“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” –Mother Teresa
It was almost 5am and I was awake again, the third time since I had gotten into bed at 12:30am (Kabul time). This was now happening every night. My heart started to race, but it was heavy. It felt like I was trying to sprint while dragging a sandbag behind me. Bits and pieces of conversations, emails, and Skype messages floated through my head. I loved my job, but… What was I doing here?
I was familiar with this feeling of helplessness. The first time it happened was in July 2010 during my first trip to Kosovo. I had just finished my first year of grad school and I was transitioning from a 7-year career in marketing to what I hoped would be a fruitful and more fulfilling career in human rights and international development. I wanted to do more, or as my best friend put it, ”save the world.”
I was laying in bed on a hot summer night. I had my window opened because there was no air conditioning. A 5-month old kitten cuddled up to my pillow, adding to the heat. It was my second month in Kosovo. And almost every day, I was asking myself, “What am I doing here?”
Although for the past 12 months I had been learning about the country, studying the dissolution of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, and writing about the ethnic cleansing that took place in the ‘90s, I still felt ill prepared for the onslaught of firsthand accounts and stories. As a part of my research internship at a local women’s rights NGO, I read and heard countless stories of rape, sexual assault, and other forms of gender-based violence–not just during the years of conflict, but also after and into the present day. As a rape survivor myself, I empathized with these women, but I felt completely helpless. What can I do? Nothing. I collected their stories and wrote them on paper–they were reduced to just stats, mere numbers in yet another report or fact sheet.
Seven years later, I find myself in Kabul, and the exact same feeling of helplessness was once again keeping me up at night. Security threats cut our work days short. The women in the office confided in me about their hectic lives at home, the abuse they put up with at work from their male colleagues, all the incidents of sexual harassment that went unreported. Amongst the men, there were constant accusations against one another on a litany of matters–favoritism, kickbacks, fraudulent receipts, etc. Meanwhile, outside of the office, there were explosions, shootings, kidnappings, and threats of impending attacks. So what am I doing here?
As a part of my most recent role on a development project in Afghanistan, I managed a team of six local staff, two of whom were women. There was Zakia, a young woman in her mid-twenties who was outspoken and very bright. And there was Shirin, a woman in her late twenties who was supporting two toddlers at home, an unemployed husband, and parents-in-law. Every day when she left for work, Shirin’s mother-in-law would berate her and call her a bad mother for “abandoning her children to pursue a career” even though she was the sole income-earner in the household. When she arrived home in the evenings, her mother-in-law would continue the verbal abuse and make other demands of her. Unlike Zakia, who carried herself with her head held high and spoke with great confidence, Shirin held her head low, her shoulders slouched, and she was soft-spoken. Zakia was often reported by her male colleagues for “unruly behavior and unprofessional outbursts” because she was not shy about standing up for herself. In comparison, Shirin would tolerate all forms of disrespect, even from those junior to her, and then vented to me in my office behind closed doors. In Zakia’s case, I advised her to come to me if a conversation escalates. With Shirin, I told her to try to speak up first and push back. I encouraged her to speak up at meetings, even if it was just one comment. Eventually, that one comment turned into lengthier conversations.
At the end of August, a month before the project ended, the first two people (out of a staff of 32) who immediately found new jobs were Zakia and Shirin. I like to think they got the jobs on their own volition and merit, but I also wonder how much of a positive impact my mentorship had on them. After I had left Kabul, each sent me very long thank you notes. Shirin sent me multiple thank you messages. She told me even her mother-in-law had toned down her abuse.
This is what I remind myself whenever I read a headline posing a problem too big to tackle, such as ISIS attacks, high-level corruption, and horrific GBV cases. I can’t singlehandedly end corruption in a country or provide jobs for everyone who needs one. I can’t save the world, but if I can help just one person at a time, I am already making a difference in that person’s world.
—Amy Chase, International Development and Human Rights Professional