New US con­sul­gen­eral is back in the city she loves


AN AC­TIVIST with a pas­sion for com­mu­nity em­pow­er­ment, ca­reer diplo­mat Sherry Za­lika Sykes, has re­turned to Dur­ban, a city close to her heart, and the heart of her late son, Omar Sykes.

The new US con­sul-gen­eral, who ar­rived in the coun­try last Fri­day, has served in nu­mer­ous mis­sions in dif­fer­ent parts of the world, in­clud­ing Nige­ria, Ethiopia and South Africa, where she worked as man­age­ment of­fi­cer in the US Con­sulate- Gen­eral in Dur­ban, from 2006 to 2009.

She says she was for­tu­nate that US diplo­mats had an op­tion to choose where they would like to be de­ployed, be­cause it gave her an op­por­tu­nity to come back to Dur­ban.

“I loved my time here, it was so en­rich­ing and it was all that I wanted it to be, so I told my­self that one day I would be back… It’s a highly sought-af­ter post, so there were no guar­an­tees.”

Her son Omar, who ma­tric­u­lated from Hil­ton Col­lege in the Mid­lands, was gunned down by a rob­ber in 2013 out­side Howard Univer­sity in Wash­ing­ton, where he was a se­nior mar­ket­ing ma­jor.

“Part of the rea­son I wanted to come back is my son loved it here, and it’s to hon­our him… I feel closer to him when I’m here,” Sykes says.

Born in Philadel­phia, the sec­ond of three chil­dren, she grew up in dif­fer­ent parts of Amer­ica as she trav­elled with her par­ents, who were in the US Navy.

“By the time I was in Ninth Grade I had been in 10 schools in six states. I moved a lot,” she says.

When she went to Whit­ney M Young Mag­net High School in Chicago, she was in some grades with for­mer first lady Michelle Obama.

Sykes grad­u­ated with de­grees in African and Amer­i­can stud­ies as well as in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, from Stan­ford Univer­sity in Cal­i­for­nia.

At Stan­ford she learned Swahili and met her first hus­band, Adam Sykes from Tan­za­nia, who was a stu­dent there.

Her ca­reer as a com­mu­nity or­gan­iser started at Stan­ford, and in­cluded work­ing with the for­mer US Sec­re­tary of State, Con­doleezza Rice, in the com­mu­nity-based maths and sci­ence pro­gramme in 1992.

She worked with par­ents and teach­ers on how to help chil­dren bet­ter un­der­stand the sub­jects.

She was then ap­proached by the East Palo Alto Com­mu­nity Al­liance and Neigh­bour­hood Devel­op­ment Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

“I lived in a com­mu­nity that was one of the poor­est in Cal­i­for­nia. We didn’t have af­ford­able, de­cent hous­ing. When I was head of that hous­ing agency we dealt with sewage prob­lems, chil­dren fall­ing through the bal­conies and dy­ing,” she re­calls.

Sykes says the chal­lenge for most house­holds was af­ford­abil­ity, so when she was ap­pointed an ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, one of her core re­spon­si­bil­i­ties was to se­cure fund­ing for devel­op­ment, in­clud­ing re­fur­bish­ing old build­ings.

Through fed­eral and state tax cred­its, the or­gan­i­sa­tion helped build and re­fur­bish dozens of apart­ments and helped mid­dle-in­come earn­ers own homes dur­ing her three-year ten­ure.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion also em­pow­ered its mem­bers with fi­nan­cial ed­u­ca­tion and as­sisted those who wanted to start small busi­nesses, and it used lo­cal con­trac­tors for all their de­sign and con­struc­tion.

In 1996, when Adam and their three chil­dren moved to Tan­za­nia, Sykes de­cided to stay be­hind and en­rolled for her Mas­ter’s de­gree in pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion at

Sherry Za­lika Sykes, US con­sul-gen­eral in South Africa. RIGHT: Sykes and her hus­band Ge­orge Michael Jor­dan, who she mar­ried in June. PIC­TURE: BONGANI MBATHA

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