April 21, 2010

Ray of Light in Darkness



As a war zone field officer, city girl Anita Ahmad had stared death in the face. But, she tells VIMALA SENEVIRATNE, this has given her the strength to touch more lives in a positive way
ANITA Ahmad is a die-hard optimist. For this bubbly single woman who works at the United Nations Development Programme in Kuala Lumpur, there is no situation so hopeless that one cannot see a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. “Even in war-torn places like Baghdad, Kandahar and Darfu, you see hope shining brightly in the faces of simple folk there. Of course there is cruelty but you also see the goodness in people there — their courage, sacrifice, kindness and, most of all, their will to rise above the senseless destruction, cruelty and madness.” These observations, made during her days as a field officer with Mercy Malaysia when she came face to face with the atrocities of war, left deep impressions in her life. “When you have stared death in the face, seen your van driver shot dead at point blank range, believe me, you view everything in a totally different light. Life is so precious a gift and you don’t take it for granted. You learn to appreciate what you have because you have seen others in a far worse situation. “If you choose to see only the worst in situations and people, you lose the capacity to act positively to ease the pain, to show compassion and to help bring about change for the better.” She pauses a moment to dig into her lunch. She is at ease with herself and gives me a megawatt smile as she forks a piece of fish. She continues: “It gives you the strength to move forward, touch more lives in a positive way and to make life a little better for them.” The 30something, the youngest of three children of a retired civil servant father and academician mother, is dressed in comfortable clothes — a loose, black silk blouse worn over ash pants. Her hair is neatly covered under a soft yellow headscarf. Except for a touch of light red lipstick, her face is almost devoid of make-up. She touches her necklace strung with orange-yellow stones. “It caught my eye when I was browsing around one of the bazaars in Turkey.” By all accounts, Anita who comes from Petaling Jaya in Selangor, is a formidable person who lives her own life on her own terms. She studied law but chose not to practice it. She dabbled in book editing and web designing as well. “But I grew restless. I wanted to do something more fulfilling with my life.” She joined Mercy Malaysia first as a volunteer and then as a field officer working in Kandahar in 2002. She did a short stint in Baghdad the following year before working with the displaced people in Darfu for a year from 2004. “The work there was challenging for all of us but it was in this place that I had peaceful sleep despite the lack of basic necessities like water and electricity,” says the chatty and personable Anita.

Where does she find the courage to work in such difficult and dangerous situations? “Faith in God’s will and protection as well as my family and friends’ prayers and support. I am very clear in my objectives.” She also believes that if others, especially the westerners, can do it, so can she.

Then, she took on a “safe” job two-and-a-half years ago at the UN body as programme manager, socio-economic development cluster. “It was mainly for my parents’ sake, in particular mum, that I decided to take on the job. They are getting on in age and I don’t want to cause them any more anxieties. Although I have their blessings in whatever I do, I think I have given them enough sleepless nights when I was working in the war torn countries.” She finds her work with the UN body just as fulfilling as her days with Mercy Malaysia and speaks with passion and eloquence on issues that now concern her. “I may no longer be in conflict zones but I still continue to help improve people’s lives - the disabled, the elderly, pregnant women and even able-bodied people like you and I.” The main focus of the projects she is working on is addressing income inequalities among different social groups, gender equality and justice and addressing the needs of social groups excluded from society. “My projects revolve around eradicating poverty, ensuring gender balance in our national policies and programmes and mainstreaming development to ensure that the needs of different social groups are addressed including persons with disabilities.” Anita is one of the speakers and moderators at a two-day national conference on Accessibility and Universal Design to be held in Kuala Lumpur from tomorrow. Among the aims of the conference is to create a platform for policy makers, planners, architects and those with disabilities to share experiences and ideas on implementing universal design in Malaysia.

She explains that making a product or an environment accessible to people with disabilities often benefits others. “Take the automatic door. It not only benefits individuals using walkers and wheelchairs, but also those carrying groceries and holding babies, as well as elderly citizens. That’s what universal design is about — putting a high value on both diversity and inclusiveness.” Her wish is for policy makers, planners, architects, engineers, developers and enforcement officers to move towards understanding the importance and practicality of implementing universal design in the work that they do. “Ultimately, it should not only benefit people with disabilities but people like you and I.” For the past few years, the UNDP has been working with the Penang and Johor State governments as well as the private sector, transport providers and user groups to access public transport facilities and infrastructure including pedestrian infrastructure and footways. In George Town, Penang, for example, the accessible footways are not built to the standards needed to achieve accessibility, and are often blocked by minor obstructions, shop displays and parked vehicles. “We have all the policies, by-laws... the whole mechanism in place, yet there are public places that are not user friendly. ‘‘It all boils down to implementation. All parties must join hands to strictly enforce the laws. The mindset too has to change,” says Anita who makes it a point to go on holiday to at least one exotic destination every year. “This time I am going to Algeria.” She has been to most Middle Eastern countries and, with a straight face, says she has not visited the great pyramids of Giza despite having stayed in Egypt for four months. “It’s the people and their culture that fascinate me. Bosnia, which I visited last year, was one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. What moved me most was when I heard church bells ringing and the Azan call at the same time. The ordinary folk of different faiths, living side by side, moving on in life.” Other places to explore on her list are the South American countries and the Caribbean islands. Anita, who loves reading, enjoys photography and cycling as well. “I love cooking too — Middle Eastern and local food.” For the Lunar New Year, she has invited friends to her open house steamboat dinner. Meanwhile, she keeps herself occupied with charity work like raising funds for worthy causes. Does she miss the field work? She laughs. “I would consider field work but not necessarily to a war zone area.”