US diplomat Sherry Sykes is very happy to be back in Durban
CAREER diplomat and activist Sherry Zalika Sykes is excited to be back in Durban, a place where her late son, Omar Sykes, was very happy.
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 the same grade as former first lady Michelle Obama.
Sykes graduated from Stanford University in California with degrees in African and American studies as well as international relations.
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 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 said.
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 Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, then joined them the following year.
“I realised that if I moved to Tanzania without a master’s degree I would not be employable and that turned out to be true, I really needed that degree,” she says. In Tanzania, Sykes worked as a private sector development adviser for the US Agency for International Development, where she worked in the team that facilitated high level business and trade meetings between the US and Tanzania.
When she was overseas she worked in the embassies but when she was in Washington she worked in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs and was in one of the teams that worked on BP’s Deep water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
She recently dealt with matters of wildlife conservation including combating rhino and other animal poaching.
Following Omar’s death, the mother of four took a year-long sabbatical and undertook research, activism and teaching on violence prevention and intervention, both independently and with Yale University and the organisation Cure Violence.
On her plans for her three-year term in South Africa, Sykes says she looks forward to furthering the work of her predecessor in US-South African engagements and programmes in economics and trade, as well as charity work such as the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, which she has seen the US spending $6 billion (R80bn) in the past decade on HIV/ Aids and TB-related programmes.
A further $483m has been allocated for the next 12 months for testing, prevention and treatment programmes in South Africa.