22 November 2010

Home sweet shipping container

I have had a steady stream of visitors since I’ve been in Prague. To be fair, I haven’t worked many places people were eager to visit, and Prague is the crème de la crème of my locations, so it is understandable that this would be a popular place to visit me.

I anticipated visitors, a bit more spread out perhaps, but I messed that up when I announced that my tour in Prague would be two years rather than three. (I will depart Prague in June of 2011.) That added pressure to tell those who want to visit me and share this beautiful city to “come on.” Luckily, I have a second bedroom in my apartment, so there is a place to house visiting friends.

Housing is an interesting subject in the U.S. Foreign Service. In almost all posts, we are assigned housing based on family size, seniority and job requirements. Some of my colleagues must entertain contacts in their homes, so that may net them a larger place. There are firm rules concerning housing assignments at post and a housing committee ensures that the rules are followed. I have served on those committees several times.

Housing assignments can be disputed and there are often solid reasons why someone should be allowed a housing change. However, my favorite memories of housing disputes are from Afghanistan. At that time, all housing consisted of repurposed metal shipping containers—a single room 7 feet wide by 20 feet long. Each resident had a 3-foot wide bathroom, a metal bunk bed, a student desk with chair and a dorm-sized microwave and refrigerator. The walls were plastic and the floor vinyl. This is what everyone had regardless of rank or position.

Ah, but it was the location that became the disputed issue. People would jockey for housing (called hooches) depending on what location was most important to them. A person might prefer to be closer to the cafeteria or nearer the embassy, while others wanted to be on the back of the property and away from the noise. Personally, I considered myself fortunate to be close to the laundry trailer, especially during inclement weather.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.

04 November 2010

Pink backpacks in Kabul

I have been fortunate enough to serve in 14 embassies with the U.S. Department of State for periods of time ranging from one month to three years (Ghana, Guinea, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Sierra Leone, Mexico, Uzbekistan, Hungary, Russia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Romania, Pakistan and Czech Republic). I am often asked which of these was my favorite posting, a question impossible to answer. In truth, each has given me memories I cherish, friendships I continue to enjoy and experiences I value. But, if pushed to name one post that was a pivotal experience for me, it would be Kabul, Afghanistan.

I spent 14 months in Kabul in 2003-04 and it was, I think, the best time to be there. The Afghan people were full of hope and promise, the Taliban were weakened and had retreated, and much needed money and skilled personnel were flowing into the country to rebuild the economy and improve living conditions. I was there when the girls were permitted to return to school. On the first day of the term, the streets were full of nicely groomed girls holding hands, smiling and walking briskly toward their classes. I remember a profusion of pink backpacks as I sat in the rear seat of the embassy vehicle, sobbing at the sight.

The city of Kabul was relatively safe then, and I was allowed to meet civilian medical colleagues from other missions and military medical colleagues from the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), both at secure locations and even at approved restaurants in town. Truly, one of the great delights of my career was the opportunity to collaborate with so many American and foreign military medical professionals. I came out of that experience with an unshakeable regard for the military and utmost respect for the sacrifices they make for us.

U.S. Aid for International Development (USAID) made a commitment to build primary care clinics throughout Afghanistan so that physicians, midwives and community health educators could begin to pull the health system up from the ruin that years of war had created. I was invited to attend the opening of the first such clinic at a village some distance from Kabul.

The citizens of the little village were proud of their new clinic and the medical personnel the government had sent to staff it. I was proud of the U.S. government for making this dream a reality, and honored to be there to witness the villagers’ delight.

After the dedication speeches, the village imam came to ask the USAID representative for another favor. “The children need a school,” he said, through an interpreter. “May we have a place for our children to learn and books to teach them?” I was really struck by this old man and his humble request. Isn’t that what we all want for our children—good health and a future? Is there really anything else that matters, regardless of where on earth you live?

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.