US diplo­mat Sherry Sykes is very happy to be back in Dur­ban

The Sunday Independent - - NEWS -

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.

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