Foreign lands and familiar challenges

Mar 07, 2015, 07:05 IST | Hemal Ashar

With Women's Day tomorrow, Deanna Abdeen talks about juggling work and family with a job that needs her to be constantly on the move; even as she does deft diplomacy on some political questions

Deanna Hanek Abdeen, current Deputy Principal Officer at the US Consulate General in Mumbai, is many miles away from home which is Minneapolis, Minnesota (US). That though is how it has always been for this citizen of the world.

Deanna Abdeen at the US Consulate library in BKC. Pic/Atul Kamble
Deanna Abdeen at the US Consulate library in BKC. Pic/Atul Kamble

Deanna is seated in the office adjoining the US Consulate library at the sprawling Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) talking about the challenges for women in Foreign Service in context to Women’s Day, “I was born and brought up in Minneapolis, (US). I went to a Liberal Arts College in Bethel for University.

During my studies at Bethel, I travelled to Taiwan, Jerusalem and England for my study abroad semesters.” It was as if windows of the world had slammed open for Deanna. “I realised then, that it was a big world there and there was lots to see,” said Deanna smiling.

It was Bethel which had stoked the fires, and her career avenue was a marriage of a wish to see the world and her passion for international affairs.

Talking about marriage (didn't we speak of it earlier, in the last paragraph? Look sharp dear reader). Deanna is married to a Palestinian, Nur, and is the mother of five boys. Two of them are now studying in the US, while three of them are doing their schooling at the American School in Mumbai.

A career in Foreign Service meant a peripatetic existence, with constant postings. “Tough for adults and tougher for children,” says Deanna about the shifting to different countries. She adds though, “Yet, there are so many positives. I remember I was based in Cairo and my five year-old son had a best friend from South Africa and a friend from Ghana.

At that age, he knew where those countries were located and had a smattering of knowledge of the traditions and culture of that part of the globe. It was a much more sophisticated understanding of the world, than most five year-olds!” Deanna has been in Mumbai since 2.5 years, she still has one year left in office in Mumbai.

Just before here, she was in Jordan, “Jordan was an easy place to get around, some of the memories I will cherish most is watching my children clamber over historical ruins, visits to Petra and Akaba.” About her time in Mumbai she says she sees the city in constant flux, the BKC is a microcosm of that. “At the end of my tenure, I fear I will not even have scratched the surface of this city,” she explains.

Looking away from Mumbai having served in both Syria and Cairo, Deanna says in response to a question about how she reacts to all the turmoil in that part of the world. “It is a personal conflict, when it comes to Syria in particular. I know the struggles of the staff there, the tough decisions they have had to make with reference to the tragic situation.” About Egypt and all the turmoil of the Arab Spring, Deanna said she was in the country in the earl 90s to 2002, “There was great optimism then, in the country.”

Of the Foreign Service as a career choice, Deanna says women can “thrive” in this career avenue, “because, sometimes as a woman you have access to certain things in society that a man may not. For instance, in some of my postings I remember attending a wedding where men and women guests were segregated.

I, as a woman diplomat had access to the men’s section and could interact with the men. A male diplomat though would be unable to interact with the women in a similar situation.” Having said that, this diplomat is well, diplomatic when asked if she faced hostility even covert in the Muslim countries she was posted in.

Did she discern anti-American sentiment, at least a frisson of it from common people? “I get asked that a lot,” said Deanna slowly, “actually but no, I did not experience that.” Another question to Deanna about whether she thinks hearts and minds are becoming hardened towards immigration, especially in the West where people are increasingly feeling that immigrants come in, take jobs but are not grateful or refuse to integrate fully into their adopted country, only had her saying, “US has a pretty robust refugee resettlement programme.”

A bit of a shutdown there, but Deanna is more expansive when asked about her message for women, as a sign off. She says, “Follow your passion and do not be held back by others. Take advantage of the opportunities that come your way. In the end though, it is all about finding joy in what you decide.” Take that from a Minnesota native now in aamchi Mumbai, who followed her passion and proved that gender cannot restrict you from crossing borders, both literally and metaphorically.

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