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June 10, 2007

Women Who Rock the World

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Job: UNICEF Program Officer for the Middle East and North Africa Field Support and Inter-agency Collaboration Section Program Division

Translation: I'm responsible for ensuring that UNICEF's programs are reflected in the U.N. agenda. Where else have you worked? Zimbabwe, Namibia, Cambodia, Albania, and Russia.

Why are you so able to adapt to new places?: I spent 20 years as a refugee, unable to go home.

Shayma Daneshjo likes to fly under the radar. Dressed in a black, low-neck sweater, gray pinstripe slacks, and black boots, with her shoulder-length hair tucked neatly behind one ear, Daneshjo, who is in her late 30s, could be mistaken for a typical New Yorker.
In fact, she speaks six languages, has lived in nearly a dozen countries, and hails from Afghanistan. "My father was in the foreign service," she says. "I grew up in one of the richest neighborhoods in Kabul." Her childhood dreams were typical of those of other Afghan girls-to become a wife, a mother, and even, perhaps, "a waitress," Daneshjo says sheepishly. "I love to cook, but it never occurred to me to be the chef."

Then, in 1979, the Russians invaded Afghanistan. "We lost everything-many family members were killed," she remembers. They fled to Zimbabwe, and then, as the country became increasingly unstable, to America, where Daneshjo won political asylum for her family.

"Starting over wasn't easy-I didn't know the culture, I had no friends," she says. "It's been exceptionally hard for my parents. The humiliation my father faces-he went from being his country's ambassador to being a nobody. He's retired; he has no income. I am the breadwinner for my family now."

After applying for a UNICEF position in New York, Daneshjo worked her way up the chain of command. Then, in the weeks after 9/11, she found herself in the unlikely position of helping organize the first mission into Afghanistan. "Never in a million years did I think I'd return to my homeland," she says. "We went right after the fall of the Taliban. I was shocked that this was my country. There was no infrastructure, no electricity, no water."

After more than two decades away, Daneshjo found communicating with other Afghan women challenging-those who stayed through the Russian invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban rule, were often hostile. "They resented the fact that we did not share the same suffering," says Daneshjo. "It was hard for me to say to them, 'Yes, but as refugees, we had our own suffering, too.'"

For the next year, Daneshjo's UNICEF team set up new schools in Afghanistan. Their mission was a success, although today, "the Taliban are burning the schools down in the south," she says, shaking her head. "We build them, they burn them. But still, more children-especially girls-are going to school than before."

Daneshjo is currently UNICEF's desk officer for Iraq in New York. "It's frustrating," she says. "We operate by remote control. Our base is in Jordan, and we're advising local workers on the ground in Iraq without having access inside the country ourselves." Last year, the organization gave more than $100 million to children's health and education programs in Iraq.

In a job where she deals, quite literally, with issues of life and death, the plight of the average American sometimes feels ironic. "I go home at night, and on the TV there are all these people talking about how they are depressed," she says, with a soft laugh. "And I want to say, 'What is the matter with you? You live in America! My god, what do you have to be depressed about?!'"

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