I imagine most American students in college have a fascinating hangover story, but I had always opted out of the ordinary and, at 21-years of age, knew I needed to search for something more meaningful that would indulge my hedonistic and intrepid spirit. During the summer of 2008, the United Nations had lured me into Pakistan and I found myself riding in the back of an old Suzuki Mehran with a personal chauffeur up front and an armed escort directly to my left. It was the typical frat party.
I leaned towards the arts and wanted to pursue a career in music, but was told I was taking a big risk and need to get a “real” education and play it safe with a “real” job. What did I know?
Because I had previously lived in Pakistan as a child, I could read, write, and speak Urdu, the national language. And because of my caramel colored skin, dark hair and eyes, plus I wore traditional clothes, I was the ideal candidate for getting in and out of places unnoticed. So ideal, that the first time USAID worker, Stephen Vance, and I met, he had already caught word of me. A couple rounds of pool and a few cocktails later, he offered me a job. For these reasons among others, two NGOs hired me during the summer of 2008. Naturally, I was thrilled at the chance to work in the field for two prestigious and ostensibly benevolent organizations. However, by the end of that summer I would find that both ugliness and love can follow one another into a danse macabre. The outcome is always sure: one will succumb to the other.
An American In The Company of Taliban
I would be working in Pakistan short-term for the summer for both a United Nations agency, International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the Academy for Educational Development (AED). IOM assigned me to Muzaffarabad, located in the Azad Jammu and Kashmir territory the first month.
Muzaffarabad is a very conservative and relatively safe mountain town. Like most Muslims, the people are friendly and will go out of their way to be hospitable. If you don’t already know, alcohol is strictly forbidden for Islamic adherents. Yet, there is Murree Brewery in Rawalpindi, Pakistan that’s about a 3 hour drive from Muzaffarabad.
One Friday evening when I was about to call it a night, I received a phone call from a coworker, who I will call Syed. Unlike my colleagues, I never took a weekend off. I worked every, single day. Syed invited me to hang with some of his friends who were local politicians. I had been interviewing lower ranking politicians and a couple of generals in order to include quotes for my report, so I figured it would be a great opportunity to get some more content. When Syed and I arrived at his friend’s house on the top of a large hill overlooking the city, we were greeted by several important looking, older men. We ate a wonderful meal and as we were being served chai by one of the servants, the power went out. It’s very common in Pakistan. Without fans or A/C it gets very hot, even at night. As we all took off our shalwar kameez and exposed our undershirts, one of the gentlemen turned to me and asked, “Will you be joining us for beers?”
My friend explained that they had sent one of their drivers out to the brewery to pick up a couple of cases of beer and would be back shortly. What?! That’s a 6 hour, round-trip drive just for beer!
Needless to say, I stayed and drank with these respected politicians of the capital of Kashmir. They clearly didn’t drink often. They got goofy. After just a few beers, every last one of them stripped down to their underwear and danced and sung into the late hours of the night. But I was unaffected by the low ABV beers and had to get back to work early the next morning.
Thanks to AED, the remainder of the summer would be spent just 30 miles from the Afghan border in Peshawar. It is also a very conservative area but with high security throughout the large city. Peshawar, located near the Khyber Pass, is an area peppered with militants among the population, including the infamous Taliban. Due to its close proximity to the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, it is a strategic location for both military and militant groups. Not only is it not safe to be out at night, it wasn’t safe to be out in public on your own during the day. That never stopped foreign workers from going out and getting a strong drink and jumping in bed with the closest person to them. The expats liked to hang out at the Khyber Club, a loose affiliate to the American Consulate. I got a glimpse into sex-driven, expatriate culture in Pakistan. If they weren’t working long hours, they were partying and hooking up. I’ve heard of such things in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, but never witnessed it before. I’d be lying if I said I completely strayed away from the temptation. My driver wasn’t supposed to be used for a late night rendezvous, so I would tell him I was going to bed while I snuck away past my guards (handing the two of them a tip of course). Nearly all of my time, however, was spent working.
NGOs’ Dirty Game
The 8.2 magnitude earthquake of 2005 caused an approximate 150,000 casualties and 2.8 million displaced in the Kashmir area. IOM was one of the major NGOs to provide families with temporary housing through funding from Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). The project budget was over $6 million for 1,200 shelters. Basically, my job was to hunt down these shelters, make sure they were erected and wrap up a pretty little report to SIDA stating how all the funds were allocated appropriately. I was instructed to include quotes from personal interviews I had with the beneficiaries and their families commending IOM for their Mother Teresa like superpowers.
Before I could work in Muzaffarabad I was required to go through an entire week of orientation to be certified in both “UN Basic Training” and “UN Advanced Training”. Yet, the orientation only consisted of two 20-minute videos I had to watch. I learned that I shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists under any circumstance and that if I accidently had intercourse without a condom I could receive a 24-hour HIV pill, similar to that of Plan B or the “morning after pill”. You read that correctly. There has been an HIV preventative drug and the UN offers it for free to its workers. I basically sat around and drank chai for days, waiting on my ride to Muzaffarabad. Also, they expected me to use the 4th and final week to write my report. So now I had exactly 14 days to trek ridiculous terrain, across rivers, navigating over poorly constructed or no longer existing roads, and climbing up and down mountainsides to get to shelters precariously perched on the edges of cliffs. It didn’t seem like they wanted me to accomplish the task. As an athlete the majority of my life, I took the challenge head on. I slept very little and I visited every single location. The results were disappointing.
When it came time to write my report I told my boss (who I will refer to as Bill Klosterman) that not only were there not 1,200 shelters, but that many were poorly constructed. I had complaints from families that showed me leaky ceilings and walls and some ill-fated beneficiaries showed me unfinished shelters that were abandoned in the middle stages of being built. As a new, young and vibrant humanitarian, I was prepared for reactions of both outrage for the construction mistakes and praise for my recent discoveries! I was ready to march back with my boss, solve the problem, and serve the poor victims. Instead, my enthusiasm was met with something resembling a threat. Klosterman asked me if I was interested in a career working with IOM, in a tone I recognized from The Lion King when Scar spoke to Mufasa before his death. He assured me that he would personally recommend me for future projects once I finished the report to SIDA omitting the results I found. I didn’t understand. What was the purpose of my work? Why did I go to Muzaffarabad at all? Klosterman then said to forget about the report for the day and invited me over to his house that evening where he wined and dined me (well…Scotch, not wine). At dinner I, again, brought up the allocation of funds and the lack of shelters. My boss explained, “It’s normal for international projects to find around 15 percent of the funds unaccounted for” and assured me that SIDA would not be interested in hearing about these missing shelters. Normal? He instructed me to exclude it from the report. Yea, he was right. Who cares about a meager $900,000 equating to about 180 grieving families without shelter? I felt powerless, but, fortunately, had another “humanitarian” job waiting for me in Peshawar.
AED was a non-profit that focused on development and had been in an agreement with USAID to carry out a variety of tasks in the area. They appointed me the duty of compiling the first year work-plan for their FATA Livelihood Project. I was given the title “Editorial Consultant” and worked with five partner organizations, including Save the Children. I worked long hours every day and had many sleepless nights. I completed arranging and editing the huge work-plan and put together a presentation that was used to win a USAID deal for the FATA Livelihood Project. I was praised for my accomplishments. I believed I was doing selfless work for mankind.
Interestingly enough, my new boss in Peshawar (who I will call Paul Coleman) gave me a lot of freedom with the FATA Livelihood project. Although he was a friendly and intelligent gentleman, something felt off. He elected me to be in charge of creating the business hierarchy. It was peculiar. I knew nothing about organizational charts. Yet that was one of my duties. It also seemed bizarre how figures for the proposal were constantly changing almost arbitrarily. The funds the partner organizations were requesting in the work-plan for USAID were never enough for Coleman. He would raise the figures by tens of thousands to millions of dollars without much thought or without looking at the supporting information. What’s the total budget so far? Oh, it’s only $20 million? Add another zero to the railroad budget! I did what I was told and made what I felt was a huge contribution to the project. My presentation was used by Coleman to win a 5-year $150 million deal. Things seemed better from my previous experience with IOM.
Then, the following year, I learned that AED was under investigation for fraud and embezzlement; specifically, they were looking at Paul Coleman. Apparently, he took a large sum of money and ran. Academy for Educational Development was shut down. Eventually, AED reached a settlement of over $5 million with the United States Department of Justice for the criminal wrongdoing. I felt like I was used, again. It made me sick. How did I not notice?
Revival of Passion
I wanted to be a part of compassionate and humane work. Instead, I felt like I contributed to the rapacity of these corrupt organizations. My whole summer and entire college career seemed like a waste. What they were teaching us students was nowhere near the truth. I had so much inner turmoil and frustration and fear for my future, but I walked away soon realizing the value in what had happened. I could see from a new perspective. I had done what so many people do; I ignored my intuition. I would have noticed all of the signs, all the red flags had I only been paying attention. I let go of my inner guide and let everyone else dictate what I should do with my skill set. Only a man blinded by his own ego and incessant, inner chatter would not see these definitive omens.
Remember USAID worker Stephen Vance offering me a job? Several months after I returned back home to the United States, I sadly learned that Vance was shot and killed about 5 minutes from where I was staying in Peshawar. That was the nail in the coffin for my profession with NGOs.
I lost interest in a “real” education and a “real” job. However, the experience made it clearer than ever that my inner voice needed heard. It’s that intuitive guidance that steers your imagination as a child, but many of us learn to suppress over the years. I knew that I needed to write. I knew that I needed to sing. And I was certain I needed to pick up my guitar again. I was convinced it would pave the way for others. I left everything else behind. I didn’t know how, but I did know that it would all work out.