wanted to ask whether you’d at least be amenable to having your application considered for Tunisia?"

I of course told them to chuck my chapeau right into that Tunisian ring.Vive le chaos!
Speaking with Fulbright folks after the holiday weekend to try to figure out what's what with all this. More news to follow soon.

25 May, 2011

The weather is here, I wish you were beautiful

*Title of post borrowed from a good ol' Buffett song*
Reading: Celebration by Harry Crews
Listening to: My ocean & the wind in the palms

Things are ending and hopefully some beginnings are around the corner.

I've been home in Florida for about three weeks now. The first week or so was spent trying to putting together a full draft of the report on my UNHCR project. Now I'm waiting to get that back from the colleagues in the Staff Welfare Section so we can get the final draft put to bed next week. I'm still following up with participants, staff members and families, to thank them for their time and input. Given organizational culture and that no one from the organization has ever reached out to families in a coordinated way, I'm truly thankful at the overwhelming candor and willingness to believe in the possibility of positive change.

I'm officially a graduate of graduate school, a master of social work. And when you finish something, anything, everyone's immediate question is, "What's next?" Oh, it's like being 18 all over again. What am I going to do with the rest of my life? *groan*

First task: getting sorted with regards to my loans. I was lucky enough to avoid loan debt as an undergrad and I now understand how that debt must be a massive determinant for young people finishing their bachelor's degree. It's certainly weighing on my mind as I start looking for a job. Granted my total debt is about as much as a year's tuition at some private universities, but it's still significant and carrying any debt makes for an uncomfortable situation.

Second task: Finding employment. Despite the feelings of panic that rear up now and then, stopping me cold, I am trying to think tactically about my next moves. I'm starting locally and working out. The trick is, I don't fit well into people's boxes or ideas about careers paths and job descriptions. I would like to recommit to my home state, stick around to lend my skills & energy to try to turn the place around (at least a bit), but that depends on finding the right job with the right folks and may just come down to finding a job period. In addition to applying for jobs, I'm starting to reach out to people who are involved in interesting, dynamic things to try to engage them in conversation.

In between all that, I'm taking time to soak in my ocean, spend time with friends and family, and get back into a real practice of writing and photographing.
So, again, bear with me.
Everything's still in flux, though I'm not sure things ever really settle down.

24 April, 2011

Quick hit dans Paris

Busy time of transition. I'm in Paris at the moment, in the last full day of a fabulous 10-day break before heading back to the New World. I leave Geneva on 29 April, bound for Florida. And I have to catch a train back to Geneva on Monday. And we wrap my final course of graduate school on Mon night. And I have to pack. And I have to wrap up things at UNHCR HQ. So, be patient. I promise many more posts ahead in coming weeks; I've a lot to process and whatnot (and not just data for the UNHCR project).
Bon soir, y'all.

27 March, 2011

Reading is good for you. Go read this.

Not the blog post to read to lift my spirits, given I just rang up my student loan totals. Times like this I need more interesting vices or something. However, I think this post relates to anyone out there looking to combine activism and work. It certainly hit home for me as I start the terrifying post-grad school job search. And it relates to my thoughts and criticisms on activism, the social work profession (as seen through my educational experience) and how I feel getting ready to be spat out of grad school as unsure as when I started. Yet, more pissed off. So, there's that. That post will come soon enough, when I've got a bit more bandwidth...and my very expensive piece of paper in my hands.

Anyway, please do read When the Movement Disappoints by Steph over at Feministe (read through the comments, too).

19 March, 2011

Sea change & Spillover

"I was surprised by your email," the colleague, an alum of my grad program, said over the phone earlier this week. "It sounds like you're just packing up and going home."

She had called to let me know that lunch for later in the week was off. She was being sent for a training that she had tried, without luck, to get out of. I had already offered to help out her husband with babysitting over the weekend. A gal's gotta make money somehow and I like their kids.

At the end the end of my email to her confirming my availability, I wrote that I would likely be gone by June 1, seeing no feasible way or justifiable reason to stay through June with student loans coming due and gainful employment needing to be found.

On the phone that night she sounded concerned and somewhat insistent, asking if there was any way I could stay, any way the organization could keep me on, had I asked around. I told her the answer was no, to the best of my knowledge.

"But there should be demand for somebody with your background and who speaks Arabic," she said and insisted I talk to her husband, who works for an NGO, this weekend. I did add that my Arabic is not fluent, but she insisted intermediate is better than none.

My section chief keeps insisting they are thrilled with my work and "you are welcome to stay as long as you like." She tells me having an experienced professional working for free can only benefit them, so it is a rather sweet deal. I appreciate the sentiment, but it just leaves me giggling to myself a bit. There's no way I could possibly stay, barring adoption by a patron or the offer of a paycheck. U.N. rules are that you can't so much as offer a consultancy to an intern for 6 months, much less a job. There may be other possibilities, but there are bigger issues for me at the moment.

You could sum things up in a word: spillover.

This project for my internship - essentially a needs assessment of international staff families, though people keep insisting they don't want to call it such - has been great in many ways. First and foremost, the chance to talk with and help share the stories of an interesting and diverse group of families and people. It's been a professional, challenging task that plays on several strengths of mine. I am forever thankful that it wasn't me sitting at a desk passing time, forced into a role that simply did not suit or benefit, waiting for people to show up.

However, you cannot listen to these stories and not have it impact you somehow. The effect of the project on me has been a serious bout of self-reflection and reconsideration of a lot of things I assumed were important in life. This is not a bad thing. I would argue vociferously that you can only help others to the extent that you yourself are working from a healthy, whole place.

For years I've been on the go, hopping continents and new experiences. It's been interesting, fun at times, horrible at others. I've learned a ton, made wonderful friends, and had amazing experiences. Trick is, I let a lot of things go in pursuit of something  I wasn't real sure of. In career management speak, I've not been living my values.

"At some point you get tired of moving around, you just end up comparing one place to the last place, but you look around and you've lost all your connections to home and you're in a spot where you can really leave the pension and benefits," said one person I interviewed.

What I was tasked with may be program development, but it's also been talking with people about a lot of pain, sadness, and frustration. It's reminded me so much of work with marginalized communities, where a group has decisions made for them and is given no means of providing input, often with dire consequences.I'm thankful for the opportunity and for the openess and candor of those I've spoken to. At this point, I really feel my commitment is to them, to try to accurately convey their lives and stories in a way that might be taken up and considered by the agency.

Last week I booked a ticket back to the U.S.: Zurich to Miami. Cheap ticket on a German low-cost airline. I may have to stand in the aisle or sit on the wing, but I've got an iPod and can bring my own peanuts. Luckily, I was able to cancel at the last minute.

When I told my direct supervisor that I'd booked she seemed surprised. "So you will be staying through May?" she asked."Well, I thought we'd agreed I would leave at the end of May," I said."If you will have completed the hours your department requires and if after Paris you will just be writing the report, I thought you would finish that at home," she said. "That way you save money, can start looking for work, it will be less stress for you..."I told her I wasn't sure and she said I would just have to let her and our section chief know by this Friday.

This week I took them up on the offer. I leave Geneva on 29 April, having managed to find a ticket from Geneva and on real airlines, headed back to my home state of Florida for the time being. I am committed to crafting a strong, quality report. I can help finish it during review and revisions, but the actual final product ans what anyone here does with it is out of my hands. I think some space and sunshine will help in the writing process. The preliminary draft of the report is due 6 May and the final draft, at least what I'll be producing, is due on 20 May. And then that's that.

The inevitable question is "What now?" A liberating, exciting, and terrifying question all at once.Things are popping in my mind, but I barely have the headspace to make a grocery list at the minute. Let me focus on finishing my interviews, my break in Paris, and getting myself back stateside before I even try to answer. I'm sure I'll ruminate on the matter here before then, but give me some leeway, please.

05 March, 2011


Not a Bowie fan? *hurumph* Shame on you.
You may notice tweaks to the blog in coming weeks. Just a long overdue revamp and who knows what else.
One thing I'm considering is dropping the blogger name I've used since starting the blog way back in ye olden times of 2006. Not sure why I ever used one since it's not like I'm dishing state secrets. And it's not like if you wanted to know who I am you couldn't find out.
Part of me loves my unofficial title, granted by my ex-husband, and part of me now finds having a pen name a bit silly. Mostly I'd hate giving it up because I love the Amazigh culture and mythology tied to the name. Who doesn't love being tagged an ogre by their husband?
Anyway, we'll see...

Warning: existential crisis (again)

Reading: Shadow Country by Matthiessen (amazing, but you should have been reading him for years now)
Listening to: Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes; Wonder Why We Ever Go Home by Jimmy Buffett
Excited about: Chamber music concert at St. Peter's Cathedral Friday night (finally they grant me a student discount!)

It's been a month since I put anything up here? Really? I'd honestly imagined I'd posted something in between, but apparently not. It's a busy time and, at the same time, a quiet time of introversion and introspection.

My project for my internship at UNHCR is off and running. The response has been wonderful, well beyond what anyone expected and a bit overwhelming. Right now, I'm trying to keep up with replying to emails from staff & families wanting to participate and scheduling everybody for interviews. I believe I've mentioned here earlier that I consider this a bit similar to community work I've done in the U.S. and MENA with marginalized communities. These families have many decisions in life made for them with no one from the agency seeking their input on how these decisions impact them or what their lives are like. Much of the talk when I arrived was around managing expectations, that we this project wasn't about entitlements and big ticket programs. The overwhelming request from families so far? To paraphrase: Please acknowledge that we're a part of this organization, too. We may not work here, but you didn't just hire an individual. Nobody's asked for anything truly "big ticket". Mostly, the requests have been for orientations to help people adjust and understand what's what when they relocate or for some sort of social gathering a few times a year to help connect families and the organization. "Just make us feel welcome," said one spouse, "instead of a burden." Sadly, I've been told I can't travel as an intern, so any hope of connecting in person with staff and families in the field is gone.

That's one interesting thing interning here at 36 and to be tasked with an atypical internship project. The head of my section has said she considers me not so much an intern as an unpaid consultant, since that's who might otherwise be undertaking this project. "My gosh, it's a great deal for us to have you here," she said this week. Overall, I'm being treated very much as a professional by everyone, which has been gratifying. Frankly, I've too often missed that feeling over the last two years while in my program. However, there have been moments of frustration. It's been a bit of a struggle to be approved for even a long-distance phone code - needed to speak to people in the field (many of whom I cannot connect with via Skype) - since these are not usually granted interns. Things are working out in the end and most everybody has been very helpful, but there are definitely observations to be made on hierarchy, pecking orders and politics. I have three and a half very busy months ahead.

Now, as to the introspection and introversion. Introversion first. Outside the office, I spend quite a bit of time alone. This is not a complaint, mind you. I've finally picked up my camera and my pen again and gotten to work. Thankfully walking the city with a camera or sitting on a park bench with a notebook and pencil remain free and thus well within my meager budget. I'll likely have some more things to share here soon. However, living ever more in my own head these days means I'm also a bit out of practice in interacting with people. It may sound strange, but as much as you get winded on the stairs when you're out of shape physically, you can get just as exhausted talking with people when you're in a relatively silent period. Again, not a complaint but an observation. I think a silent period is actually quite good for me. Hasn't really helped quiet my mind, though.

The silence helps with the introspection, though. As I get very close to finishing my master's I am inevitably beginning to think of what's next. The trouble is I'm not sure anymore. Luckily, working in Staff Welfare means I'm surround by three people who are very good at helping. My direct supervisor suggested I work with a colleague in career management and she's been wonderful. I was initially just happy she would take time to help an intern, but then to have her insist we work through the whole process has been great. I wandered into our first meeting with my CV in hand, expecting to just get some help with that, but she rightfully suggested we take it back to the basics. Right now I'm working on some exercises around identifying values, skills and competencies.

The bigger question underneath my uncertainty is, as The Clash asks, "Should I stay or should I go?" and relates to the bigger issue of still not knowing where I belong in this big old world. What's possible and what makes sense for my future seems comparably minor; logistics are easier to deal with than existential crisis. In actuality, there's not really a decision to be made at the point. I'm not being bombarded with offers and I've not really reached out to anybody yet. What I'm thinking about a lot these days are the comments of friends, colleagues and acquaintances I've met working abroad. The gist? "You want to help us, go back and fix your country!" And, what a state my country is in these days. It's not the first time I've raised these sorts of questions, but this time the questions seem somewhat more dire, as though this is the time to get the answers right, if there are any right answers to be had. Where and how can you be most effective at helping foster positive change? What are the things you want out of life? What are you willing to give up to get them? Are you walking away from things or towards them? Oh, and, how will you pay the bills (including those damned student loans)?

I've never quite grasped how or why people end up at this blog (other than my mom) and that may be a good thing in that I just put up what I do without trying to write for anyone. So, I'll just keep rambling on and I hope you stick with me and maybe offer up a comment or two someday.

08 February, 2011

Wael Ghonim's DreamTV Interview (w/ENGL subtitles)

"I want to tell every mother and father that lost a son, I'm sorry but it's not our fault. I swear to God, it's not our fault. It's the fault of everyone who held onto power and clung to it."

Everyone should take a few minutes to watch this interview with one of Egypt's best bloggers, Wael Ghonim, released yesterday after being held illegally for 12 days by his government. For what? For loving his country and speaking truths to try to change it for the better.

Turns out the revolution WILL be televised

Much love to everyone in Egypt.
Finally heard from people and they're alright, still hoping for change.

04 February, 2011

Meanwhile, back in land of cheese & chocolate...

A few random, relatively pointless things from Geneve...
Happy dance due to: ticket acquired to Patti Smith's 18 FEB show. Woot! By the way, go read "Just Kids" - fabulous read.

Appreciating the juxtaposition of: Headline banners on the vending machines for two local newspapers today: resurgence of syphilis amongst Geneva prostitutes aaaaand 50 new pedestrian pathways planned.

Recently admitted, newly developed irrational loves: 1) proud old men in berets (extra points for big, thick glasses) 2) the city-wide army of accordion players (& the occasional stand-up bass or sax player) performing on public transit.

Wondering about: the luxury car dealership on Rue de Lausanne that literally overnight became a shoe wholesaler. Big signs still up for Ferrari & Maserati, but the cars are gone, replaced by stacks of shoe boxes. Hard times, I guess.

Amused by: the video screens throughout the small shopping center across the street that constantly stream a count of how many millions of kilos of cheese and chocolate are currently being consumed in Switzerland.

30 January, 2011

Shameless love letter

"Aren't you scared?"
"Weren't you afraid?"

These are the two responses I'm met with when people hear I've lived in the Middle East and North Africa. Same questions now as when I returned from Morocco in 2002. And I give the same, emphatic answer: "No! Never."

As an American of European descent, I guess I'm not appropriately terrified of the Arab world.
I'm still trying to craft a truly effective "elevator speech" to explain how I feel about the MENA and her people. I want to sit people down, make them tea, and tell them stories, but I usually never have the chance. And, too often I know they're not really listening to my response anyway. You can physically see them loose focus, interest, when the stereotypes aren't confirmed.

When I say I enjoy living in the region and have so much respect and love for the people there, it's not denying there aren't critical issues to be dealt with: of poverty, gender, lack of rights and freedoms, corruption and mismanagement, unemployment, education systems in dire need of reform, class conflict, labyrinthine bureaucracies, environmental issues...The list is long.

But then there are the possibilities, which too many people just don't seem to see. And the main source of possibility for me comes from the people, people like we're seeing take to the streets in Tunis, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan. People my age or younger, especially: friends, colleagues, students. A huge part of society with few choices and few outlets, who know they deserve better than they're getting. The energy, ideas, humor, creativity, grace and determination shared with me over the years has been at times remarkable. Not to say any of it was unexpected or that it doesn't exist elsewhere in the world, but it's been wonderful to have a chair pulled up to the table, to be welcomed and made a part of the conversation.

I can only hope to be afforded the opportunity to get back there soon and continue working with the people - not for, never in place of - to improve lives and communities. To be able to do so would be an honor.

Sitting here in Geneva, watching the scenes unfold this week, I hope the energy, camaraderie, grit, and community evidenced in Egypt will help convey a bit of what keeps drawing me back to the region and counter the fears and myths that cloud the thinking of too many.
I hope for the best, for a better future, for a day when my own country will redefine "stability" in their foreign policy lexicon, when friends in the region won't have to wave me out of public buildings before we talk about certain subjects, when peaceful demonstrations are not set upon by an army of thugs, when people can express themselves freely...
Power to the people.

Meanwhile, back at HQ...

Hunkering down to: Work my way back through all my Arabic textbooks. Gotta keep moving forward somehow!
Marveling at: a country that shuts down at 7pm every night and every Sunday. Consequently missing days of strolling the streets and stopping for kunefa late at night in Cham or Cairo.
Trying to: Knock out the last of my class work and get it the heck out of the way!
Lesson learned (again): Don't shop based on pictures on package. What looks like yogurt may turn out to be some form of cheese. Though quark magro is a cool name. Sounds like something they're working on at CERN.

Work-wise, this week has focused on developing the initial surveys for my project. We'll hopefully soon get surveys out to international UNHCR staff and their families both here at HQ and in the field. The organization defines international staff at those not working in their home countries. While there is an admitted schism(s) between national and international staff here, we had to look at boundaries for this project given the time and resource constraints. That said, I certainly hope a similar assessment will be conducted for the families of national staff in the near future.

Still trying to connect with Staff Welfare officers in the field. Their input and assistance will be important and I am interested to hear what they are encountering with staff.

I've connected with the local organization for expat spouses of UN staff, who are thrilled somebody is taking an interest in their lives and challenges. Likely speaking at their meeting later this week.

Slow going, but this initial phase is about building solid foundations for the rest of the project. I just hope I don't get too stalled, given that I'm only here until June. Most people's response to the project, though positive, has been, "So how many years do you have to get this done?"

One interesting thing last week was joining an informal dinner out with the Staff Welfare folks from several organizations, including WTO, WMO, ITU, and others. Really diverse and interesting group, not to mention fun. I'd no idea this element existed with these organizations. Though critical, they remain small, underfunded posts and could, should, be able to do more.

Again, a very interesting internship from the perspective that I get to see how this place works and doesn't.
Hopefully, I can play a small part in helping it work better. Not only for staff and families, but for the people they're trying to serve under the mandate.

Don't believe the hype

As usual, some news outlets and talking heads are freaking out at images of Arabs rising up. Usually, these are the same folks who equate the word Arab with the word Muslim and the word Muslim with the word terrorist.
This is an uprising of all Egyptians: Muslim, Christian and everybody else.
I'm not claiming expert status in any way. I'm not Tunisian, not Egyptian, not Yemeni....They're your experts. I'm just somebody who's lived in the region, loves and respects the people and is working hard to get back there for good. That said, I want to address those who are jumping on the Al Qaeda, Islamic extremist, "trying to bring back the Caliphate" bandwagon in their comments about what happened in Tunisia and is unfolding in Egypt.

Nothing is ever simple and life is painted in grays. That said, there is a lot that doesn't get discussed out the region in the US media.

You know what Tunisia's revolt was about? Rights & poverty. A socio-economic situation so bad a young man with a college education, Mohamed Bouazizi, who could only find work selling produce in the streets, set himself on fire in desperate protest. He died a few days later of his injuries and a lot of us wish he had lived to see what followed.
You want to know what Egypt's about? Rights & poverty. About HALF the population lives in poverty. You want to understand why some people torched police stations? Google Khalid Saeed and see what happened to him (and countless others) in police custody.

This isn't a religious uprising, it's a HUMAN one.

As to the chaos, reports from on the ground from actual people are reporting that the people are organizing themselves to deal with things. The people of Egypt and the MENA have had to find ways to make life work no matter what for centuries. They've gotten pretty damn good at it. There's a slight flavor of post-Katrina coverage to some of these reports and that's not good.

Nobody has any idea how this will all shake out. I sure don't. Though it seems more and more pundits are saying there's no way Hosni can stay. Also, extra factoid of the day, his new VP ran OUR country's secret rendition program in Egypt. Goodness, I can't fathom why the people aren't satisfied with this shuffling of the deck.

Just please don't listen to folks who are all about "bringing democracy to the Middle East" via invasions, but loose it when people rise up and try to get it for themselves. Things don't happen in a vacuum. We've given billions in aid to many of these repressive governments, Egypt first and foremost. People there do not hate us. This is what I have to explain most often and will keep saying it until people really get it. However, they sure don't get our schizoid policies - speaking about democracy while propping up dictators. And they sure don't like getting pelted with tear gas canisters that read "Made in the USA".

Anyway, for what it's worth...
Power to the people.

29 January, 2011

Ain't No Power Like the Power of the People

No idea where this is from, but pulled it from my Twitter feed. If anyone knows who to credit, let me know. Must say it was good to help out with friends' kids today. A day wrestling and playing football with a 2 and 5 year-old is good for clearing one's head. Spending another quality night with the people of Egypt (or at least the many info streams) while I knock out the last of my final course work so I can get on to bigger & better things.

28 January, 2011

أنا مع مصر

from my friend in Cairo:  on Twitpic

What a powerful image (click to enlarge). Trying to sort my thoughts on today.Went into a late afternoon meeting just hoping not to emerge to news of a bloodbath. Just home from work and watching any feed I can.

Thinking of the streets I walked (and sometimes got happily lost in), now filled with tear gas and APCs. Remembering the little girl, who I had to challenge to an eating contest to get her to finish her kushari while her mother tried to contain her laughter. Thinking of the 18 and 19 year-old social work students I met at Helwan University, who adopted me at a conference. What will tomorrow bring for that bright, energetic, hopeful and hysterically funny group of young Egyptians (Muslims and Christians, it didn't matter to them a bit)? Thinking about hanging out on the bridges over the Nile, where today there have been running battles. Thinking about the friend I stayed with last March and hoping to hear from hear back from her soon. Just thinking about how much I miss the place, how much I love the people...
It's going to be a long night. And whatever comes, this is just the beginning.
My thoughts and hopes are with all of Egypt, all of the Middle East.

21 January, 2011

Great day in the morning!

Looks like I'm onto the next phase for Fulbright:
"I am pleased to inform you that the National Screening Committee of the Institute of International Education (IIE) has recommended you for a grant under the Fulbright U.S. Student Program for the academic year 2011-2012. Your application has been forwarded to the supervising agency abroad for final review."

Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and Jordanian Fulbright Committee, have I told you lately that I love you? Show me love, guys. And I'd prefer you not wait until June to do so.

For now, it's time to rekindle my romance with Hans Wehr.

19 January, 2011

Hello. My name is Methusalah.

I really am not somebody who minds aging. I did a little, happy dance in a tiny elevator in Istanbul when my Iranian friend pointed out my first gray hair. Badge of honor thing, I think. However, I can find humor now that I'm reaching a new set of benchmarks. Last fall, my freshmen students were half my age. Half. Many people in my graduate program never saw the 70s. Some barely saw the 80s. As noted here, I no longer qualify for many student discounts in Geneva because I apparently long ago aged out of the category.

Today, the UNHCR interns hosted the monthly interns' lunch for interns across the UN system. I am well aware I am older than most interns here. It was a small turnout, mostly UNHCR interns, but nice folks. Then some of them began discussing resumes, some trying to find work to stay in Geneva or just move into paid employment where they can. Several started discussing having to fill space with an "additional interests" section, listing hobbies or talents and whether that was a good idea or not. I thought, "My, it's been a while since I've had an interest section in my CV. Huh." I agreed that writing a CV is a special craft in and of itself and mentioned having to shave certain items off after 10 years. And I was met with blank stares. And the inevitable question from one of them, "How old are you?"

Ah, children. Gather 'round and the Crypt Keeper will tell you her tales of the days of yore.

15 January, 2011

Two quick questions

If allegedly being able to see Russia from your house supposedly qualifies you to be VP, what does actually being able to see France from your house qualify you for? This is important since I'll be seeking gainful employment in coming months.

Also, if finding the baby Jesus in your piece of King Cake means a good year for you and the responsibility for throwing next year's Mardi Gras party, what does finding a little ceramic figurine of Garfield ice skating in your slice of galette des Rois mean? Whatever he may be an omen of, he now adorns my desk.

14 January, 2011

Week One: So it begins

Shooting for: free concert of a few of Bach's Cantatas tonight at Temple de la Fusterie - part of the celebration of the music conservatory's 175 anniversary.

Factoid of the day: The UNHCR HQ building was designed by an architect who had previously only designed prisons. Place sort of has an odd cruise ship-y vibe, too.

Discovery of the day:
Those two giant boxes that seem to have long ago taken up permanent residence in the hall outside our office? The ones I was otherwise oblivious to? Yeah. Finally read the label this week. Condoms. Thousands and thousands of condoms.

Dreaming of: Terra Proibita, aka the 7th floor of UNHCR HQ, where the High Commissioner and other top officials have their offices. If for nothing more than to snoop. Thar be dragons! People sort of speak of it in hushed tones. I will likely get up there for interviews as part of my project. For now, I like to tease my supervisors with things like, "But, what if I just want to knock and offer to buy him a coffee? That's nice, right?"

Feeling a bit better about the world today thanks to: Tunisia!

Amused by: the very elderly, very chic woman who kept looking me over approvingly while we waited to get in the bank downtown at opening Friday: (to me, in French) "You must be a lawyer, no?"

"So what are your first impressions?" asked the long-time UNHCR staffer, an alum of my department at UT-Austin. I tried to pull it together to put into words.

This week has been mostly observations, so trying to give first impressions is like spreading the cards across the table and playing Memory: flipping cards over and over until you can make a match, in this case my observations with words to convey them. I've tried very hard to just keep my eyes and ears open and be the sponge this week.

I spent most of the week in my office, which is actually not bad for two reasons. First, Friday I discovered that most of the interns at HQ are sort of quarantined to two glassed-walled pods on the 6th floor, no matter who they work for.
Great for networking with other interns, but I'd rather be integrated into the unit I'm working with. I work out of my section's actual office, on the 4th floor. Also, our office is a stopping point for every new staff member and many others. I met the brand new head of Legal Affairs this week, who stopped by to get some help on housing and relocation. Nice fellow and in just the same tough spot as all of us in finding a place to live. Though I'm quite sure he as a few more resource than I to deal with it.

I'm on the Ave. de France side, facing the lake. Aside from being able to see the lake, a bit of the Palais, and, if I lean, the mountains, my favorite thing in my view is the World Meteorological Organization building. I'm sure it's from growing up in Florida, but I have a deep-seated and rather irrational love of jalousie windows and the WMO building looks like one big oval-shaped bank of jalousie windows from my window. Or sort of like the overgrown lens of a lighthouse - even better. It's a silly, trivial thing that makes me happy. That's all.

I work for the Staff Welfare Section (SWS). We have sent students to Community Services for nearly 20 years. I am the first student from our school to intern in this section. Before arriving, I'd not been very sure what I that meant or what I might be doing. People said, "You're at the UN! Does it matter?"
Yes, it damn well does to me.
I'd gotten a vague description from my faculty liaison: Staff Welfare...counseling...assistance programs...
I admit, I was nervous. I'm not a counselor. That's not my end of social work. At all. I had struggled to try to make my first field internship a useful learning experience and I don't believe I was ever really permitted to succeed to that end. Wonderful people, but far too constrained on the part of my department and the agency towards hitting benchmarks that had little to do with me. It was a rough year.
Then I spoke to the director of the section and the staff member who would serve as my supervisor over Skype in early December.
They were just as unsure of the requirements of my department for the internship, the nuts and bolts requirements like hours to complete, but they were very exciting about having me intern.
"Just to be clear," I added, "I don't have a mental health background. I don't do therapy. I don't do individual casework."
I am not sure they couldn't hear my very rather audible sigh of relief when they insisted that's fine, that's not what the internship would be about. They needed somebody to lay groundwork and start developing programs. It was still vague, but it as up my alley.

I decided to start on the first Friday of the year knowing there would be a lot of admin stuff to take care of: getting my badge, tech stuff to set up...And, luckily, maybe because most people were still out on holiday, everything went smoothly.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe I've been lucky, but I have to say that so far as I've experienced, the U.N. has the nicest security staff I've ever met at a large organization. The folks issuing badges chatted with me about where I was from and what I was doing at the U.N. The older fellow processing my badge asked what I had planned after the end of my internship and when I told him I didn't yet know he insisted with a smile that I would be staying on with the UN. The guards at HQ were incredibly gracious, joking in response to my walking in the first morning, throwing my arms out, and stammering in broken French, "So what do I do?" Leaving the first evening, one of them asked me how my first day went.

There are four people in staff welfare, including our support staffer. We're two Croatians (including the head of section), a Romanian, a Gambian and now an American. My direct supervisor is a trained social worker who has worked in Romania and France. Her background includes community work as well as more therapeutic practice. The head of our office also has a mental health background and like my supervisor sometimes sees staff in her office for sessions. The third person on staff, the other Croatian, is a trained psychologist. The section now has four members in the field as well: Dakar, Nairobi, Kinshasa, Islamabad. There are hopes for two more positions at some point in the future, in the Americas and another in Africa. The section in small but growing as the UN, like many organizations, fully grasps the need for a happy and fully-supported staff. While programs have mostly focused on staff, there is a desire to extend services of some sort to families.

All UNHCR staff, except for a few people in specialized positions or with certain backgrounds, rotates regularly all over the globe. Postings may last anywhere from about two years (hardship posts) to about five or six years. Except in cases of certain posts (Afghanistan, etc), people may bring their families. As you can imagine, this isn't easy, but then again neither is leaving your family behind. Issues like vicarious trauma, difficulties for spouses finding work and maintaining careers, the basic difficulties in relocating, disruption of children's educations, relationship strain, are just some of the issues encountered. It is often bandied about that UNHCR has the highest divorce rate in the UN system. Interestingly, the head of our office noted that though she's heard that for many years, she's never seen figures to prove it, which makes it part of the organizational mythology, for now.

The best and most exciting thing about this week is they just threw me right off the dock and into the water. Spent the first two days talking to the three of them about the section, the organization, printing internal documents to read about everything from work-life balance at he UN to UNHCR organizational culture, and brainstorming the project. It was a little overwhelming at first, but I actually like it that way - a bit of shock treatment. It also indicated that they were trusting me to rise to the challenge as a mature professional and already giving me a bit of autonomy, which I appreciate immensely. Nice for me and for them. Our director and my supervisor both expressed to me their real relief and satisfaction at how they were able to do just that with me, how much they appreciated my jumping immediately and performing so well out of the gate.

The actual work on an internship can be hit or miss. You hope, or at least I do, to not be placed where there is either nothing for you to do, where you're not permitted to do anything useful that would make it a meaningful learning experience, or where you're limited to doing things way below your abilities.

My project is big, meaty, challenging and exciting. I've been told by others on staff that this is the sort of thing they hire a consultant to do, that I might be able to publish on it, too. I'll be essentially completing an assessment of the relationship between UNHCR and staff families - how do they view organization and how does the organization view them. Along with that, I'll be assessing the challenges facing families of international staff (staff not working in their home country), any existing assistance programs, and beginning to look at how to develop adequate and sustainable support programs. All this ends up merging with lot of initiatives within the UN system and UNHCR like gender parity and improved work-life balance as well. Additionally, there is the realization of the importance of these types of programs on recruitment and retention and, ultimately, in being able to succeed in your mandate.

I'll write more about the methodology later, but I'm using a lot of qualitative methods and pushing for the most direct contacts possible, in part due to the perceived negative relationship. I'll be talking to folks all over the world and at pretty much ever level here at HQ. We're pushing hard for some field visits, within reason. There's a lot of balancing involved - not raising expectations (positive or negative) too high, maintaining clarity, etc. But I really do need a tough challenge like I need air and I've certainly got one here.

I was asked to draft a concept paper for the project to distribute to the necessary higher-ups by Friday. Initially, I was a bit stuck just fretting uselessly about proper formatting. Then I realized all the balancing that would have to be done for all sides. Not impossible, but certainly imposing.
Early indicators within HQ are good and the concept paper went out yesterday. Next week I start a slew of informational meetings with everyone from legal affairs to policy to medical services. Also have meetings with system-wide managerial staff from over in the Palais. Also getting in touch with the Budapest office and our SWS staff in the field. It's a steady, heavy diet of input.

It's a hierarchical organization for sure and I'm working via introductions from our staff at the moment. While I certainly understand that certain procedures help things run smoothly, I believe there's a hell of a comedy of manners to be written. Perhaps oddly, I sort of mean that as a complement. I think.

So that's the week that was.
We'll see what week two brings.
It's a lovely, sunny day and I have to get outside and play.
God, that rhymed a bit too much, no?
Sort of enjoying not having to be anywhere at the moment, though, as well.
Bon weekend, y'all.

05 January, 2011

I'm not who I think I am

It appears that the title of "Non-traditional student", typically used in the U.S. to designate an older than average student, does not exist in Switzerland, or at least not in Geneva.

Every time I've inquired about student discounts, so far, I've been met with the same response:
"Madame, a student is a person under 25 years of age."
It does not matter that I have my university ID and an International student ID card.
I am 11 years over the cut-off. Thus, I am not a student.
Not sure what that makes me as an unemployed, unpaid intern, trying to finish the last credits for her master's degree, but I am not a student.
Perhaps I am some sort of eccentric who not only likes working for free, but pays someone else for the pleasure to do so.

A few times I've been met with a bit of a tone. The guy who sold me my ticket to the symphony even cocked his head to the side just a notch in disbelief and sort of stared me down for a beat.

I must say my new favorite person is town is the woman at the ticket counter for the neighborhood pool, right behind our apartment building. She not only gave me a student price on my pool pass, she threw me the local price. I was nearly moved to reach through the window and hug her.

Dear Geneve

No disrespect, Geneva, but I don't find the Jet d'Eau to be all that. Of course, walking past, I've seen many people who would obviously disagree snapping photos like mad. It does remind me of a great sprinkler toy I had as a wee kid. However, you can't play in the Jet, or at least I haven't figured out how (w/o injury, arrest or - right now - freezing). It also reminds me of Letterman's old "prancing fluids" gag. Surely you've better things to brag on. I mean, Raclette, maybe? "The other melted cheese!" Watches that cost as much as some automobiles aren't much to brag about in this economic climate without sounding a bit gauche and out of touch. And Calvin...well, while really fascinating, he wasn't exactly a party with his Five Points, was he? You're a perfectly nifty city, so far, so I suspect it won't be too hard to come up with something.

Also, never, ever, do away with the marché aux puces at Plainpalais. Ever. It's reassuring and heartwarming that a market exists where I can, should I chose to, purchase a Pinhead doll, old movie cameras, broken watches by the truckload, a French press, kilm rugs, Andean woolly hats, not-so-gently used shoes, and random doll body parts...all in one place. Fabulous. I have my eye on a few items already. No, not Pinhead.

Finally, for now, might I remind you that your country is supposedly one where people consider themselves happiest in all the world. They don't often look it. What gives? Just asking.
Will write more soon.
Avoir. Merci.

02 January, 2011

Dateline: Thonex

Arrived to Thonex and am settling into my little monk's cell of a room. Actually, it should work just fine. The flat owner's been very helpful. Even took a bit of pity on my with all the shops closed for the holiday weekend and cooked a small meal for me. The other renter, a very nice WTO intern from China, leaves tomorrow, so not much to report there.

It's a pretty quiet part of town, save for the bank robbery not long ago. According to Nico they seem to have a robbery about every five years, which led to jokes about Swiss promptness. Even better, the robbery occurred across the street from the police station, though he couldn't tell me if that meant the robbers were bold, stupid or the police just incompetent.

I went to France for the first time in my life today. This is not a huge feat since France is about 100m up the street. You just hit the street and keep walking. The fact that if I wander off in pretty much any direction I'll be in another country is a bit odd to a kid from S. Florida, where there nearest state was about a ten hour drive away. Crossing the border was a bit anticlimactic with nobody around to check your papers, hassle you or hold you for 14 hours. Or bring you endless cups of coffee. Oh, how I miss my long conversations over coffee with the border guards at Bab al-Hawa, though.

I wandered into a small cemetery; the dead often make far better company than the living. Most of the graves were family plots, but there was a large memorial to four martyrs of the WWII resistance and a single grave for a group of refugees lost in WWI. Very moving to see a man's grave festooned with dedications of love from his family beside inscriptions such as "Rosette de la Resistance...Un Exemple!"

Unfortunately, this being a holiday weekend, walking around for a while instead of heading straight for the grocery stores proved a poor choice and everything was shut by the time I headed home. Managed to scrounge a packet of soup, a loaf of bread, some Kiri & a tomato at the one shop open around here. Tomorrow, I'll head back into France for a real grocery run and to hit up the halal markets. There's been some discussion as to whether shopping in France versus Geneva remains a bargain, but I'm willing to give it a go.

Set to start at UNHCR on Friday, mostly to get some formalities & paperwork out of the way. So this week is all about getting rolling and trying to start carving a routine.
And then figuring out how to hike to the top of Saleve, which was half shrouded in clouds today so that you could barely see the tram cables. The trees just below the clouds were coated in snow, so it should make for an excellent full-day hike. This town may be pricey, but walking's still free.