Obiter Dictum

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Goodbye Hugo Camps

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Yesterday, politician Steve Stevaert committed suicide. Less than 24 hours later, one of Belgium’s best known columnists, Hugo Camps, wrote a column on Mr Stevaert that is nothing short of character assassination.

It’s funny how journalists who pontificate about the rise of public opinion spouting on social media, give themselves the right to do so too, simply because ‘it is their job’. The only difference between Camps and the rest of us is the fact that the opinions of Camps & Co come wrapped in prettier words.

Mr Camps has the right to his opinion, just like everyone else. But yesterday he crossed a line which he shouldn’t have crossed. He abused his power – something he accuses Mr Stevaert of, ironically – to publish a piece that destroys the politician. He used his soapbox to let readers know, amongst others, that Stevaert was false, dictatorial, had a problem with women and that “insiders knew he had DSK tendencies”.

In a few cruel sentences, Camps took away one of Stevaert’s most basic human rights: the right to be innocent until proven guilty. He used his power as journalist to become Stevaert’s judge, jury and executioner.

I’m done with Hugo Camps. This time he went too far. His carefully cultivated ‘grumpy old man’ persona isn’t remotely entertaining any more.

You have become the Uncle Scrooge of decorum and empathy, Mr Camps. That is how I will remember you. I leave you with these words from the book “Telling True Stories”:

“To write about one’s own life and the lives of family and friends is to accept that exploitation of self and others. To write about yourself and the people in your life is to accept that, in part, you are a bastard. You must face and come to understand your demons.”

You play lightly with the demons of others, Mr Camps, but I doubt whether you have had the courage to face your own.

Written by sabineclappaert

April 3, 2015 at 11:27 am

The power of a happy workforce

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This is the fifth year of the eurozone crisis, and that warrants a moment of reflection. Five years of doom-laden headlines, televised economic meltdowns and mass lay-offs have charted a course of destruction across European societies. And Flanders is no exception: The crisis has left our labour market battered.

The figures are grim: In September, Flanders had 229,127 out of work – an increase of 8.8% on the region’s figures for the same period last year.

For those who are working, the crisis has meant an increase in “invisible” job stress. “Doing more with less” has become the new business mantra, and most employees know that while they have a job today, it could be gone tomorrow. In times of evaporating security, most of us also face the reality of having to work until we are close to 70.

Not surprisingly, many employees feel over-stretched and worn out. In Belgium, one in four employees run the risk of burnout, according to research by IDEWE, which is responsible for workplace protection. In addition, they say, most businesses do not provide an appropriate level of attention to and investment in employees’ mental health.

And yet, amid all this doom and gloom, there is cause for optimism. A group of business leaders is beginning to talk about the importance of being happy at work.

Respecting boundaries

It’s a trend that has been visible across Flemish media since the beginning of the year. In September, after one of her younger employees died of a heart attack, Saskia Van Uffelen, CEO of IT company Bull Belgium wrote an opinion piece in Flemish daily De Tijd pleading for the respecting of boundaries, taking time out and recognising that we are fragile. “Being expected to work longer also demands a change in the way we work,” she says, “and at this pace, working until we are 70 is unrealistic.”

Being ready for the war for talent is a process of strategic change – SASKIA VAN UFFELEN

Colruyt Group COO Frans Colruyt, meanwhile, said in a recent interview with De Morgen that, since his 15-month sabbatical, he has been practising mindfulness and believes we should pay closer attention to our bodies.

But why are these people standing up for a more humane approach to work in times of crisis, when, at first glance, business can least afford it? Enter the Happy Organizations community, founded last March as a Belgian network of more than 750 business leaders who believe in the importance of happiness at work and want to bring the topic into the open.

The BEhappyday event, organised by the Happy Organizations community, was founded by Jean-Paul Erhard, managing partner of HR network Peoplesphere, and Laurence Vanhee, former head of HR at the Federal Public Service Social Security (though she prefers to call herself Chief Happiness Officer) and Peoplesphere’s HR Manager of the Year for 2012. It brings together companies that invest in the well-being of their employees and takes place on 20 March – designated International Happiness Day by the UN.

We are not resources

“I do not manage resources, because we are not resources. We are people,” Vanhee says. “I need fun and passion in my job, and I want to be happy at work. I want to be treated like an adult, have responsibility and freedom and be able to make my own decisions. Surely I’m no exception?”

At this pace, working until we are 70 is unrealistic – SASKIA VAN UFFELEN

It is exactly this message that BEhappyday is trying to take to the business community: If you want a happy, productive workforce, as a leader you need to facilitate the productivity and happiness of your employees. Or as Vanhee’s professional theory states: Freedom + Responsibility = Happiness + Performance.

In her new book, Happy HR, she argues that the old way of doing business – in which companies measured the effectiveness of employees according to their physical presence during a required time – has become counter-productive both in the changing realities of the 21st century, which will bring together four generations on the work floor and see significant talent shortages, and during times of crisis, when companies are expected to do more with less.

In the book, she explores new approaches in HR, arguing for policies based on freedom, responsibility, performance and happiness. “If we want our organisations to thrive in the coming decades, we need to start treating our employees like capable adults, who, given the opportunity, can contribute to our organisations in ways we never explored or encouraged with our old business models. We also need to find ways of working that appeal to the entrepreneurial, ‘always-connected’ mindset of the younger generations.”

Henri Van de Kraats, managing director of contact centre provider IMABenelux and part of the Happy Organizations community, agrees. “We’ve reached the end of a certain logic,” he says. “It’s time to realise that something fundamental needs to change in the way we work.”

For too long, leaders have set sky-high targets, he says, turned up the pressure and managed people in a top-down “command and control” manner. Seldom did managers stop to ask workers how they were feeling. But times are changing. Eventually, organisations that think they can become successful by squeezing everything out of their people will become unattractive to prospective employees and will lose the race for talent.

Talent shortage

Bull Belgium’s Van Uffelen is leading the charge for a change in workplace attitudes. “The old way of doing business doesn’t work for younger generations,” she says. “In 2020, seven people will leave the Belgian labour market for every three who enter. This means that 40% of today’s workforce will disappear. It will create a huge shortage of talent. It also raises a very important question: What do leaders and companies need to change to ensure people want to work for them?”

We are not needed at the front to command, but in the middle, cheering on – MIEL HORSTEN

Research strongly supports the need for companies to change to a new way of working, which is more independent of place and time and focused on output rather than physical presence. It also stresses the need for employers to make workplace mental health a priority issue. It is not simply the right thing to do; it also makes a company more competitive and profitable.

For Van Uffelen, making sure Bull Belgium embraced the changes in the labour market led her to add five key performance parameters to her long-term business strategy: communication, collaboration, efficiency, innovation and leadership. “Being ready for the war for talent is a process of strategic change, not a matter of a trendy new coat of paint and a funky open-plan layout,” she says.

Happy employees, happy clients

At ALD Automotive Belgium, a leader in the financing and management of vehicle fleets, they also got the message. “Our entire brand is built around employee and customer happiness, embodied in our slogan ‘One, Ready, Smile’,” explains general manager Miel Horsten. “A company’s most important stakeholders are its employees. If you have happy employees, you create happy clients, which in turn lead to happy shareholders. It’s that simple.”

We must learn to trust people and let them solve problems without constantly looking over their shoulder – HENRI VAN DE KRAATS

For Horsten, making sure employees are happy goes much further than installing a new canteen or allowing people to work from home a few days a week.

“Changing the way you do business starts at the top and should permeate every aspect of the way in which the organisation functions,” he says. “For us, it meant taking the hierarchy out of our organisation, changing the way in which we manage to reflect the culture we want to create, decreasing the time we spend in meetings by 80%, setting an example as leaders, giving our people freedom and accountability to take on projects beyond their roles if they so wished. Ultimately, my aim is to inspire trust and create a culture that accepts risk-taking (and therefore also failure) and rewards engagement, creativity and innovation.”

But all these leaders admit that adapting their organisations to this new world of work isn’t easy. “It’s a learning curve, also for us as leaders,” admits Horsten. “We still have a long way to go and a lot to learn.”

Van de Kraats agrees: “As leaders, we must stop wanting to fill up the room and learn to exhibit less ego. We must learn to trust people and allow them to solve problems without constantly looking over their shoulder. Leaders who continue to cling to a domineering leadership style will create a paralysed, tense culture. And that’s anything but beneficial to innovation or growth.”

Protection for people

Taking that message of freedom to others in the business community isn’t always easy, especially in difficult economic times, they all admit. But when it comes to how they ensure their business stays at the top of its game, they all agree: No factor is more critical right now than their people.

“One of our biggest responsibilities as CEO is making sure we protect our people, and thus our organisation, from becoming over-stretched,” says Van Uffelen. “We need to develop business models that facilitate the new world of work; we must remove obstacles, and we must inspire people to be the best they can be. It will only benefit our organisations.”

It’s a huge task, and one that demands a different kind of leadership, notes Horsten. “As leaders, we need to be able to be introspective, to realise that we don’t have all the answers – and that we’re not expected to, either. We are not needed at the front to command, but in the middle, cheering on, making sure we get there, as a team.”

“Just as importantly,” adds Van Uffelen, “we need to learn to switch off our laptops, put away our PDAs and go home on time.”

Written by sabineclappaert

November 28, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Mother’s pride

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The retrospective of Flemish mother-and-daughter artist duo Memymom is sure to ruffle a few feathers during its premiere exhibition at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam this week. Images of a young Lisa De Boeck, photographed by her mother, Marilène Coolens, between 1990 and 2003 form the centre of the intimate retrospective.

The cross-generational collaboration between the Flemish mother and daughter, which continues today, began with what the pair describe as a “hangover from the past”.

Coolens began taking the photos that now make up The Umbilical Vein when her daughter was just five and continued until she turned 18. Images of a nine-year old De Boeck sitting on a bed in a Pucci blouse and high heels, others of her pouting seductively at the camera à la Marilyn Monroe or posing as Catwoman, capture the transformation of a child into a young woman.

The photographs will leave few people cold. They taunt viewers, who find themselves wanting to give them a comfortable place within an understandable context. But a nagging question remains: Are they a statement on the sexualisation of girls, or do they simply add to that imagery? Or are they about something else altogether?

According to the duo, they found inspiration for the characters De Boeck portrays in their experience of the 1990s, the decade during which most of the photos were taken: pop culture, fashion, pedestrians on the streets of Brussels.

De Boeck usually seems quite serious in the photos, often almost unhappy. But Coolens encourages you to look closer to find a child’s daily reality. And you find this in tiny details, such as a faint trail of spaghetti sauce in the corner of Catwoman’s mouth. Some viewers appreciate the way in which the work plays with the concepts of identity, family and growing up, but others – often mothers who have daughters – question the way in which Coolens portrays her daughter.

De Boeck, now 28 and a photographer and video artist in her own right, is quick to counter the allegation of inappropriateness: “I was like a cat who knew exactly what to do to get food: I knew what I had to do to make my mum pick up her camera,” she says. “I loved being in front of the camera. I would find a scarf, put on her lipstick or high heels…”

Coolens says that the collaboration with her daughter has always been very intuitive. “It’s also the reason we named the retrospective The Umbilical Vein,” adds De Boeck. “There is no connection more fundamental – or invisible to others – between a mother and her child than the umbilical vein.”

To De Boeck, the implicit bond with her mother is fundamental in the strength of the images. “It was a game I could only play in the safety of my mother’s presence. She gave me the freedom to play without misunderstanding the characters I was playing, and she did it without saying a word. Now that I’m grown up, I realise how privileged I am to have such an intuitive bond with her – both as a daughter and later also as an artist. Even today, our bond as artists is fluent and spontaneous. And the same things still inspire us: places, people, especially women. That’s why the feminine is so often a theme in our work.”

The retrospective, which was commissioned by De Brakke Grond’s director, showcases 80 photos out of more than 1,000 taken over 13 years. It is interesting to see the changes in the photographs as the years progress – not only in a young De Boeck growing up, but also in the changing dynamic of the collaboration between mother and daughter.

“When Lisa was very young, the photos were more spontaneous and playful; they were less directed than those in which she is 15 and wanted to have her own say about how the photos were taken. You can see that in the images,” explains Coolens. “The way in which she chose to play with the camera – on her own terms – is perhaps most visible in the photos ‘I’m an Old Woman Now’, in which she longingly pouts at the camera, and ‘The Misfit’, taken a few moments later, in which she decides to act grumpy and cantankerous.”

De Boeck laughs: “I find it fascinating to see myself in those early photos. I don’t remember posing for those first photos, so it’s really interesting to look back as an adult on my childself.”

The last photo in the Umbilical Vein series was taken just after Lisa turned 18. Called “La Veuve Joyeuse” (The Merry Widow), it shows Lisa in a long black coat, a black ostrich feather in her hair, gazing pensively off into the distance.

So why did the duo stop the project just as Lisa turned 18? “My dad had died the year before,” says De Boeck. “The last picture was a way for us to process that loss. Of course it doesn’t solve anything, but it does confront the beautiful brutality of life.”

Coolens and De Boeck continue to collaborate. In the last decade, they have worked on more than 10 projects together. Their recent work continues to push the boundaries of emotional aesthetics, stopping just short of the erotic. “We create dark fairy tales and invent mysteries in which anything your mind conjures up could happen,” says De Boeck.

Flanders in Amsterdam

Last week’s opening of The Umbilical Vein in De Brakke Grond was a festive affair, introduced by Flemish visual artist Michaël Aerts and with live music by blues musician Roland Van Campenhout. It also marked the start of a crowdfunding initiative for a book based on the exhibition, for which best-selling author Saskia De Coster wrote a story.

Sounds like a big Flemish reunion, doesn’t it? That’s because De Brakke Grond is a Flemish cultural centre in Amsterdam. With a name (The Brackish Ground) inspired by the swampland that dominated the area in the middle ages, the centre opened in 1981, the culmination of 10 years of planning after the then Flemish and Dutch ministers of culture agreed to investigate new forms of collaboration.

Today, the centre showcases the best in Flemish theatre, dance, music, visual arts and film. West Fleming Piet Menu, who served as a programmer at the cultural centre from 2002-2007, became its director early last year.

[Published in Flanders Today, September 2013)

Written by sabineclappaert

October 1, 2013 at 6:18 pm

Happy birthday Mairead Maguire

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Mairead Maguire was the aunt of the three Maguire children who died as a result of being hit by an Irish Republican Army getaway car after its driver was shot by a British soldier. Mairead was awarded the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for her extraordinary actions to help end the deep ethnic/political conflict in her native Northern Ireland. She shares the award with Betty Williams.


“Violence is a preventable disease.”

Mairead McGuire_sml

[Excerpt from my interview with Mairead Maguire. Photo by Jillian Edelstein]

“I believe we can solve anything peacefully if we start from the point that life is sacred, that we don’t have the right to kill someone else’s son or daughter. Yes, we have big, complex problems and yes, we are different. But we are also very much alike. The problem is that we put too much emphasis on our identities – I’m a woman, not a man, I’m a Catholic, not a Protestant – soon it becomes very threatening when someone challenges this identity; you see that clearly here in Northern Ireland, or between Jews and Palestinians. We need to learn to mellow our identities and recognize our common humanity.”

Common humanity stands as a central theme in Mairead’s vision of the future she wants to help create.

“We live in a society that desperately needs creative solutions to its problems; that requires debate on the type of future we want for ourselves and our children. We need to recognize that there is no ‘other’. We are each other,” she smiles. “Our real identity is not our ethnic or tribal identity. We need to learn to let go of that until we reach true inner freedom. Sometimes you meet people whom you can clearly see have reached their inner freedom, people like Nelson Mandela.”

Written by sabineclappaert

January 27, 2013 at 6:51 pm

Interview: Marleen Temmerman

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Despite staggering advances in medical science and technology over the years, women around the world continue to suffer gravely as a result of inadequate access to basic reproductive health services.

Roughly 134 million women are “missing” worldwide as a result of sex-selective abortions and neglect of newborn girls. Complications in childbirth are responsible for the deaths of over 350,000 women annually, 99 percent of whom hail from developing countries.

In this context, the appointment this past October of fifty-nine-year-old Marleen Temmerman – known as ‘Mama Daktari’ in Kenya, where she worked as a gynaecologist for many years – as head of the Department of Reproductive Health and Research at the World Health Organisation (WHO) is a promising move in the right direction.

IPS correspondent Sabine Clappaert spoke to Temmerman, an illustrious Belgian physician, about her plans to weave the reproductive health agenda tightly into the WHO’s mission.

Q: Why did you decide to leave your career as Head of the Obstetrics and Gynaecology Department and member of the board of directors at the Ghent University Hospital to join the WHO?

A: Throughout my career, my goal has always been to improve the reproductive and sexual health and rights of women and girls across the world. While I wasn’t actively looking for a new job I realised that this opportunity at the WHO presented a very powerful lever to help me achieve these goals.

Q: What budget are you working with and are the main priorities in your new role?

A: I have a working budget of approximately 40 million USD, which is less that what it has been in previous years. The crisis is clearly also impacting the budgets allocated to sexual and reproductive health. At the time of my appointment, for example, I was promised a significant contribution by the Belgian government. Sadly, it never materialized.

I do fear that the difficult economic climate will mean that sexual and reproductive health are seen as less of a priority, yet nothing is further from the truth. If we want the next generations of women to be healthy and empowered, we need to give them access to facilities and programs that keep them alive and well during pregnancy and childbirth or give them access to family planning services so they can plan their own future. Family planning is key not only to women and children’s health, but also to slowing unsustainable population growth and sustaining the economy and ecology.

We have three key priorities for the coming years: family planning, adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights as well as mother-child health during pregnancy and at childbirth.

Family planning is without a doubt my first priority. An estimated 222 million women do not have access to family planning; women who would like to delay or stop childbearing but who are not using any method of contraception. In China, for example, only married women have access to family planning clinics. If we could change policy to also give single women access to family planning, we could help make a real difference. The (many) challenges vary per country.

In my new role, I will be looking at why this problem persists and how we can reduce it from various perspectives: by looking at contraceptive solutions in the R&D (research and development) pipeline, through implementation research that aims to identify possible barriers – cultural and religious beliefs or the availability and cost of family planning, as well as what educational initiatives need to be taken to correct misconceptions at the community and individual level.”

Adolescent sexual and reproductive health is also enormously important if you consider the fact that in the age category 15 – 19 year old girls, abortions and complications during childbirth remain the number one cause of death. Ensuring that teenagers everywhere have access to sexual education and family planning services is crucial.

Q:  Have you always been an outspoken human rights activist?

A: I come from a family that is socially engaged. Both my mother and father have always been very active in their local community. I can’t turn a blind eye to social injustice. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to do something about it – especially injustice toward women and girls. And even today there is still so much injustice against women: violence, female genital mutilation (FMG), forced marriage and honour killings, to name a few. I can’t simply stand by and do nothing.”

Q : In 1994 you founded the International Centre for Reproductive Health (ICRH), which today is active in many countries across the world including Kenya, Mozambique, China and Guatemala. What lessons did you learn ‘in the field’ that you take with you into your new role at the WHO?

A: One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt is that collaboration is key to the success of projects in the sexual and reproductive health realm. A perfect example: at the moment we’re working on a project in Kenya that aims to support girls and women who are victims of sexual violence. We’re training medical staff to make sure they follow correct procedures and do all the right medical checks. We also ensure that girls are given psychological support and that they have access to legal advice. Collaborations such as these, across different sectors and professions to offer maximum support is how we can really affect change for girls and women everywhere.

Secondly, I’ve learnt that sexual and reproductive health remains a sensitive topic; that changing attitudes, behaviours as well as political vision and policies is a long, slow process. We have to remain committed to the importance of improving women’s sexual and reproductive rights. One of my biggest concerns is that, due to the crisis, budgets allocated to sexual and reproductive health will “disappear” into general health budgets. If this happened, it would take away the focus and attention that we must keep on this topic to help drive real change.

There is still so much to be done to end FMG, to lower mortality rates during childbirth or to make sure that every girl and woman has access to sexual and reproductive health facilities. There is a saying that says ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together’. I think we must go fast and far. And we can only do this together.”

Q: What is the developed world’s role in assuring reproductive health/justice in the global South?

“I think the developed world has a fundamental responsibility toward developing countries. The traditional north-south view is clearly out-dated, but on the other hand, women’s rights and gender equality are much more advanced in the developed than in developing world. It is our responsibility to support women in the south, to ensure that programmes of sexual and reproductive health don’t ‘disappear’ into global health initiatives, that we continue to commit sufficient resources and budgets to advancing women’s access to sexual and reproductive health facilities.

Q: What has been the hardest lesson for you while undertaking your work in Africa?

There is no doubt about it: the young women and new-born babies that have died in my arms simply because they were in a part of the world where I did not have access to medical technologies that I would have access to in Europe or another developed part of the world. There is nothing worse than the powerless feeling of holding a dying young woman in your arms and thinking “if we were in another part of the world now, she would have lived”.

I am also always shocked by the ease with which our societies brush over topics such as sexual violence, as if it is normal. So often I am told “but it is part of our culture”. This has to change. The way we bring up boys and girls and the gender roles we instil in our children must change.”

(Published in IPS NEWS, January 2013)






Written by sabineclappaert

January 23, 2013 at 7:44 pm

Interview with Alice Herz-Sommer (109) – world’s oldest Holocaust survivor.

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Alice Sommer1_Jillian Edelstein copy

Alice is about to turn 107 when I meet her on a crisp-blue autumn afternoon in November 2010. She still lives alone, in a ground-floor apartment on a broad leafy street in north London. She always leaves her front door ajar so she doesn’t have to get up every time someone comes to visit, and as I will learn, they come from all over to visit Alice.

I knock loudly to announce my arrival. A high–pitched voice calls for me to enter. A gentle push of the door reveals a dimly lit room, my eyes strain to separate shape from shadow. Slowly they appear: an upright piano against the wall and, in a chair just beyond its reach, Alice, wearing pearls, a pleated grey knee-length skirt… and faded blue Converse All Star sneakers.

Playing the piano saved Alice’s life. Born in Prague on November 26th, 1903 of Jewish parents, she was a celebrated concert pianist who performed all over Europe until, in 1943, she was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, together with her husband and six-year-old son.

Alice survived. Her husband didn’t. His last words to her before he was shipped off to Auschwitz: “Promise me that whatever happens, you will do nothing voluntarily.” Many women who were given the chance to follow their husbands and did were sent to their deaths.

During the two years of her incarceration, Alice performed more than one hundred concerts for her captors. “Sometimes the conditions were unbearable: no heating, our fingers cramped-up from the cold; we hadn’t eaten for days; it was difficult to concentrate. But I had to play; I had to stay alive – for my son,” she says. “Music saved my life,” she will tell me ten times over during our afternoon together. And that of her son, it seems, who also survived the camp.

Alice doesn’t talk about the horrors of the concentration camp. In unspoken agreement, she doesn’t volunteer and I don’t ask. It seems sacrilegious to the spirited woman before me to rake up the memory. ‘I don’t hate,’ Alice shrugs. ‘…not even the Germans. There is bad and good in us all. Even terrible things can result in miracles,’ she smiles.

Life is music.

To Alice, life is music. Her mother and father were musicians, as were two of her four siblings. Her son, Raphael Sommer, would also become a renowned cellist. ‘I don’t know how musical genes are passed on from one generation to the next; it’s a miracle!’ One conviction Alice never doubts: ‘The life of a musician is a privilege, of that I am sure. Every day we are full of the most beautiful thing ever created by mankind: music. What happens in the world around one is not so important. To be filled with this incredible beauty, yes, that is a privilege.’

Alice still plays the piano two hours every day, from ten to twelve. ‘My neighbours all say: it must be ten ‘o clock, Alice is playing!’ she chuckles. She holds up two gnarled forefingers to my face. ‘Now that my hands don’t work so well anymore, I play with these two fingers. But it’s ok, it works!’

The phone rings, the first of many times that afternoon. I get up to bring it to Alice. Always it is the same: people, mostly journalists and students, who want to meet her. A little shakily, Alice lifts the receiver:

‘Yes…?’ [silence]
‘You are calling from where…? Ah, Berlin!’ she nods a smile in recognition.
‘Of course you may come! Call when you are in London.’
‘…two ‘o clock,’ she finishes, lowering the handset back onto its hook as a distant voice continues to bubble into the room.

‘Everybody wants to meet you,’ I tell Alice. ‘You are famous!’

She chuckles. ‘Yes. Yesterday there were five, the day before ten – all students, sitting on the floor to ask questions,’ her arm sweeps across the room. ‘I love meeting people! They are so interesting.’

‘Do you have time to stay?’ she asks suddenly.

I glance out the window at the fading light and at the luminous 15:35 on Alice’s bedside alarm clock. Alone in an unfamiliar city, I mumble something about leaving before dark. ‘I want to watch a film with you,’ Alice says, ignoring my remark. ‘It’s about my life.’

With those four words she wipes the relevance of my logistical concerns off the table.

Alice points: ‘The DVD, there – put it in the player! And biscuits, get some biscuits.’ She waves me to the tiny kitchen. Finally, I pull my seat up beside hers as the hesitant sound of the first piano notes drift into the room. ‘Put it louder!’ Alice prods as the opening credits roll across the screen.

One hour and six shortbread biscuits long, we watch Alice’s life roll across the screen in Everything is a Present – the documentary by Christopher Nupen in which a 98-year-old Alice speaks of her childhood, her mother, Theresienstadt, love, the beauty of nature and the influence of music on her life.

Always it comes back to music.

As we watch the film and crystal clear notes fill the room, Alice closes her eyes, her fingers playing each note in the air, lost to her music.

For a heartbeat, time stops.

I watch Alice, oblivious to my presence, playing Bach, the television flickering images into the semi-darkness. I remember her words: “A musician is full of the beauty of music. To be filled with this beauty is a privilege.”


For Alice, optimism is a way of life. Asked what she thinks the secret to a long, happy life is, she answers: “Optimism, of course!” laughter rising from her belly as if I have asked the silliest question in the world.

‘I have always tried to fill my life with beauty. The beauty of music, the beauty of nature, the beauty of love – the love between a mother and her child – those things are extraordinary,’ says Alice, opening her eyes.

To illustrate her point, she tells of her twin sister, Marianne, who died at the age of seventy. ‘My sister was always waiting for catastrophe, always,’ she rolls her eyes. ‘Of this I am sure: if you are a pessimist, the whole organism is in tension all the time. It is not good for one’s health,’ she shakes her head and prods me to take another biscuit.

The film ends. I ask Alice what the biggest lessons are that she learned during her long life. For a second she is silent, eyes closed in contemplation. Suddenly she turns to look me straight in the eye: ‘To learn. Learn, learn, learn – that is the basis. And to be thankful for everything: for being not hungry, for seeing the sun, for a smile, for a kind word from somebody.’

With that she learns closer and cups my cheek. ‘Life is beautiful! Beautiful, I tell you!’ she laughs. I join in her laughter, wondering how I will ever do justice to the legacy of this amazing woman.

Alice Sommer
DOB: 26.11.1903
Date of interview: 16.11.2010
Location: London, UK

16112010_Alice Sommer

Written by sabineclappaert

November 27, 2012 at 11:52 am

Gradberry: An Innovative Career Portal For Young People, by Young People

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There is an old saying that goes “necessity is the mother of invention”. It is a saying that still holds true for today’s young entrepreneurs.

Before me sits Iba Masood, a twenty-three year old Dubai-based entrepreneur and finalist of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award who, together with her co-founder Syed Ahmed, has developed an web-based career portal that helps address one of the world’s most worrying trends: rising youth unemployment.

In 2011, Iba founded Gradberry, today the leading careers portal for student internships and new graduate jobs in the Middle East. ‘We focus exclusively on internships and vacancies for students and fresh graduates with zero to two years of experience,” explains a bubbly, energetic Masood during our interview at the Women’s Forum in France earlier this month.

With over 10.000 unique viewers and 300.000 pages views each month, Gradberry clearly addresses a burning need among recent graduates in the region. And if this early success (the Beta-version of the site launched in November 2011) is a sign of things to come, the site’s future looks bright, also in other parts of the world.

Iba, an honours graduate from the American University of Sharajah (UAE), learnt the harsh difference between student life and the working world even before she left the cocoon of campus.

“As we entered the final months of our studies, we had two ways of trying to find a job: via the big multi-nationals that came to campus to court final year students – but let’s face it: how many students could they employ; or by trawling job sites in search of internships and entry-level positions that all demanded “3 to 5 years experience”. Not only did we not have the experience employers demanded, I was also lost for direction in finding jobs that I could apply for, and I was wasting time that I simply did not have in the lead-up to my final exams,” Masood explains.

Tough economic times weren’t making matters easier. When her class graduated in 2010, economies were shrinking and unemployment rates rising, which also meant plummeting job opportunities throughout the Middle East.

The region today faces a whopping 24% youth unemployment rate.  “These are tough times for young graduates, I can tell you. Here I was, graduating at the top of my class and yet I couldn’t find a job,” sighs Iba.

The child of two entrepreneurs (her parents run a diesel supply business), the last thing Iba was taught to do was sit still and do nothing. “Everything becomes outdated so quickly these days… I realised that every day I sat at home waiting for the perfect job to come along took me a step further away from the ever-changing realities in the job market. The best thing I could do is get a job as an intern so I could learn and apply what I had learnt at university to stay up to date.” 

Iba didn’t let the grass grow under her feet. During her studies, she had already spent time as an intern at McKinsey & Co and Dubai Islamic Bank. Soon after graduating she started as financial analyst trainee at GE Healthcare.  But her entrepreneurial roots soon pulled her to what she knew best: starting her own company. After a short stint at a local public relations firm, Iba approached Syed Ahmed (Gradberry’s co-founder and current CTO), with the idea of a graduate careers portal. “As a fresh graduate of Mechanical Engineering, with some serious talent in design and project management, Syed was facing similar issues with the graduate job market. He loved the concept and came on board as a co-founder. We set up the initial domain, registration and design, and created the website with $200.” 

“The reason behind the site is obvious. Looking around me I saw so many young people fresh from college or university struggling to find a job – any job,” says Iba. “With Gradberry, our aim was to connect employers, graduates and universities through a single website, and allow students to find internships and entry-level positions that require no experience.” 

“Things are moving fast,” smiles Iba. “We’ve had over 8,000 students register on the site and over 150 employers, ranging from Google to Philips, are using it to hire interns, student freelancers and new graduates.” 

Our next goal? “To become the Linkedin for students and graduates globally, the primary method of finding fruitful working opportunities for the youth through social networking.”

Written by sabineclappaert

November 2, 2012 at 5:33 pm