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Chapter 16: Upholding UN Values

Impatient to get downstairs, I said to Brielle, “Come on, they’ve posted the two-person teams on the board in the common room. I’ll see you down in the lounge.” The rumor mill had hinted that an ability to drive and cultural diversity were the main criteria for assignments and teams.

Jostling through the crowd to get close enough to scan the list, I found my name on the board. My chest tightened, squeezing the air from my lungs. My posting was not with Brielle. I was paired instead with Omar, a young Pakistani guy whom I barely knew.

I moved toward Brielle, who was standing outside the crush of people in front of the board. She read the distress on my face, but rather than respond she stood and stared vacantly at me. Eventually I said, “The bastards can’t do this.”

Brielle shrugged her thin shoulders. “They keep us apart because they don’t like us; that pompous Bruno especially doesn’t like me. What do you expect?” I let my anger simmer until, like a volcano ready to erupt, it burst forth, coloring my face with its heat. Brielle’s face remained impassive. “I go see who I’m with.”

“I don’t want Omar as my partner. I want Brielle,” I proclaimed to the first staffer who happened to be in my path at HQ the next morning. She sent me to Bruno, but I was not happy with his reply.

“Go out to lunch. Get to know him. He is your partner.”

Lunch it was, in a gritty little restaurant near HQ. Omar looked uncomfortable, but he pulled his shoulders back, looked directly at me and said, “I am sorry, sorry I have a woman partner. A man is worth two of your kind. So my job is more difficult.”

“Excuse me. My kind?” Every one of my muscles tightened, and I’m sure that my face contorted into a sneer. “And exactly where did you get that idea?”

“This fact is in the Quran,” he said, looking at me as if any idiot would know that and accept it as the truth.

The battle was no longer only about failing to get Brielle as my partner; it was also about control, and I was not about to abdicate mine to Omar. Or any man.

After a continuous, unrelenting argument, Omar stood with his fists clenched and avoided my eyes as he said, “You must defer to me. Then we will be good partners.”

That order was his last hurrah. I returned to HQ and stated my ultimatum: If Omar went with me, he’d be returned in a wooden box. I was irate, and hearing from Bruno that I “didn’t demonstrate positive UN values of diversity” only made me angrier. Finally the HQ staff buckled under my onslaught of threats to quit, and Omar was reassigned to Phnom Penh. I would be alone in my district for the time being.

I was further appeased when our geographic assignments were posted. I learned that I was going to Kampong Cham Province; my electoral district was to be Cheong Prey, and that Brielle would go to the adjoining district of Battheay.

The staffer I had met the day I arrived in Cambodia and the only one I considered worthwhile and not hostile, stopped me before I could leave the building. Pulling me aside, she whispered, “CJ, no one around HQ likes you.”

“I can live with that.”

“Then live with this. Given the proximity of your districts, you and Brielle should be able to arrange housing together. You got a great gig. Your districts are only an hour or so from Phnom Penh; they are in a heavily populated, relatively malaria-free zone with little Khmer Rouge presence. I know you’re disappointed that Brielle isn’t your partner, but really you will practically be in the same place. If I were you, I would put a check in the win column and move on.”

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