Saeeda Verrall from Te Anau received a 2007 Fulbright New Zealand Graduate Award to complete an LLM in international human rights and criminal justice at Harvard University. She has squeezed extensive overseas experience into the few years since her graduation, and plans to move to Nepal in the future to further her voluntary work with a Himalayan NGO.
Almost five years ago I submitted my Fulbright application and nervously awaited the outcome. Like most of my contemporaries, I could never have undertaken graduate study in the US without financial assistance, and in that respect, nothing would have been possible without Fulbright. However, the value of the Fulbright cannot be measured in quantitative terms. It is not simply an “award” but the beginning of a journey. For me, the Fulbright was a catalyst – a launching pad – that ultimately led to even more rewarding and enriching experiences after my studies.
Despite the hundreds of hours spent reading, preparing for classes, writing papers, and frantically studying for exams, three years after graduating with an LLM from Harvard Law School I look back on my time in the US and “study” stands out as a very small aspect of my experience! The moments that do stand out are invariably connected by a common thread: people. Fulbright draws together an eclectic and varied group of individuals from all around the world. Both at Harvard and through the Fulbright network more generally, I was struck not only by how bright and accomplished some of these people were, but the fact that these people were doing things. Above and beyond their studies, young, motivated people were using their talents and the opportunities they had been afforded to advocate, challenge, promote change, and to serve their communities. I left the US with a network of friends and associates who had challenged, shaped and expanded my world view.
Although my Fulbright exchange lasted only one year, it nonetheless served as a springboard for many experiences that followed. This included the next step in my fledgling career – an internship in the Prosecutor’s Office at the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal in Cambodia. Cambodia served as an eye-opening experience. For all that one can study the mechanisms of international criminal justice, it is a profoundly different experience to see it in practice. It provided an insight into not only the legal workings of a war crimes tribunal, but also into the historical, social, political and bureaucratic complexities that such an institution operates within, in a poverty-stricken country still reeling from the atrocities of three decades prior. For a bright-eyed young lawyer who had always wanted to “work in human rights”, it was a necessary and sobering experience.
I then travelled to my other country of citizenship, the Maldives, where I volunteered for the Maldivian Democratic Party in the run-up to the country’s first ever democratically-contested Presidential elections. I had grown up hearing how many of my Maldivian relatives had gone to prison. My cousin Mohammed “Anni” Nasheed, spent much of the 1990s under house arrest or in prison, subject to periods of solitary confinement, beatings and torture, for speaking out publicly about corruption in the Maldivian Government. He formed the Maldivian Democratic Party in exile, and on election night in 2008 I sat with family as the poll results came in, shaking with nervous excitement as a dictator who reigned for 30 years conceded defeat and Anni became the first ever democratically elected Maldivian President. It was a monumental occasion, and a humbling moment to reflect on just how much could be achieved by ordinary people who were not afraid to challenge, sacrifice, and fight for what they believed in.
In 2010 I moved to my current position in the Netherlands, working for the UN in the Prosecutor’s Office at the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. For someone who believes strongly in the notion of international justice, it is indeed rewarding to play even a small role in seeking accountability for crimes committed on such a massive scale. However, I am not blind to the perceived (and real) shortcomings and criticisms of war crimes tribunals. Being both reflective and self-critical is necessary in this line of work. Despite this, travelling to Bosnia and seeing first-hand the execution sites of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre was, for me, a stark reminder of why this work remains necessary and important.
Over the last year I have become involved with the Himalayan Community Project (HCP), a non-governmental organisation founded to promote educational initiatives in rural villages in Nepal. The vision for HCP came from the work of its two Nepali founding members, who work in Kathmandu and dedicate their spare time to promoting education and development in their home villages of Achane and Muchok. HCP now operates from Nepal, the US and the Netherlands. I serve on the HCP Board of Directors and am involved with fundraising, publicity and management of our campaigns. HCP is a small organisation, and we all work as volunteers. It is a collaborative effort where family and friends have all donated their time, expertise and energy when they can.
Helping manage an NGO has been a challenge. The learning curve has been steep and we realised quickly that we need to constantly revise our working model to remain responsive to the village communities we aim to support. Yet we have set about creating discrete, achievable goals and we’re already seeing the fruits of our hard work making a small difference in the lives of Nepali school children. More information on HCP can be found at www.himalayancommunityproject.org
Looking back, I don’t see the Fulbright Scholarship as an “award” or a “reward” for achievements of the past, but an opportunity to build something for the future. But with such opportunity comes a strong sense of obligation. I recognise I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have enjoyed the benefits of education, the chance to travel, engage in meaningful work and to meet interesting, talented and inspiring people. Yet, only a few years into my career, I feel far from “accomplished”. While it is gratifying to reflect on the doors that Fulbright has opened, there is a more pressing urge to look forward. As Fulbright Scholars, we have been afforded a unique privilege to venture into the world and become vocal and active members of the global community, using the abilities we have as a force for change and for good. While it is important to contemplate from time to time how fortunate we are to have been bestowed this privilege, it is more important to channel that gratitude into something meaningful – the world awaits and there is work to be done!