Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan
I’ve met many celebrities this week, but the message that will stick with me most came from a little Indian girl.
By Rania Al Abdullah
Updated Friday, Sept. 26, 2008, at 1:06 PM ET
From: Rania Al Abdullah
Subject: New York Is a Great Place To Have Jetlag
Posted Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008, at 2:28 PM ET
The great thing about having jetlag in New York is that I’m up so early I get the best of the morning—the crisp, fresh, sunny starts that make you feel like you can take on the day ahead with gusto. And although I’ve been here many times before, the city’s really buzzing right now: There are huddles of security guards in black suits everywhere, frazzled staffers hanging around hotel lobbies, and convoys causing traffic jams. Can’t help but wonder if the average New Yorker is counting the hours until the U.N. General Assembly and everything else that’s happening around it are over so they can get their city back.
So, I’m in NY this week wearing a couple of hats, shining a spotlight on the Millennium Development Goals and talking about the need for more sustainable development that will not only safeguard the environment, but also provide opportunity for the disenfranchised in society. It’s something we’re very interested in, in the Arab world.
I was invited to speak at Condé Nast Traveler’s World Savers Congress conference amid the awesome and inspiring architecture of Gotham Hall. It was about the power of tourism to nurture our planet’s precious resources while providing lasting economic opportunities for local communities.
I was there talking up the Middle East—not a region in conflict and turmoil, as many think, but a mosaic of cultures, stories, traditions, and warm, welcoming people.
So, there I was, psyching myself up backstage to speak, because no matter how often I do this, I still get nervous and have to steel myself.
Onstage, the beautiful, eloquent, and confident Ashley Judd was talking passionately about the work she’s been doing to alleviate health problems in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. All the time she was talking, there was a woman onstage next to her stirring, stirring, stirring this huge jug of what looked like dirty, muddy water. Turns out it was dirty, muddy water that was being sanitized by a little sachet of PUR crystals that disinfect and purify water, prevent waterborne illnesses, and save lives. And she drank it there and then to prove to us all how safe it was. I hope she feels fine in the morning!
When I was driving to my next event, I watched swaths of NY’s bright young women, suited, booted, and striding purposefully to work, to meetings, to lunches, and it made me think about a meeting I had yesterday with the executive director of UNICEF, Ms. Ann Veneman, and several members of her team. We talked about the 38 million girls around the world not in school, the girls not counted on birth registers, the girls enrolled in school but unable to attend because they have to collect water for their families, the lost girls. We talked about how UNICEF and other international organizations are trying to find them, give them a voice, make them count, and give them tools to change the course of their lives.
Research shows that girls who go to school become women who spend more of the family resources on child nutrition, health, and education—so children grow up with better chances and choices. Educating girls is one of the highest-returning social investments we can make. And we’re not making it. That’s why I’m proud to be working with UNICEF on this and other education-related issues. It’s too important to ignore.
And then it was time to check in on my kids, back from school and having iftar with their grandparents. Of course, their news was less about missing their mom, what happened in school, and homework than it is about what toys, gadgets, and music I should be buying for them. You’d think that was my sole purpose for being in NY! I cautioned restraint, tried to manage expectations, and then panicked about where I could possibly get a microscope for examining insects, which is what seems very important for my 7-year-old right now. I so preferred the Barbie period!
My husband told me that Hashem, my 3-year-old, has been coughing all night and has a temperature, and my stomach lurched with guilt for not being there to cuddle and soothe him. Why do they always get sick when I’m away? It kills me. I consoled myself with the thought that we’d all be together at the weekend—an extra-special one because of both my daughters’ birthday parties.
Midafternoon, I was full of good intentions to go for a walk and shake off the crashing fatigue, so I went back to the hotel. An hour later, one of my staff texted, reminding me of tomorrow’s commitments, pricking my conscience, and so I got out my briefing papers.
Later in the evening, I had the honor of meeting a superhero in the field of development, someone I’ve always wanted to meet. Hectic as traveling for work is, meeting people like Dr. Fazle Abed, founder of BRAC, makes it so worthwhile. He’s so humble, soft-spoken, and down to earth, you would never guess he’d touched the lives of millions of people in Bangladesh and beyond. If this is what one man can do to help the less fortunate, imagine what our combined strength could achieve. People like him fill me with hope.
From: Rania Al Abdullah
Subject: Backstage at the Clinton Global Initiative
Updated Friday, Sept. 26, 2008, at 1:06 PM ET
Woke up this morning, and the first thing I did was phone my son Hashem to see how he was feeling. He was napping, and I didn’t get much out of him, but it was still comforting to hear his sleepy little voice. I can’t wait to give him a big cuddle.
And with that, I headed off to the Clinton Global Initiative for the opening session, which focused on education, health, poverty, and climate. And what a lineup: President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, former Vice President Al Gore, Bono, Coca-Cola Chairman Neville Isdell, Lance Armstrong, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, plus, of course, the charismatic and charming President Clinton. A pretty dazzling panel.
Backstage in the holding room, we chatted about everything from the progress on the MDG and the challenges of the financial crisis, to Deerfield Academy (my husband’s alma mater), and President Clinton’s appearance on The Daily Show.
It was a nice surprise to meet Lance Armstrong. Not only was I taken aback that he knew who I was—he even knew I was a runner. We exchanged notes on the joys and aches of running—something I’m looking forward to getting back to next week at home.
So much was said on the panel. What a learning experience. I could spend hours writing about it—there were so many interesting ideas and experiences shared. So much passion.
And it’s that combination of passion, focus, creativity, risk-taking, and a sprinkle of fun that sums up my good friend Bono. He kicked off his remarks with a simple question, which I paraphrase: If the United States alone can find $700 billion to save Wall Street, why can’t the world find $25 billion to save 20,000 children who die each day? Makes you think, doesn’t it?
As for Al Gore, I admired him before for his advocacy for the environment and the impact of climate change, but after talking with him and listening to him, I could understand why he has convinced so many people to change their ways and make new lifestyle choices. I promised myself to do more and to find ways to try harder. That’s the kind of effect he has!
The session topics included public-private partnerships in education, something that is taking off in Jordan. I talked about Madrasati, a project I started in April back home. It aims to rejuvenate 500 of our most rundown schools. We’ve done 100 now, and the looks on the children’s faces when I visit their classrooms make it so worthwhile.
And just when jetlag started to kick in, so did the rest of my schedule, with three back-to-back events.
It was an honor to introduce Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at an event to celebrate progress made on the MDG, but he also cautioned about the huge amount of work, partnerships, focus, and finances needed to ensure that we meet the 2015 deadline.
The statistics are staggering: Every minute, a woman dies in childbirth, and for every one that dies, 30 more suffer complications. If you’re a woman giving birth in Sierra Leone, you have a 1-in-8 chance of dying. In 2008, these numbers are just wrong. But, sadly, they’re correct.
A few months ago, I came across this poignant and heartbreaking poem, by Marie-Therese Feuerstein, which I felt compelled to share.
People don’t really understand
How women die in childbirth
The living foetus
Striving for life
Fighting to be born.
The life-going sanctuary
Of the uterus
Becomes the prison,
Or the mother,
Weak from the pain
Seems able to quell
The gushing of her blood.
There are no more cloths
To absorb the flow,
And only two more hours
To her life.
If we cannot improve
The quality of women’s lives
At least improve
The quality of their deaths …
How can we “sell”
This human tragedy
is not available
It is a “taboo” subject
With human sexuality
Which is already
A taboo subject.
No-one has interviewed
The dying woman.
We don’t know
What she would have to say
Someone should interview
Whose mothers have died.
They may well wonder
Why their mothers
Had to be pregnant again
In the first place.
It is difficult to sell
That is too common.
Anyway, dying is a familiar occupation.
“Why should we
Get excited about maternal deaths?
There are so many other kinds!”
Perhaps we have to sell
More as a fin-de-siècle
The question is,
Does maternal mortality matter?
If it doesn’t,
Perhaps we should approach, with caution,
Entry into a century
Where women will go on dying
In increasing numbers
And where …
It still won’t matter.
From: Rania Al Abdullah
Subject: What I Will Remember About This Week
Posted Friday, Sept. 26, 2008, at 1:06 PM ET
It’s not often that my morning starts with a really catchy tune, played live on a New York street corner by one of the coolest and most talented musicians around. But this one did. And it was all for a great cause. I can’t wait to tell my eldest son, Hussein.
The musician was will.i.am, and he was helped by the wonderful Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo and apl.de.ap. The song was “In My Name,” and the point of it all was to call on world leaders to live up to the promises they made in 2000 and to renew the world’s commitment to ending global poverty. I listened to the song with Hind, a little Nigerian girl. She was a reminder of what all of this is for.
Check it out on YouTube. Sign your name and pass it on to your friends!
Since 2000, we’ve made some good progress on our promises: More children are surviving preventable childhood diseases, more are in classrooms, and there’s more clean water to drink. But there’s so much more to do and so little time to do it. And after hearing so many impassioned pleas from so many people this week—rock stars, ex-presidents, politicians, poverty specialists, NGO heads, etc.—I feel really fired up about this issue. We have got to make a difference, and we’ve got to do it now.
Half-promises are no good to people in need; half-promises are an injustice, especially to the millions of children in the developing world. They’re relying on all of us to remember our common humanity, to remember our moral conscience, and to act.
I was reassured that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former Irish President Mary Robinson were there to add their voices and names to this effort, because we must get this message into the halls of power and the ears of leaders.
From the corner of 47th and First, I dashed (as much as you can in New York traffic) to an interview with Fareed Zakaria, a man for whom I have a great deal of respect because he has a lot of insight into my region. And then onto the “Class of 2015: Education for All” pledge summit—another really important event. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s leadership on this has been instrumental in its success. I was pleased at the heavyweights he has attracted: a coalition of charities, U.N. agencies, and governments. It bodes well for progress with purpose.
A little Indian girl, about the same age as my eldest daughter, Iman, stood up and, in a big voice, told her story to the room, which included the prime ministers of Britain and Australia, the president of the World Bank, humanitarians like Bob Geldof and Bono, global NGOs, and international advocates for education. The strange thing was that although it was translated after she spoke in her mother tongue, we didn’t really need a translator to understand how she felt.
Little Devli Kumari was born into a stone quarry. Until recently, it was the only life she knew. She used to labor almost the entire day, because her family worked as bondage slaves. Looking at her fragile body and her small hands, I couldn’t help but wonder how she had carried heavy, sharp, dusty stones for 20 hours a day, often on little or no food, little or no sleep. But I’ll tell you this: Listening to her, I understood immediately.
This little girl has inner steel and determination way beyond her years. She looked these global leaders in the eye and told them that after escaping the quarry with the help of a humanitarian group, she started school. She’s in the fifth grade now. Then she returned to her family’s village and slowly but surely encouraged 15 other girls to enroll in school. She’s 11 years old.
Her message to the audience was clear and simple: If she could walk around a village and persuade 15 girls to start school, why couldn’t leaders with budgets and influence and networks and policymaking machines at their fingertips get 75 million children into school? A good question, indeed. I had tears of pride in my eyes listening to her then; I have tears in my eyes writing this now. Devli is not a girl you can say no to. And I will do my best to honor her strength.
By the end of the meeting, $4.5 billion was pledged to get children into school. I hope those who pledged live up to their promises.
This week I’ve met President Clinton, Prime Minister Brown, Secretary-General Ban, President George H.W. Bush, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Vice President Al Gore, Bono, Lance Armstrong, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, President Mary Robinson, President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, Ann Veneman of UNICEF, Fareed Zakaria, Bob Geldof, Ray Chambers, Whoopi Goldberg, and a whole host of others.
Still, it is Devli’s story I will remember with most clarity. In her name, and the name of millions of children like her, I will fight to get all the world’s children in school.
Heading home to Jordan tomorrow. Much to reflect on, much to act on.
Rania Al Abdullah is the queen of Jordan.
Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2200806/