By Muna Kaldawi-Killingback
Muna Kaldawi-Killingback joined the World YWCA in 1990 as one of the first ever young woman interns. Muna shares with us her experience at the World YWCA and how her intnership helped her in her professional and personal development.
Exhausted with jet lag, one day after the flight in October 1990 that took me from my native New Jersey to Geneva, I was in the World YWCA office and my head was spinning. I was one of the two first ever Young Women’s Interns and Rosemary Machicado de Quezo, the Young Women’s Coordinator, was talking in strange acronyms – FLE, EGGYS, ITI and manyothers—that stood for large looming projects that I was expected to help organise.
I finally understood that the letters stood for Family Life Education, the Ecumenical Global Gathering of Youth and Students and the International Training Institute. But so much was happening, I still felt completely lost. Then General Secretary, Elaine Hesse Steel, who was very welcoming, gave us an indepth briefing on the background, structure, and governance of the World YWCA, particularly its Constitution and Byelaws and Policy Statements. Once again, I felt the familiar mind-spin as I tried to absorb all the information.
My fellow intern, Elizabeth Yavana from Sierra Leone, and I were honoured to have been selected for this new programme. The World Office had many plans for us. But some arrangments had not yet been tested. Our living accommodation, for example, was a small one-bedroom apartment that did not leave us any privacy — and we were both young women who had been used to having our own space, so this was tough. Our desks were next to each other as well and we had to work on many of the same projects. Between this and the small apartment, it was just a little too much togetherness. Another dimension (which changed after our year) was that many of the staff referred to us as “the interns” and not by our names. This did not make us feel like individuals with different personalities and strengths.
However, apart from these small hiccups and first year growing pains that were remedied for future interns, it was a truly amazing year. We participated in the 1991 International Training Institute (ITI), then only organised every four years. This particular ITI was exclusively for young women. We also attended the World Council in Stavanger, Norway, and it was the 700th anniversary of the Swiss confederation. The Convention on the Rights of the Child had been adopted in 1989 and the World YWCA was a leader in the follow-up and promotion of this important treaty.
It was also a troubling year in the world: we arrived in the run up to the first Gulf War and there was a strong feeling that diplomatic channels had not been exhausted. One of my early assignments was to represent the World YWCA at a meeting of youth organisations against the war, followed by a huge anti-war demonstration in Paris. I still have the badge I received there with this quote from French poet Jacques Prevert: “Quelle connerie la guerre.”
The ITI was an unforgettable experience. It brought together young women from more than 20 countries around the world, all living together for nearly a month in a convent in the tiny Swiss village of Pensier. During this time we learned about development, gender analysis, ecumenism, advocacy, health and environmental issues. We learned to work successfully in teams with women from different cultures and backgrounds. We learned to solve problems together. We also grew very close, and to this day, I am still in touch with many of these women. The 1991 ITI was a leadership training like no other, and one that only the World YWCA could provide!
Another clear memory of my internship year was representing the World YWCA at NGO meetings at the United Nations in Geneva. I was very fearful about saying the wrong thing or not saying the right thing at the right time. Elaine Hesse Steel smiled when she explained to me that the YWCA believes in “baptism by fire” and it would not take me long to know exactly what she meant. Elaine had a long history in the YWCA movement and she was a great believer in supporting young women’s leadership development. Being given assignments that were new and slightly scary forced us to grow. I remember calling the World Office from the UN during a break in one of those early meetings to ask if I could mention the World YWCA’s policy on the issue under discussion. The World YWCA policies were eloquent, not only in defining the problem, but also in offering solutions to important social and international questions.
During my internship, I also represented the World YWCA on an NGO committee that organised a high-level peace conference of Palestinian women diplomats and Israeli women Knesset members. Another outstanding leader, Edith Ballantyne, the General Secretary of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) led the committee. The women worked very hard for long hours and, perhaps not surprisingly, reached a peace agreement at the end of the meeting. Sadly, they lacked the power to implement it, but it remains a testimony to the superior negotiation skills of women.
The World Council meeting in Norway was yet another incredible highlight and I was asked to write the Popular Report for it. Later, I spent three weeks visiting the YWCA of Palestine where I learned a lot from their dynamic General Secretary Doris Salah. I conducted a young women’s leadership training there and assisted with some communications projects. I was also part of the 1991 delegation of YWCA women who travelled to Palestine and Israel to meet women from both sides and to gain a deeper understanding of how the Israeli occupation had impacted the lives of ordinary Palestinians.
My internship was a turning point in my life. When it was over, I remained in Geneva working at another international NGO for a year and was then hired for a position in the World YWCA’s financial development department. About 18 months later I became the Director of Communications and was at the World Office for 10 years in all. I am currently the Executive Director of the Theological Opportunities Programme, a small non-profit based in Boston that organises lectures and conversations on issues in women’s lives. I also continue to do freelance writing and editing.
I have found that the mentoring and support young women receive in the YWCA are unparalleled. I doubt I would have reached Geneva without mentors at the YWCA of Essex and West Hudson in New Jersey, particularly Priscilla Stauffer who sadly passed away last year. At the World YWCA, our mentors came from different cultures with different styles, and it was a tremendous opportunity as a young woman to learn from all of them. I am truly indebted to Elaine Hesse Steel whose belief in young women’s leadership enabled so many of us to go places and do things we’d never dreamed we could do. Other important YWCA mentors were Doreen Boyd, Elaine Carlson, and many others, including former World President Razia Ismail-Abassi, whose writing skills I am still in awe of.
Since the first year of our internship programme back in 1990, the World YWCA has developed even more opportunities for leadership training and involvement in international issues for young women. If you are a young woman, this could be the most important and life-changing experience you will ever have.