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hostages

I like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens as much as the next child of the 1980s, having spent every Christmas holiday re-watching Julie Andrews bring joy and music to the Austrian Alps. I never planned my viewing in advance; somehow, year after year, I turned on the TV just as it started. As they say, timing in life is everything.

I longed to be a von Trapp child, to sing my heart out as I walked the beautiful hills with the sun on my face and a dress made from curtains on my back. That’s where the similarities would have ended, though; nice as they are, raindrops and whiskers will never fall into my “favorite things” category.

My friend, Constance, re-introduced me to the concept a few years ago. I came back from vacation and she asked me to play the vacation game with her: I had to name my favorite sound, smell, taste, touch and color from my get away. I was hooked, and found that each time I traveled after that, having the game in the back of my mind helped me to look harder and notice better in a way that enhanced the experience considerably.

As I sit with bags packed beside me reflecting on five – FIVE! – years in Washington DC, I find myself playing the game again to help fix in my brain the truly wonderful, exciting, sometimes difficult life I built here. I arrived on a Saturday afternoon at the end of September 2015, checked into “The Compound” as we would come to call Constance’s house on P St, and set about building a nonprofit from scratch. They say charity begins at home; mine started in the office but brought home to me a new way of seeing myself and the world that has been truly life changing. I got good by doing good.

So, here are a few of my favorite things (about DC and my life here):

Sounds:

  • The bull frog in the tree in the garden at P St that kept me awake, but whose presence made me strangely happy as if he were standing watch over me as I slept (or would have done if he’d been quiet)
  • The Super Soul Conversation podcast which brought me comfort and enlightenment on my darkest days
  • The sound of my sister’s voice as we had an impactful conversation walking the streets of DC

Sights:

  • Paul’s face in the morning on the pillow next to mine
  • The sparkling and twinkling of the river in the sun, as if diamonds were dancing on its surface
  • The persistently strange sight of someone wearing a face mask in this new pandemic reality

Colors:

  • The blue of the big wide sky of DC
  • The aqua marine of my big sparkling engagement ring
  • The grey of my husband’s eyes

Touches:

  • The sun on my face as I sit in the garden of P St on a gloriously hot August day
  • Paul’s hand as it locks into mine
  • The feel of freshly washed sheets on my skin after Paul has washed them (he always insists)

Smells:

  • The dark wood of Martin’s bar
  • Grown Alchemist body wash in our beautiful honeymoon hotel in New Orleans
  • Paul cooking dinner in the kitchen as I sit on our sofa drinking a G&T and we catch up on our day and plan the next adventure

Tastes:

  • That first mimosa of the night (or morning, or afternoon)
  • The burger at Le Diplomat – hold the salt on the fries
  • The meals I found in my fridge when I returned from travels, lovingly left by Constance so I would feel loved and welcomed home

Places:

  • The bright, sunny nook at the Clubhouse
  • The garden on P St
  • The middle of the Mall – the Capitol on one side, the Washington Monument on the other – I never tire of that view

Experiences:

  • Learning to meditate and calm my busy brain
  • Taking a memoir writing course – and realizing I was good at it
  • Learning to speak American

People:

  • My husband, the love of my life
  • My Compound Crew: Katie and Constance
  • Friends, too many to mention them all, but you know who you are

Achievements:

  • Building an organization
  • Learning to say no
  • Finding balance for the first time in my life

US destinations:

  • Portland, OR – East London on the West Coast
  • LA – much better than I was expecting
  • Miami South Beach – Art Deco heaven

Books read:

  • The Century Trilogy by Ken Follett, read in bed over Christmas 2015/new year 2016, the story of the American century as I settled into my new American home
  • What I Know for Sure, Oprah Winfrey – she set me on the straight and narrow when I needed it
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read and a different take on “captivity” from my day job

Music:

  • Jake Bugg acoustic set in Nashville on my 41st birthday – that guy brought be back to life after a difficult year
  • Christine and the Queens with Kelly at the 9.30 Club – sheer wonder and delight in a 5-foot creativity pocket rocket
  • Impromptu blue grass gig with Constance at her neighbor’s place in VA – she pulled me away from the TV, I danced in my PJs

Occasions:

  • My wedding
  • My 40th birthday weekend
  • Leaning in on my first date with Paul

Wow moment:

  • Being the Saturday Profile in the New York Times

And that, as they say, is a wrap. Thanks, DC, it’s been a blast. London – Brace! Brace! I’m coming to get you.

I hope today can feel like a new day. I am up early, blinds drawn, sipping coffee from my favorite mug, the sun peeping over the foliage outside my window and landing on my tired face. I slept fitfully last night, woken by sirens and the sound of a helicopter hovering overhead. I wondered who they were looking for, whether that person was afraid and if they needed somewhere to shelter.

Shelter is such a simple yet powerful word. It is what we have been doing for three months now in the face of a virus. It’s what we stand under to protect us from the rain, wind, sun as we wait for a bus to take us where we need to go. It’s an act of kind offering to let someone into our homes when they are in need – come in, be warm, have my friendship.

I was moved by the story of Rahul Dubey, a DC resident who was sitting on his stoop on Monday night when protesters were cornered, police advancing on them from either end of his small street. He didn’t just watch – he saw their plight, the fear in their eyes as they contemplated their fate in the hands of police officers after the curfew had fallen – and he acted. He opened his home to 70 strangers. He gave them shelter. He ordered pizzas, he helped them to wash the tear gas from their eyes, they no doubt left the next morning rested and ready to continue their mission.

Shelter isn’t just practical – it’s emotional and spiritual. I’m sure his actions gave those 70 young people hope; hope in the inherent goodness in most human beings, hope in solidarity, hope in how society can be.

When I myself have offered shelter my overwhelming emotion has been frustration – that I could not do more. I’ve sat with wives facing demands they cannot meet from terrorists holding their husband hostage, mothers watching along with the rest of us a video depicting their child’s murder, casually and callously uploaded to YouTube by their captors.

What I have come to understand is just how simple yet powerful shelter is. It is the smallest and most heartfelt acts of kindness that are most gratefully received; listening, being present, trying to understand, finding a way to laugh at the appropriate moment to allow a vital temporary release of pent up energy. And asking for nothing in return.

I have found the last few days terrifying, confusing and also uplifting. I watched as protesters of every color, creed and background took to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd, who died with his neck under the knee of a police officer. They took to the streets for George, for those who died before him, in the hope that no one would have to die or suffer in the future. They took to the streets because they want this to end. I have been moved by their bravery. On Saturday, we stood and watched hundreds of cars drive past our apartment building on the corner of Maine and 6th in SW DC, honking their horns, protesters spilling out of every window and sun roof with fists raised and banners flapping in the wind.

I was surprised by my own reaction – tears formed in my eyes, my arm lifted, self-consciously at first yet with passion and conviction soon enough. In the face of what these young people were fighting for, the very least I could do was raise my arm in solidarity.

I have watched in horror at the violent fringe of riots and looting – the stores in my old home neighborhood of Georgetown smashed, the contents plundered, often discarded on the sidewalk as an afront to the hard work and industry that went into their production. As if our communities weren’t suffering enough after three months of imposed sheltering, small business owners and shop workers about to return to work following the relaxing of lockdown must surely be heartbroken as they clear up this mess with the sound of broken glass crunching under their feet.

These thugs and fools not only bring destruction to communities, they sully the protesters and their cause as so many people fail to distinguish between the two.

And then on Monday night I watched the President send in the military to clear peaceful protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets to make space for him to visit St John’s Church for a photo op holding a bible.

In the preceding speech, he declared himself the President of Law and Order, name checking second amendment rights, threatening to overrule governors by imposing force and declaring a nebulous grouping a domestic terrorist organization.

I watched his speech with terror in my heart; these are the words and sentiments I have heard spill from the mouths of tyrants in “other” countries. With him on my television screen – his bile, hatred and division – my home no longer felt like my shelter.

On autopilot, we put on our shoes and went outside, standing on the same corner we had watched the protests on Saturday. At first we stood in silence side by side. I felt my eyes fill again with tears of worry. I instinctively turned to Paul and asked him to hold me. We stood like that for a long 10 minutes without saying a word.

When we came back in, I reached out to friends; I needed to connect. One immediately replied to ask if we could talk. It wasn’t enough to text, we needed to see one another’s faces, share our feelings, listen, check we really had heard the same thing. “This is what your family fled Poland for in the last century”, I said to her. She nodded slowly and silently. We took shelter in our friendship and one another.

As I lay in bed last night, listening to the sirens and wondering who was out there, who was worried about being picked up, I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach about where this goes, where this ends. I did not feel immediately worried for my own safety, but I had a deep concern about the implications of what I heard and saw on Monday night.

I was reminded of Martin Niemoller’s powerful words:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak up
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak up
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak up
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak up
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

On Monday afternoon, I spent an hour or so collecting together the examples of leadership I’d seen from governors, police chiefs, rappers who gave me hope. Leaders of compassion and connection, using their titles, offices and privileges as a platform for good rather than a barrier to shelter behind. I needed to do this to remind myself of the goodness in the face of division and despair. Erika Shields, Atlanta police chief who came down and spoke to protesters and heard their anger. Genesee County Sherif, Chris Swanson, who asked the protesters what they wanted and when they said “walk with us” he did. Killer Mike, a rapper who cried in pain and told his fellow Atlantans to plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilze. Atlanta Mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, who talked to her city as a mother and and told the rioters to go home.

There is a reason their words and actions have gone viral – we need them. Just like Rahul Dubey’s quiet act of leadership on Monday night, their leadership offers us the shelter we need right now. Just like him, the shelter they offer brings us hope – hope in the inherent goodness of most human beings, hope in solidarity, and hope in how society can be.

As we wake scared in the night to the sound of sirens; as we watch the news worried about our cities, our young people, our cohesion; let’s ask ourselves what can I do to offer shelter? Shelter – physical, practical, emotional and spiritual – is our most important currency in these difficult times.

Duty and obligation are two words that have dominated my life. They are, of course, virtues; doing your duty is better than shirking it, fulfilling obligations preferable to abandoning them. According to the dictionary, they have both legal and moral imperatives.

Duty: a moral or legal obligation; responsibility
Obligation: an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound.

It’s the morality bit that make duty and obligation highly subjective and open to interpretation; some of us assume far more than our fair share, while others restrict their efforts to the more measurable realm of “responsibilities”.

After stepping down from a decade and a half of work running two non-profits that support hostages and their families – where duty really is the watch word – I’ve been reflecting on my own approach; the balance between duty to oneself and other people; the distinction between real and imagined duty; and the corrosive impact of self-fabricated duty.

Duty to self

The oxygen mask has become a clichéd symbol of the wellness world; fit your own oxygen mask before helping others. It’s become a shorthand way of saying that you can’t help others unless you first help yourself, and it’s certainly a phrase I’ve used in training volunteers working with former hostages. For those of us at the far end of the duty spectrum, self-care is justified as a means to caring for others.

That was my line until recently; I’ve been uncomfortable with the wellbeing thing all my life, whether taking the time and effort to cook and eat well, prioritizing exercise, making space for meditation, or carving out opportunities for creativity. Too often, I’ve worked late and missed family life, scheduled back-to-back work trips rather than putting my need for routine first, drunk wine to keep a friend company when I would prefer a sober evening, or agreed to early morning calls rather than saying no for the sake of a good night’s sleep.

What they don’t tell you in the airline safety briefing is that you’ll only have time to put on one mask before you pass out due to the loss of oxygen. It’s not self-care to allow you to then care for others; it’s self-preservation or die.

As I take a few months for myself, I know I’m late to the game on this. For the first time in my life, my days are focused on my health and wellbeing; I exercise and meditate every day, I cook from scratch, I’m scheduling time for things I love to do – reading, photography, calls with family and friends, fresh air and lots of sunshine. It’s an absolute revelation; it’s not just the feel-good endorphins, it’s the joy of prioritizing my day around my health, and then working out whether and how other tasks will fit around it.

Duty to yourself is the most important duty of all

I’m not doing this because it will make me a better wife, daughter, friend, although I have no doubt it will. I’m doing it because it will make me a better me – happier, healthier, calmer, fitter. Duty to yourself is the most important duty of all.

Real versus imagined duty

After duty to self comes duty to others. How much? To whom? Why? If, like me, you have boundary issues, you might imagine duty beyond where it exists. Close friends for years have lovingly rolled their eyes and reassured me it’s ok to say no. I didn’t listen. Net result: over-extended, assuming others’ responsibilities and blurring the lines between colleagues and friends.

Only recently did I step back, see they were right, and adopted a rather formal system for categorizing the people in my life: close family, close friends, friends, people you spend time with, close colleagues, and your wider professional network. For each group, I classified the time and effort appropriate for the relationship. It has counteracted my in-built ‘duty alarm’, helping me to shift the balance to my nearest and dearest.

We should give 80 per cent of our time to the 20 per cent of people who bring 80 per cent of the joy to our lives

If someone hasn’t said this already, allow me: we should give 80 per cent of our energy to the 20 per cent of people who bring 80 per cent of the joy to our lives. I’ve come to appreciate that the smaller my circle, the richer my life. I only owe “duty” to my inner circle. Outside them, I have responsibilities, usually codified in a contract or a quid pro quo.

Self-fabricated duty

The most corrosive duty of all is that which we impose on ourselves for no good reason. During an especially tough time at work, I sat down to figure out what was wrong. Honestly wasn’t the bestpolicy – it was the only. Things really were that bad. Taking out a large piece of paper, I jotted down all the thoughts, frustrations, challenges and gripes I could think of – it was painful reading.

One phrase jumped off the page – “I always think I am the only solution to every problem.”

I didn’t mean this in a narcissistic way; it was due to a lack of self-confidence rather than a big ego. I was afraid to ask for help because I thought everyone expected me to have the answer and would think I was a failure if I couldn’t fix things on my own. Instead of reaching out, I became the martyr and victim. I was stuck.

A linguistic tweak was all it took; instead of asking myself “how can I solve this?” I started asking my colleagues and board members “what are we going to do together to overcome our problem?” It was transformational; it altered my perception of the situation, helped others to see the problem and their responsibilities, signaled a wider effort was needed, and ultimately created better and more sustainable solutions. It turns out no-one ever expected me to have all the answers; I had fabricated a duty that didn’t exist.

Instead of asking myself “how can I solve this? I started asking my colleagues and board members “what are we going to do together to overcome our problem?”

Duty and obligation are valuable concepts that encourage us to think beyond contracts towards a more holistic social covenant that can generate pride, morale, self-worth and tremendous public and private good. But beware imagined and fabricated duty – and don’t forget that your first and most important duty is to yourself.

“For the first time in my life, I have shed ‘survivor’ or ‘victim’ as my identity. I was having to survive on being a ‘survivor’, because that’s how I was making money, speaking about what happened to me. Now I want to talk about coding.” [Quoted in Wired magazine]

Catie Hart was 18 when she was coerced into being a sex worker by a man she met soon after arriving in San Francisco. She eventually broke away and now, aged 40, has a degree in Sociology from UC Berkeley, worked as an advisor on human trafficking for the San Francisco Police Department, Shasta County and UC Davis and is currently a lecturer at AnnieCannons, a Bay area nonprofit where survivors of human trafficking can learn to code.

Our adult lives couldn’t have started more differently; when I was 18, I was heading to Cambridge University and then on to a successful career in London and Washington DC.

Around the time Catie’s life took a turn for the worst, I had too had a formative experience: my uncle was kidnapped by terrorists in Colombia and held hostage for 7 months.

I spent the first two decades of my career dedicated to setting up Hostage UK and Hostage US, nonprofits to support hostage families through the ordeal and help returning captives rebuild their lives after they are released. I recently stepped down as Executive Director from Hostage US and would describe my time there as doing the right thing, in the right place, with the right people. Anyone who gets that once in their career is doing really well. I’ve had it twice.

There is no more effective way to convince people to donate or partner than to connect them with survivors like Catie. After hearing a hostage speak about their experiences, I have watched people instinctively reach for their check book or business card, moved to do whatever they can to help. These personal stories help build the infrastructure and resources that make nonprofits sustainable.

And yet, I always struggled to make the ask.

Telling your story can be therapeutic; one former hostage told me writing a book helped them to process what they had been through, ensure their story was told in their own words, and move on with their life. In every telling, it becomes someone’s else’s story until you can cast it aside entirely, like shedding a layer of skin. The late, great Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

For many, the telling and re-telling of the most traumatic experience of their life has a negative impact. In the most extreme cases, it can re-traumatize, triggering a range of symptoms, such as flashbacks and nightmares, anxiousness, trouble sleeping and concentrating, negative emotions and social isolation.

It can also lead to ‘identity groundhog day’. One former hostage told me she had stepped off the professional speaking circuit because she was fed up of being “hostage girl”. Everywhere she went – dropping the kids at school, attending church, over wine with friends – her identity was dominated by two months of her life five years previously. She just wanted to be a mom, wife, humanitarian, and bad karaoke singer again.

With care and thought, we can create environments for survivors to tell their stories in ways that have a net positive impact; let the survivor set the ground rules about what they do and don’t want to talk about and whether they will answer questions; ask if they would prefer to sit or stand, be interviewed or deliver a speech; help them to feel comfortable in the space by sharing photos of the room or arranging a visit beforehand; and designate someone to shield them from prying audience members afterwards. The best survivors’ organizations do this.

Catie’s quote struck a personal chord with me, too. Over the past two decades, I have told and re-told my own story countless times; to donors, partners, and bored conference attendees alike. Often, I felt good knowing something positive resulted from my family’s suffering.

At times, I resented it.

There were the times it seemed like ‘entertainment’ and left me feeling hollow knowing my story was little more than next weekend’s titillating dinner party fodder for audience members. What’s worse is feeling like I conspired in commoditizing my story; the same old patter, recycled anecdotes, and jokes in all the right places to ensure the mood didn’t dip into ‘awkward and uncomfortable’.

I also became “hostage girl” and watched the boundary between my professional and personal identities vanish. I’ll never forget sitting at a rooftop bar enjoying a balmy Washington DC evening, glass of red wine in hand as I tried to unwind after an especially stressful week at work. Introducing me to a new group, my friend said, “Rachel, do you mind if I tell everyone what you do for a job?” I wanted to scream “Yes I do mind – just let me enjoy my weekend!” I didn’t have the energy to object and inevitably spent the rest of the evening being asked questions about hostages.

I have no doubt that personal stories change the world. They help us to ‘cross the line’ as donors, volunteers and partners; they generate the compassion, energy and will to make a difference; and our instinct to share them helps raise awareness. As Dorothy Allison said, ‘…stories are the one sure way I know to touch the heart and change the world.”

There comes a time when storytelling needs to stop. We are more than our worst experiences and we cannot move forward if we can’t let go of the past.

The James W Foley Legacy Foundation has launched its second annual review of US Government handling of hostages cases. Bringing Americans Home 2020 is based on interviews with 25 people with direct experience of hostage taking or wrongful detention, both those who were held as well as their family members.

I was honored to join the launch event hosted by New America Foundation alongside Diane Foley, Lisa Monaco, and report author Cynthia Loertscher.

I would urge anyone interested in hostages and hostage policy to read the report in full, but here are the main findings.

  1. The US Government’s 2015 hostage policy reforms have largely been durable, but there is always room for improvement
  2. The families of Americans wrongly detained by a foreign government have not benefited from the changes stemming from the 2015 review and report poor satisfaction regarding their interaction with the US government
  3. While the current Administration has prioritized bringing Americans home, more focus and further prioritization is needed

The report is rich with quotes from families and former hostages and detainees and contains a long list of concrete recommendations for the USG government, nonprofit organizations, and others. Excellent work – and well worth your time to read it in full.

 

David Alexander was one of the finest professionals I have ever worked with. He strived for the highest standards for the patients and partners he worked with and was never shy of standing his ground when he felt things weren’t being done just right and just so.

I was incredibly moved to see his commitment to the former hostages and family members we asked him to support – always willing to jump on a train, take the journey, make the time.

He was that rare beast in the caring profession – he saw what he was doing as just one in a series of contributions that could help that person to help themselves to get better. Co-dependency was not within his vocabulary – his job was to help people to move forward themselves. To him, empowerment was critical to the recovery process.

As well as the work, I will remember with great fondness and a smile my phone calls with David – me in my flat in SE London, him in his home in northern Scotland, often at night due to his punishing workload during the day. Rarely would a call end without him expressing frustration about his ageing laptop – or an announcement that it was time for a wee dram of the strong stuff.

As I sign off from work cursing my own failing laptop, I’m off home to have a wee dram of the strong stuff in David’s honor.

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