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Interview – Jolynn Fisher, NGO Program Support, Afghanistan

Jolynn Fisher, Afghanistan

Jolynn Fisher has worked for Mercy Corps since 2005, and has been in Afghanistan since Spring of 2009. Currently she is in charge of providing programmatic support functions to Mercy Corps‘ activities in Afghanistan. She has a background in communications and journalism, and I caught up with her as she was starting her day in Kabul. Her blog Lost N Words describes (amongst other things) her experiences in Afghanistan. Here she talks about her career start, and some of the challenges she has faced.

Nick: Jolynn – you made the difficult move from working in a headquarters office to being an expatriate – how did you first decide you wanted to become involved with humanitarian aid work? How did you get your first job with Mercy Corps then make the transition overseas?

Jolynn: I was exposed to the world outside the US by my family from an early age – in the winter of 1972 my grandparents drove from Washington State to Costa Rica. They went to help friends who were building a bakery at a university there. They passed through Managua, Nicaragua shortly before the earthquake that destroyed much of the city. They returned with food and water to provide what assistance they could to the earthquake victims.

These same friends founded an orphanage in Costa Rica. When I graduated high-school I decided to work for a year, before taking on student loans, but I was worried that if I got a job in the US I might not go back to school. I called my grandparents friends and offered to volunteer at their orphanage. A couple of weeks later I interviewed with their son, who was running their operations in the US, and a couple of weeks after that I was on a plane. The orphanage didn’t pay me, although they did provide room and board and some expenses – I think my parents ended up bankrolling some of it by sending me a little money every couple of months!

I stayed for a year, and did end up coming back to the US to study Communications, History and Journalism at Walla Walla University (a small liberal arts college in Washington State). When I graduated I didn’t have a serious job lined up, and at the time (1994) the university was sending graduates to Russia to teach English in universities (this was just after the collapse of the Soviet Union), so I signed up and was posted to St Petersburg.

It was a really interesting time in Russia – little markets were springing up everywhere and everyone had a kiosk selling something, but the flip side was that every time you saw a line, you still jumped into it – it didn’t matter what it was for – you wanted it! There were still shortages, and occasionally the government would block certain commodities, I remember at one point it was butter – no one had any!

I came back from Russia to help deal with a sick family member, and started to put out feelers for jobs. I ending up going back to a magazine I had interned with the previous summer. I did that for seven years, but the more time I spent with it the less happy I was.

While living in California and working for the magazine, I got involved with a local high school, taking kids on trips overseas to do things like help rebuild schools after Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in 1998. In 2002 I was offered a job there teaching English from a journalism perspective. I did that for a couple of years, but still felt restless. I ended up moving back to Oregon, nearer where my family has its roots.

When I got to Portland, the first thing I did was to find a place to live, then I started to look for a job. While putting out CVs and going on interviews, I started volunteering at Mercy Corps (who have their global headquarters in Oregon) for about 20 hours a week. A friend of mine worked there, and I ended up doing some proofreading, editing and generally support for Balkans support team. I didn’t know anything about the NGO world and it was culture shock to be sure! My first shock was the acronyms & industry jargon – everyone spoke a language I didn’t understand… but the work absolutely made sense.

Part of my support was to enter data into a fledgling on-line database. I asked so many questions about the system – and made so many requests for upgrades… it turned into a job. The Program Department finally decided that they would expand the information management system – and as I had experience doing database development work they hired me. Initially is was on a four-month contract to develop a system to better track grant proposals people were working on and projects they had won.

I never thought of it as a career, but the more time I spent around NGOs the more of an affinity I felt. My contract kept getting extended, until I ended up having to pass the project over to an outside programmer for a month in September 2004, leaving me with nothing to do for a few weeks. Again I was in the right place at the right time and willing to jump in when Hurricane Katrina hit. I initially worked on organizing events in Portland, then on setting up the logistics for assembling the ‘Comfort Kits’ that we were handing out to children in New Orleans at the time.

A few weeks later I ended up being sent down to Louisiana for a couple of weeks, initially to work with some of Mercy Corps’ partners there – one thing and another I ended up helping the Hancock County Emergency Operations Center set up a database to match local needs with offers of assistance. When I got back from Katrina I completed the original database project, and right as that was coming to a close I was approached to join the Material Aid team – the team leader had worked with me during the Katrina response and liked my work.

I focused on supporting emergency response programs and pre-positioning material for emergencies on a pilot project that partnered with DHL. I was also involved in some emergency response projects including shipping pharmaceuticals to North Korea and Iraq. I seemed to get pulled into emergency response related stuff because I had gotten to know one of the key emergency staff in Mercy Corps during my time in Louisiana. The last thing you need is someone you can’t rely on or you can’t depend on.

I had been talking with various people at Mercy Corps about looking for work in the field for about six months when I got the news in 2009 that because of the economic downturn ‘my position was no longer available’.
My first reaction to being laid off was nearly to burst out laughing – I was so surprised. The transition to unemployment was really emotional for me – I don’t think you can work in this industry and not be personally invested. You’re not in it for the money, short work hours, and long weekends – you put a lot of your self into the work.

My last week was disorienting, I was emotional at random times, and that’s frustrating, especially when you’re trying to make a graceful exit. One thing I did learn from this was that even though it’s incredibly personal, it’s not personal. I decided not to take it personally and not to burn my bridges – being laid-off didn’t have anything to do with me or my work. That truth played on in fact when in a strange twist I was brought back on as a consultant to finish a project I’d been leading.

I asked for a meeting with the Vice President of Programs at Mercy Corps, gave him my resume and said “I know I don’t have the experience for a lot of the jobs in the field, but you know my work and you know me – what do you think?”

“What do you think about Afghanistan?” he asked.

I just laughed out loud, but he kept a straight face, so I said, “If you’re serious, and if you would be comfortable sending me to do this then I trust you – I’ll do it!” … three weeks later I was in Kabul!

All I knew about Afghanistan was what I’d heard on the news – I didn’t know anything about the country except the violence and the Taliban – embarrassingly I couldn’t have pinpointed it on a map! The job description fit me though – Program Manager for a cash-for-work project employing Afghan people to do public sector construction work. It was a lot of management – so much of what I did in setting up a new office, hiring staff, building capacity was shockingly similar to the work I’d done in communications trainings and even in teaching.

It helped a bit that I knew a couple of people working in Afghanistan who I had met when they came through the office in Portland. Still, I really didn’t know what to expect. Funny thing was that I was more concerned about what I would wear than anything else!

I knew enough to know I would have to dress differently, but not enough to know exactly what that meant. There was no orientation about what to expect as an expat woman in a conservative Muslim culture. So I was flying blind. I ended up purchasing some crazy linen long shirts in Dubai before I arrived in Kabul. I looked like I was wearing gunny sacks for the first thee months I was here. My first R&R I went to visit my cousin in New York – by that stage I knew what I could wear that was appropriate and was also ‘me’ so I came back looking like a culturally-appropriate version of myself. .

When I first got to Kabul we couldn’t walk anywhere for security reasons. Not being able to walk drove me crazy. Fortunately we were able to go to the German school on Fridays and walk and run around their track – I would go and do that for hours.
I spent three weeks in Kabul planning the program before moving up to Mazar-i Sharif in Northern Afghanistan. There I had about two weeks of having expat colleagues with me before everyone split and went to the locations where they were going to be posted, leaving me as the only expat for Mercy Corps in Mazar… and one of only a handful of foreigners in the city.

Marzar is a small town, and it was my first international post. Not meeting anyone I could relate to was difficult – it took a while to get into the swing of things. I have a pretty high threshold for being alone, but it was a bit much! The first three weeks were so intense – I worked all the time – evenings, weekends – you name it. I was implementing a 12-month project in just over 7 months and all of us were under the gun. We had to spend $10.5 million in Mazar, Pul-i-Khumri and Kunduz.

The work was crazy, but what was worse was when the program began functioning smoothly and I didn’t have to work nights and weekends. When you’re that busy you don’t pay any attention to yourself. When things slowed down I realized how isolated and lonely I was – this was made worse by the local customs that don’t allow any physical contact between men and women.

There’s no pat on the back, or slap on the shoulder for a job well done, let alone a hug. It wasn’t until one of the friends that I’d finally made, gave me a hug that I realized – I haven’t been touched for something like a month. It’s not something that I’d thought about at all, but it was a huge shift for me. I come from a very demonstrative family and my group of friend is that way as well – so to have NO PHYSICAL CONTACT had made me feeling even more isolated and lonely.

One of the hardest things was how lonely I was. Mazar was the most difficult in that respect, though I had a staff of about 55 Afghans most of them were men and I didn’t feel comfortable socializing with them after work.

I thought I’d make friends with other women in the community, but communities here aren’t open. As a woman you can live next door to someone your whole life and never meet them. So, though I did visit community project sites, I didn’t really meet anyone I could spend time with.

Also, I was careful not to spend too much time on the project there because I wanted the communities to see my staff as the project implementers, not the foreigner. I tried to stay in the background, but on the occasions when I visited villages I was generally introduced as this great benefactor – it was a role I wasn’t really comfortable in.

I did finally meet a few expats in Mazar. One of them has become an incredibly close friend that I don’t know what I would do without him. One of the things that has really surprised me is how quickly you get to know people here. This extreme environment really enhances or exacerbates existing personality traits… including your own. You know pretty quickly if a person you meet is someone you want to spend more than 20 minutes with….ever!

This world attracts people who are attracted to the drama and adrenaline. It really is the wild west, and the cowboys are the ones that really scare me – the adrenaline junkies – I avoid them at all costs. I did come here with some preconceptions about security personnel – mostly because of stories I’d heard in the NGO world. As it turns out two of my best buddies here work in security – they are rational, level headed, really insightful guys. I hate to admit it, but that surprised me – I expected them to be guys with no necks who packed guns, curse and swagger! …not that they aren’t prone to a good curse or swagger from time to time!

Knowing how women can be treated here, I thought I wouldn’t feel very safe. But, one of the strange things is that I never felt like I’ve been treated as a woman. As an expat woman you’re not quite a woman – you’re certainly not a man, but given that you are managing so much money you are kind of in the role of a man.

In terms of feeling safe here, the first thing that really helped me make the transition was when one of our drivers started looking out for me. I don’t know why – I never asked him, but he just took me under his wing. Whether it was that I looked lost and bewildered, or whether he just thought I was a good person I don’t know, but knowing that someone was watching out for me made me comfortable in a way that hanging out with random expats didn’t.

The transition between Mazar and Kabul has been difficult. I felt more comfortable in Mazar than I feel here in Kabul. There I could go shopping, walk, and travel in the evenings without getting stopped at random checkpoints… a lot of things that I can’t do, or that I can’t do easily, here in Kabul. Then there’s the dirt.

Kabul is a huge dirty city with partially paved roads that belch smoke and dirt into air that hangs over the city. The trade-off is that there’s always something to do. There’s a huge expat social scene, and in a weird way that makes it more difficult to engage with. When the Mazar Social Club held an event everyone would come – Kabul is much bigger, everyone is in smaller more closely knit groups. There’s a big UN contingent, different government groups, NGOs, everyone breaks out into their own social groups.

Nick: Do you have any tips for people wanting to work there?
Jolynn: Having people around you that you can trust to give frank feedback about how you are doing is vital. You can get really lost in yourself, in your work. You need someone who can say “hey, you’re losing touch – you need to take a break!” I have a couple of people who I can be really open with and bounce ideas off of. It’s easy to get a little lost in yourself.

You have to love this work – it has to be completely about that. It’s really unlikely that the work you do will be recognized outside the people who have been impacted – it can’t be a career move or about professional recognition. You do this work because you love it – that’s the only thing that makes it worthwhile.

Nick: After reading your blog post on being a woman in Afghanistan I wonder whether you have any other tips for women wanting to work in these kinds of environments?
Jolynn: You have to tread carefully as a woman, particularly in conservative cultures – you can’t expect to be able to live like you live anywhere else in the world and for that not to have consequences. I would never in a million years come home drunk or ask one of my drivers to pick me up drunk. I see a lot of women who do that though, and it’s crazy! That level of disrespect for local norms absolutely puts a woman at risk and the consequences here are very real. The same is true of women who flaunt their sexuality – you have to be respectful of the culture you are living in. It doesn’t mean you have to shut down your femininity, but you have to be careful.

Afghanistan isn’t a place for everybody and if you get into at place like this and it doesn’t fit you should get out – you’ll figure that out pretty quickly.

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