Do you ever get that feeling sometimes when you want to hold on to something even though you know you should really let it go, because it needs to be let go in order to continue to grow, continue to fly? I'm feeling like that, upon receiving an SMS from her in Geneva telling me the good news of her appointment to the UN, to be posted to New York.
The selfish me wants to just talk her out of it, because I will lose one of my personal heroes and a mentor I have always looked up to, because of her bravery and passion in whatever she does. That the country will have lost a gem of an icon and an outstanding Malaysian who more than lives and breathes the term "towering Malaysian" is second to my selfishness.
The faithful, adoring niece in me, however, knows that her place lies way beyond our shores, that she was meant for much greater things. That she should really be in a place where her talent, passion and expertise will be much more appreciated.
It breaks my heart to see our country continuously losing all our best people. I guess it is true that we never know what we have until we lose it. I hope we learn from this and just like it was in the case of Michael Jackson and Yasmin Ahmad, also learn to acknowledge talent and help talent to grow and flourish DURING a person's lifetime. All the tears and the tributes in the world once you've lost them won't mean a thing.
Aunt Jim, you will always be my hero, my angel, my Mother Theresa, you've even been even my Florence Nightingale on many occasions. It is with a heavy heart that your loving niece lets go, but I wish you all the success you deserve and every time I look up to the skies, I will know in my heart that you have taken that golden flight, that journey, the next step.
Farewell, Angel. Love you with all my heart. ;.-(
Sunday August 9, 2009
Mercy’s angel spreads her wings
By SHAHANAAZ HABIB
EVEN before Mercy Malaysia, Dr Jemilah Mahmood was always passionate about giving back to society.
“Whenever people came to her for money for this cause or that, she was always digging into her purse. She would give out RM50, RM100, RM200 until she had no money left.
“She’s that kind of person, always wanting to do something for others,” says her close friend Farah Hamzah, who describes Dr Jemilah as “very intense” and very attached to the issues that she pursues.
“If she believes in something, she is relentless. And she ups the ante all the time,” adds Farah.
And Malaysians are seeing that side of Dr Jemilah.
She gave “birth” to Mercy Malaysia 10 years ago, and along with a team of able doctors, nurses and ever-ready volunteers nurtured the organisation into what it is today – a respected world-class relief organisation.
Whenever a crisis struck the region – be it a tsunami, earthquake, a cyclone, war or military conflict – Mercy Malaysia jumped on board the first plane and headed out to help the victims.
In countries like Myanmar, Sudan, Sri Lanka and North Korea, where a number of international aid organisations are perceived to have an agenda and are not welcomed even during times of humanitarian crisis, Mercy Malaysia got in – at times before everyone else and in some places, like Sri Lanka, with unlimited access to the afflicted areas.
And now Dr Jemilah is upping the ante again by leaving Mercy and heading off to New York to take on a position as Chief of the Humanitarian Response branch for the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA).
Some, like her good friend Farah who is an appointed Mercy Malaysia exco member, believes that Dr Jemilah has simply outgrown Mercy.
Dr Jemilah herself discloses that the Mercy succession plan has been in the pipeline for at least five years because she knew from the start that she was going to leave her “baby” after 10 years.
“I knew if I stayed longer, I might put the organisation at risk in the sense that you have this ‘founder syndrome’.
“The founder feels they own the organisation and people cannot differentiate the founder from the organisation, and Mercy Malaysia gets drowned somewhere in between.
“I love Mercy too much and I didn’t want it to be Dr Jemilah. It has to be more than that. I want it to sustain itself and outlive me,” she says.
And it is precisely Mercy Malaysia’s achievements on the international front that have made it so easy for Dr Jemilah to walk away.
The turning point came last year.
Dr Jemilah was in Geneva waiting for a friend to pick her up near the Broken Chair monument on Place des Nations. A group of Sudanese women were gathered around there after a meeting and one of them came up to ask if she was from Malaysia – probably guessing from the way she tied her headscarf.
When Dr Jemilah replied that she was, to her surprise the woman then asked if she knew Mercy Malaysia.
“I froze. I said ‘yes. Why?’ She said ‘I am from El Geneina in West Darfur and now we don’t have to be afraid to give birth because Mercy Malaysia has built a reproductive health centre. They also trained our midwives and doctors so no one has to die in childbirth.”
Dr Jemilah was doubly shocked when the woman then asked if she knew Mercy’s Dr Jemilah.
“I panicked because I was wondering how I was going to answer that. And the woman fished out her call card and she was from a Sudanese local organisation so I fished out mine.
“When she saw my card, she couldn’t believe it. There was an uproar and she started screaming in Arabic and a lot of people started crowding around me,” she says.
At this point, Dr Jemilah was “rescued” by her friend who was honking from the car. So Dr Jemilah excused herself and got in.
“Gosh, would you imagine in your life that you get someone who doesn’t know you from Adam and is one of your beneficiaries who comes up and tells you a story about the impact of your work?” she ponders, still pretty much in awe of the experience.
Then two months later, Dr Jemilah was at a conference in Bangkok when a man came up to her and asked if she remembered him. She didn’t, but it turned out that he was a colonel from Pakistan who was now the defence attache in Bangkok. He remembered her from the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and told her how much he appreciated Mercy Malaysia’s volunteers working through the cold of winter in the mountains of Bagh to provide health care for the victims.
“He asked me if I knew what happened when I left. I said ‘no’. He said when Mercy left, the people took a piece of rubble from their homes and built a monument. And he said your organisation’s name is on it!
“At that point I said to myself ‘why am I hanging on?’ Leave when you know you have done your job and have people to carry on and groom them to succeed.
“A succession plan is only successful if you will let go,” she says.
And let go she did, handing over the mantle to Dr Ahmad Faizal Mohd Perdaus.
Dr Jemilah says Dr Faizal is a good speaker and excellent communicator and has been vice-president for two terms.
“He’s very smart. I’ve known him for many years. He was my student. He’s a doctor and has been on missions so he has had the experience. He is a mix of all this. He’s ideal,” she says.
She says she told Dr Faisal not to ever try to walk in her shoes but to chart his own course.
“I foresee Mercy becoming a better organisation when I depart because, as it is, Mercy is a very emotive organisation. It is full of emotion and passion and I am, by nature, like that. I believe when I am not there, it becomes more calm, very strong and solid and nothing can shake it after that. I am very optimistic. I have great faith in the people I am leaving behind.”
So she advised Dr Faisal not to be afraid to make his own mistakes and learn from them as he steers Mercy in a new direction.
“I said you can change the process, hardware, software, structure, logo and anything else but just don’t ever change the values and principles the organisation is built on, which is a platform for people to do good and putting Malaysia on the world map to show that we can do things differently and better.”
Dr Jemilah has also told the team not to feel any pressure that she is going to watch and feel disappointed with them.
“I won’t because I understand what transition is all about. In any organisation, when there is a transition there is a slight dip and then it comes back. They should expect that.”
Softie at heart
While she might look like a tough cookie, Dr Jemilah admits that she cries all the time when she comes across painful situations and that even watching a video of the situation brings her to tears.
But this only makes her stronger.
“If you can’t cry, you can’t feel that it is so painful to watch and see. I cry and say to myself ‘No point crying. You gotta do something about it.’ I am not tough. I am a real softie but pushed to a corner I can be quite a tiger,” she admits.
On her new UN job, Dr Jemilah says it would include planning, monitoring and administering the UNFPA’s emergency response fund in its work in conflict, post conflict and natural disaster situations as well as prepare for present and future threats, among other things.
Dr Jemilah who is a gynaecologist says the work would also focus on reproductive and gender issues during humanitarian crises, adding that “even in war and conflict there are women who want to give birth.”
In the last 10 years, she says, she has witnessed “too much pain” of women having been sexually abused or having no access to healthcare sometimes because of difficult circumstances, like in Afghanistan where people basically hide their women.
So she is excited about the prospect of “this woman in a tudung going to a difficult Muslim country and challenging the system and all these men.”
Naive maybe, but Dr Jemilah is among those who are “terribly optimistic” that global peace and development are achieveable and what it needs are agents of change in the world to bring about the shift.
“I want to be a change agent. Maybe I am born for that. I want to shake things up and move things and push. I never say die and I never say no. If we have a defeatist attitude, we’ll never achieve anything,” she says.
Dr Jemilah says she is lucky that her husband, Dr Ashar Abdullah, is her number one fan.
“He really feels that I can shake and change the world. He pushes me all the time and says ‘Go. You can go for that. That’s too small for you. You can go higher and do more good.”
Stressing that she is just a normal person who is “just very, very steadfast”, Dr Jemilah says the humanitarian cause is something that really drives her.
“I just feel right now that I can do more. Mercy can do only so much but Jemilah can do more. I want to use whatever strength and whatever talent I have globally.
“Whether I succeed or not is a different matter but I want to continue to try to change the world and not give up.”