Volunteer undaunted by dangers in foreign lands
28 February 2005
Kuala Lumpur: The heat-drenched land was dry and arid. The tension in the air was even more brittle. It was 1996, and rebels from Bangui, located in the Central Republic of Africa, were waging war against the local government. The streets turned vengeful and volatile, and few dared to venture out.
As the temperature rose, the government became fearful for the safety of foreigners. So, the families of United Nations officers stationed there were advised to leave immediately. Soon after, a truck arrived and the families got in and were taken away to safe grounds.
Maheswari Balan was on the truck with her first child, Sheeva, that day. Undeterred by dangers in foreign lands, she finds joy in meeting new faces, visiting new sites, learning new languages, and tasting exotic foods.
As a United Nations volunteer working for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia, and wife of a UNHCR officer, she has lived in seven different countries.
“My first job for UNHCR was in my home country (England) when I was recruited from London where I had been working as a Crown Prosecutor,” she said.
Mahes, as her friends know her, worked as a legal consultant for boat people and, in the course of her work, met her French husband Roland Weil.
After tying the knot, she went with her husband to countries he was posted to. Whenever she could, she would try to find work.
Even with three children, the family continued moving wherever Weil was needed.
The frequent transfers were not easy. Everywhere they went, there were cultural differences. It was easier to adapt to some countries, and harder in others, she said.
Mahes cited an example from her stay in Pakistan: “Imagine, after having all the freedom a woman could want, you find yourself in a situation where people, especially men, stare at you incredulously simply because you are wearing a short-sleeved shirt and baring your arms! Shorts were a definite no-no.
”Besides the issue of clothing, it was also disturbing whenever the locals there looked suspiciously at me because I look Indian and therefore Hindu (a dangerous situation considering the tension between Pakistan and India).”
In some places, only the most basic of amenities were available, she added.
In countries such as Sudan, where her husband is presently stationed, Mahes said, “There is no Dome, no Carrefour and certainly no three different types of dishwashing liquid. Snacks are peanuts, peanuts and, guess what – more peanuts!”
Schooling for the children was also something to consider. Whenever possible, they would opt for a country with an international or French school.
But living away from home had been an adventure in many other aspects, she said. Her family has tried various exotic dishes, including elephant meat in Africa.
With a sheepish grin, Mahes also confessed to being spoilt in one of her “homes”. In Nepal, she was able to employ cheap labour, where she had the luxury of having five “domestic helpers”.
“Furniture is also a great souvenir,” said Mahes, as she gestured towards the various pieces of woodwork she had bought from Nepal.
However, Mahes has learnt not to get too attached to material possessions. In one of her evacuations from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, her family was only given a short amount of time to pack their belongings. She could only pack small valuables.
“We could only take things that were important to us. So, we took our wedding albums and pictures of the kids. It’s only then that you realize the real value of material things,” she said of the experience.
“I’ve come to realise that people, in whichever corner of the world, however they dress, eat or live, are all the same deep within.”