Crushing Debt Drove Me to Kosovo — And Then to Iraq

Ten years ago, I was nearly 30 and over $90,000 in debt. I had spent my twenties trying to build an interesting life; I had two degrees; I had lived in New York and the Bay Area; I had worked in a series of interesting jobs; I spent a lot of time traveling overseas. But I had also made a couple of critically stupid and shortsighted decisions. I had invested tens of thousands of dollars in a master’s degree in landscape architecture that I realized I didn’t want halfway through. While maxing out my student loans, I had also collected a toxic mix of maxed-out credit cards, personal loans, and $2,000 I had borrowed from my father for a crisis long since forgotten. My life consisted of loan deferments and minimum payments.

Like so many other lost children, I had fallen into a career in IT. The work was boring, but led to jobs with cool organizations—a lot of jobs, because I kept quitting them. As soon as I had any money in the bank, I’d quit and go backpacking in Southeast Asia. My adventures were life-changing experiences, but I was eventually left with a CV that was pretty scattershot.

My luck securing interesting jobs dried up. In 2001, I ended up living with my dad for four months and working at a banking infrastructure company in suburban Pittsburgh. I should have taken that as a warning that I needed to get it together, but I thought it was just an aberration. It was not. 

A year later, I was living in a one room Brooklyn apartment with a cat that compulsively peed on my bathmat. (This was a questionable upgrade to living with Dad.) I was trapped in a low paying IT job that I hated, I was in a relationship with a woman who hated me, and I was barely getting by, never mind getting control over my financial situation.

I was finally reckoning with the fact that I was facing decades of unaffordable minimum debt payments. Any career ambitions I might have had would be put on hold indefinitely, possibly permanently. Travel was over. The full amount that I would have to pay off at the end of it all was too awful to contemplate. I felt trapped and hopeless. I was in a dark place.

And so like many people in dark places, I looked for an escape hatch. I came up with two options: going back to graduate school or getting a job with a non-governmental organization (NGO) overseas. Graduate school would be the ultimate escape—it was better than working, and it would allow me to continue to defer my existing student loans (notwithstanding, of course, the small fact that I would potentially be doubling them). But while school was attractive in the short term, the financial implications were absolutely insane.

Working for an NGO was more appealing.  My wanderlust was overpowering, but traveling for its own sake had lost its appeal. I wanted to live in a new place. I wanted to do something worthwhile.  But I also needed an income.  I applied everywhere, in Asia and Africa, for any job for which I was remotely qualified. There were not many.

After nine months of applications passed without even a sniff of interest, I reluctantly faced the reality that inexperienced landscape architects were not in high demand in Sudan or Afghanistan. I refocused on a glorious return to academia, and by October 2002, I had four unfocused applications for four unaffordable graduate schools just about ready to go. Then, on Halloween, I got an unexpected email with the subject: “OSCE Interview.”

The inelegantly named Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is an intergovernmental organization composed of and funded by European member states, the U.S. and Canada. It is active in Eastern Europe and western Asia, focused primarily on human rights monitoring, elections assistance, and democratization projects. I was invited to their headquarters in Vienna, to interview for a middle management IT job in Pristina, Kosovo, the site of their largest mission. (The OSCE, the UN, and NATO formed the tripartite mission to stabilize and rebuild Kosovo after the war.)

Of course, all I understood at the time was JOB INTERVIEW and VIENNA. Prior to my application, I had never heard of the OSCE, and I knew next to nothing about Kosovo. My IT skills were rudimentary and my management experience nonexistent. I was mystified why I got a call. I was so completely unqualified for this job, I might have treated this like a mini-vacation but for one significant fact: the salary. The job paid $85,000 a year, tax-free (due to the glorious Foreign Earned Income Exclusion). This was an incomprehensible amount of money. It would fix everything. The pressure to do well in this interview, just for this one small chance at a dream life and the magical solution to all of my problems, was intense.

I flew to Vienna two weeks later and interviewed the next morning in a small yellow room. It was 10 a.m.—4 a.m. EST. There was a panel, chaired by my would-be boss, a taciturn Austrian man. I was dressed in a garish blue Hugo Boss sport coat that I picked up at Century 21 a week earlier. I was over caffeinated, jet lagged, and clammy. I made nervous self-deprecating jokes, which translated poorly between our cultures. It was a disaster from start to finish. I left the interview thinking, “Thanks for the free trip to Vienna.” I spent the rest of the day squandering my remaining per diem on beer and meat, refusing to think about what might have been. The next morning I flew home.

Three weeks later, I received an email from that taciturn Austrian with the subject: “Welcome on board.”

I was stunned. I was to start on January 5, one month later, leaving me less than five weeks to completely shut down my existing life, such as it was, and start a new one in Kosovo.

With enormous satisfaction and barely suppressed joy, I immediately quit my horrible job, broke up with my contemptuous girlfriend, and started packing up my apartment and saying my goodbyes. Over the course of an appletini-soaked evening with D.D., a coworker, we discovered that we had harbored secret crushes on one another for the past year. I walked her home, kissed her on her doorstep, and we had a brief, but intense, fling during my final weeks in Brooklyn. The day before Christmas Eve, we drove a U-Haul packed with all of my things and my vomiting cat to my dad’s house in Pittsburgh. And then I was off.

A week later, I was in Kosovo. Pristina, never the most beautiful city in Eastern Europe, was particularly grim in January. It was grey and bitterly cold. Lengthy and unscheduled blackouts were frequent. There were NATO Kosovo Peace Implementation Force (KFOR) checkpoints everywhere. Borders were closed either by weather or politics. The food was uneven and occasionally poisonous. The pollution was bad enough some days that you could taste the air.

But I was in heaven. For years I had fantasized about packing up all of my stuff and living out of a suitcase. I came to Pristina with two duffle bags and the clothes on my back. Or, more accurately, since my luggage had been lost, with only the clothes on my back. I spent the first few days living out of the optimistically named Grand Hotel and the same pair of underpants, but within a week I was settled into an apartment two blocks from work with a refrigerator stocked with unfamiliar flavors of yogurt.

I remember my first operations meeting, held at the Mission’s logistics compound. It was the first of a hundred banal meetings, probably focused on photocopier repair and carpet installation, but I looked around the table at my colleagues (Dutch, Romanian, British, American, Austrian) and it felt like the most important place to be in the world. I felt like I was doing something important. I still don’t know if I was, but I’d never been happier.

My job, as is it turned out, was a lot of fun. I managed an IT support team composed almost exclusively of Kosovo-Albanian computer geeks in their twenties (with one beleaguered Serb to round out the group). Many of them had hidden in their apartments with the lights off for the past few years, or fled to Sweden or Albania. They were a bunch of affable young guys who were as happy to have their jobs as I was to have mine. Some of them supported their entire families, including their parents, on a fraction of my salary. We became quick friends and they toured me around the villages and towns during the weekends, occasionally getting stranded on mountain passes. We drove to McDonald’s in Skopje, a four-hour round trip.

And critically, I was getting paid. My wages were divided between a relatively modest salary of about $42,000 a year, and a “basic living allowance,” or more accurately, the “please work in Kosovo allowance” of 108 Euros a day. While I would have happily worked in Kosovo for the salary alone, I quickly realized why the extra allowance was provided. Once the euphoria wore off, life in Pristina was boring and lonely. I watched a lot of BBC news, when there was power. I did a lot of ironing, when there was power. When there wasn’t power, I wrapped myself in sweaters and a pea coat and lay on my bed and looked at the ceiling and tried to remember why I was there. It was a long winter. Many of my expat colleagues drank their way to June.

The bleakness was alleviated when, that spring, I got a visitor.  D.D.— beautiful, wonderful, awesome D.D.—flew to Pristina in March. I picked her up from the airport, watching her eyes as she observed the tanks, barbed wire, and burned out neighborhoods, wondering whether she was wondering if she had made a terrible mistake coming to this place. She planned to visit for two weeks, but she stayed for four months. We fell in love. And we splurged a bit, traveling to Croatia, Montenegro, and Greece. I turned 30 on a beach in Budva, Montenegro, D.D. by my side, marveling at how things had worked out.

Despite these modest indulgences, I had to get creative to spend more than a 1500 Euros a month in Pristina, so all of my salary and most of my living allowance went to the bank. I was dutifully paying off my debts at a rate of $4,000 a month without fail, without excuses. First came my dad and the credit cards, then the student loans. I hadn’t hit the lottery. This was better. At this rate, I would have everything paid off by June 2005. If I could stay in Kosovo and survive two more winters, I would return to the States with a clean slate.

But then something unexpected happened. I went to Iraq instead.


I had only been in Kosovo for a couple of months when the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003. This was the second episode of American adventurism in four years, and many of my colleagues began discussing their eventual move for the reconstruction effort. Nearly everyone shelved their plans when the UN Headquarters in Baghdad was bombed in August 2003 and things quickly spiraled out of control. A few remained however, mostly Americans, as billions in aid and reconstruction money were still flowing into the country.

A former OSCE elections director would infrequently send out recruitment emails for elections jobs in various countries—Kenya, Afghanistan, Iraq. While I wasn’t interested or qualified for most of the jobs, my contract was year to year, and I thought I should get my name out there, so I often applied. It worked.

In July 2004, D.D. was back in Kosovo at the time and we were planning a long weekend in Greece. The day before we were going to leave, I got an email from someone working for an NGO in Baghdad. He had seen my CV and was interested in my qualifications for an opening on their elections project. We had a pleasant conversation, and I sent an email responding to some of his technical questions. Then D.D. and I hit the road.

When we got back, I had a number of emails from D.C., including a contract for a one-month consultancy. I wrote to my new friend in Baghdad asking if I was being offered the job. I was. I said I couldn’t do anything without talking to my boss. He responded, “Talk to him tomorrow morning.”

(What I should have said: I can’t do anything without talking to D.D. who, I should mention, was first generation Iraqi-American with family still in Baghdad. She turned out to be fairly hostile to the idea of having another loved one in the line of fire.)

They offered slightly more than I was making in Kosovo, but since I took vacation time to go, I effectively doubled my income for a month. But I didn’t take the consultancy for the money—I took it to see Baghdad for myself, to see how things were going after a war that I had vehemently opposed and thought would never happen. I would check it out, do a job, and go back to Pristina with a story or two. Had I known what was waiting for me, I might have negotiated for more money.

I agreed to the contract terms the next day, I had airline tickets and a hotel reservation in Amman 24 hours after that, and at the end of the week my boots were on the ground at Baghdad International Airport. I was met at the airport by a Blackwater personal security detail, a group of heavily armed psychopaths that would shadow me everywhere for the following four weeks. I was shuttled into the Green Zone to meet the team, which was composed of just two other guys.

Accommodations were free, if spartan. We bunked in a single room at a Blackwater team house in the Green Zone. Those guys were scary enough that I didn’t leave our room except to the use the bathroom. (Even this was a mistake; during one trip to pee, I was intercepted by the “house leader” and literally dragged around the facility by the scruff of my neck to underscore how dangerous absolutely everything was.) Most of our meals were free as well, courtesy of the military dining facilities in the CPA palace headquarters and the Al Rashid Hotel, though, for the sake of variety, we would take the occasional meal at the “Back Chinese” restaurant or the Green Zone Café. Mostly, we just worked.

My job was ostensibly to plan the IT and communications infrastructure for the newly established Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq (IECI). Nationwide elections were scheduled for January 2005, only five months away. Given that no one had a firm grasp on how any of this was going to work, my job was initially little more than an intellectual exercise, but concepts had a disconcertingly rapid way of becoming reality in Baghdad. By the end of my second week, I was asked to stay on through February to build what I had planned.

I demurred, finished my contract, and returned to Kosovo. I was ambivalent about taking on the project, I was tired of being separated from D.D., and it was, of course, exceedingly dangerous. The Green Zone had been mortared frequently, and one had landed close enough to where we were having dinner that I could hear the shrapnel ricocheting in the street.

Still, I never actually said no. After all, this was a chance to do something on an enormous scale, in an extraordinarily challenging environment, with potentially historic consequences. It was, quite literally, a once in a lifetime opportunity. Plus, I liked the guys I was working for. They weren’t zealots or ideologues; those guys had packed up their bags when Bremer left. These were smart people trying to make the best out of a tragic farce, and a little camaraderie is a valuable thing when you’re working on an impossible project with ridiculous deadlines surrounded by people that want to cut your head off. How could I say no?

I said that I could return in November, but now that I had a clearer sense of what I was getting into, I asked for a little more money this time around. They quickly responded with a 50% raise, a preposterous $50,000 for four months of work. Instead of paying off all my debts in a year, I would pay them off before Christmas, and have some money left over.

D.D. was apoplectic. I had smoothed over the hurt feelings from the first trip when I returned with a ring and a proposal, but those good vibes were quickly undone when I announced my intention to return. She ultimately relented, and in exchange she extracted a promise that I would never leave the Green Zone. (D.D. would later get a job of her own on a related project in Amman, which was probably just as dangerous as mine.)

While I was back in Kosovo, the security situation in Baghdad, already very bad, deteriorated exponentially. In October, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the Green Zone Cafe and the outdoor market. Mortars and rockets were constant, landing multiple times per day. By the time I got back, we had our own house in the Green Zone and a less terrifying security detail, but we never went anywhere without them, and we never went anywhere except work.

If I had felt any unease that I was potentially exploiting a horrible situation for personal gain, it was short-lived. The next four months were the most stressful, difficult, and dangerous of my life until that point, and probably—hopefully—ever.

My tasks were daunting. My August plans assumed a large implementation team would form, but by November I was still flying solo. I had to arrange for the delivery and distribution of 100 tons of IT and communications equipment, but I lacked a warehouse, a warehouse staff, any warehouse equipment, or any kind of distribution network for that matter. (We unloaded the first five of 30 semis essentially by hand, at night.) This equipment had to be configured and integrated with a couple of dozen regional satellite offices located throughout the country. I had to hire contractors and manage a team of local Iraqis, only one of whom spoke English, and only one of whom had any IT experience (and they were not the same person). And I had three months to do it.

There were a considerable number of obstacles. Getting equipment and personnel into the Green Zone was extraordinarily difficult, sometimes impossible. Semis arrived unexpectedly four and five at a time, having spent the entire day waiting to be X-rayed, and then the drivers demanded additional bribes to unload their cargo. The American contractors hired to refurbish the IECI’s headquarters turned out to be spectacularly corrupt, and installed substandard materials throughout the building, including counterfeit network wiring, rendering over a third of the offices effectively useless. Four days before the election, our satellite company unexpectedly recalibrated their entire network, knocking the HQ and all of our satellite offices offline.

And then there was the small matter of the people trying to kill us.

Compared to many other civilian workers, we were well protected. We had a dedicated security detail, armored vehicles, and a lightly fortified house.  It was remarkable how quickly we all adjusted to the omnipresent danger. It became a mild annoyance and a source of dark humor. A few snippets from my journal:

November 13, 2004: We were sitting in the living room playing on our computers and watching CNN when a mortar came in and hit very close by, close enough to feel the impact. Another followed immediately afterward, slightly closer (boom). We all looked at each other. Another two followed then, closer still, (BOOM! BOOM!) and we all dashed into the dining room which, you see, has no windows. The PSDs [private security detail] all dashed outside. H said, “Are they nuts?”

D came in from outside, talking on the phone. H asked who he was talking to. D mouthed, “My mom.” We all started laughing. He said to his mom, “Sorry Mom, there was a lot of traffic outside. Traffic is terrible here. A car was backfiring.” He actually said that. I think she actually believed it.

November 18, 2004: Today, I stood outside our new HQ discussing the logistics of transporting the 100 tons of IT equipment that I had ordered that would be arriving on 4 DC-8s and, evidently, 30 semis. Our discussion happened over the sound of small arms fire that sounded even closer than yesterday. While we were talking, there was an explosion that was powerful enough that the blast wave rocked the warehouse door next to which we were standing. My companion and I looked at the door and continued talking.

November 27, 2004: I stood outside the Al Rashid this afternoon listening to a mortar barrage that continued longer than any I’d heard before. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. They were far enough and loud enough that they sounded like a giant’s footsteps. I stood outside and just listened. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Someone muttered, “They’re finding their range.”

Our lead PSD said that there were seven RPGs and five IEDs along the airport road today. The attacks have gotten bad enough that the MNF is considering putting T-walls along the entire route. Ten kilometers of 20 foot tall concrete blast walls. Mission accomplished.

December 4, 2004: I was working alone today in the new building. A huge explosion went off very close by, the biggest I’ve ever heard, clearly a car bomb, and I swear the building rippled around me. I hit the deck and then waited. Nothing followed, so, like an idiot, I went up on the roof to see what was happening. A huge column of smoke was billowing up about 100 yards from the Al Rashid. There was a lot of gunfire. My phone rang and D asked where I was. “The new building,” I said. “Where exactly?” he asked. “On the roof,” I replied. “GET OFF THE ROOF!” he screamed.

Far more stressful was the threat that our Iraqi colleagues faced, traveling out of the Green Zone every day, afraid to tell anyone where they worked, literally risking their lives on every commute. Even the truck divers hired to transport my equipment faced potential death if they were intercepted. I could have gotten a man killed for delivering toner. It was not a comfortable position to be in.

Despite all this, I still kept an eye on my bill paying. On December 31, 2004, I achieved a couple of significant milestones: I made my final student loan payment, and I had a positive net worth for the first time in my adult life. Mortars, rockets, and car bombs aside, that was pretty satisfying.

Election Day finally arrived on January 30, 2005. Somehow just about everything I had to do got done. Well, not everything, but enough. How everyone else got their jobs done, which were a lot bigger and more complicated than mine, I will never understand.

I spent the last few days setting up the tally center, but I had nothing to do on the big day itself, which was weird. I wandered around the headquarters, completely idle for the first time in months. The Iraqi staff started to trickle in, their index fingers stained purple after voting. I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion. Then my staff started to arrive, the sweetest, hardest working bunch of nerds you could ever ask for, and they proudly showed me their purple fingers. As conflicted as I may have been about this entire endeavor—and I still don’t know if any of it mattered—it was a sweet day. I must have cried a dozen times.

I stayed on through the end of February to wrap things up. We had a lot of time to spare. I shot big guns with the PSDs. (I will never understand why people like guns so much.) I broke my promise to D.D. and rode a Blackhawk around Iraq dropping off duffle bags of cash. I invented a game called “orange baseball”, in which you hit oranges with a shovel. And, inevitably, I received another generous offer to extend my contract through the next election. This time, I turned it down. I had pushed my luck far enough. I wanted a vacation.

D.D. and I got married that May in New York. We have lived in six countries since then. We have two boys, one born in D.C., the other in Brussels. D.D. has never completely forgiven me for the Blackhawk ride. I have never been in debt again.

 

The author and his family currently live 11,285 miles from Brooklyn. They move again in January 2013.

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43 Comments / Post A Comment

aeroaeroaero (#1,422)

Whoa.

@aeroaeroaero My thoughts exactly. The Billfold is quickly becoming one of my go-to sites, and great work like this is one of the reasons why.

Also, I’m ridiculously pleased that Anonymous and D.D. are happily married and raising their no doubt equally-adventurous kids.

rimy (#2,163)

All-consuming wanderlust after reading this. Amazing article, fascinating story, I think it takes The Billfold up another notch! I love the parallel storylines of debt repayment, career progression, danger/excitement, and your relationship.

Also I am quite jealous/will be investigating that organization now.

Thank you!

Dancercise (#94)

Fascinating read. Thanks for writing this, and thanks, Mike and Logan, for publishing it.

emilies (#956)

Thank you for publishing this and the timing for me could not have been better.

The author’s pre-Kosovo situation mirrors mine exactly: crushing wanderlust, dissatisfaction with all jobs (because despite not knowing what I want to do, I know it’s not this), being generally unhappy with my situation, etc. I’ve been holding out for an opportunity like this and that’s kind of been my career plan since graduating (was reminded yesterday by my mom that I need to figure out what I want to do with my life) but have ultimately come to the realization that one needs actual skills to get these jobs. Not “non-profit admin assistant” like I’ve been using as a placeholder for the past few years…

Nevertheless, good to know that there are many paths to NGO work. Very inspiring and well-written read!

@emilies The key part of this story, job-wise, is that Anon. got into NGO work through a support staff role. Support staff are often much more in demand than people with IR or ID degrees, and frequently paid better. An experienced accountant could probably work for any INGO anywhere in the world they want to.

sariberry (#4,420)

@stuffisthings That is so true. Having worked in international development for years, I can say that hard skills are much more valuable than an ID or IR degree.

Megano! (#124)

Amazing

wearitcounts (#772)

oh man, this was good. so many feelings. thank you.

Genghis Khat (#584)

Wow. I want to do all these things. I’m reminded of how my last five years of apathy and complacency are kind of the opposite of my true personality. I guess it’s also a reminder to shop for jobs you don’t know you’re qualified for. I want to be an adventure person!

madrassoup (#929)

This whole thing was great, but the line about the guy telling his mom a car was backfiring pretty much did me in. The whole idea of a son not wanting his mom to worry that he was in so much danger is just the best kind of love and I cannot take it.

cat1788 (#1,809)

This was really wonderful! Thanks for posting it.

Poppy (#1,438)

Such a great piece, and such an awe-inspiring person! I also love that the story ends with a happy marriage and kids and more travel.

So good!!!!!

honey cowl (#1,510)

I loved everything about this (especially the fact that Anon and DD end up married with little kidlets). I can relate to almost nothing in it (this sounds like the worst life I can ever imagine) but somehow it’s so universal.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

It’s so interesting seeing what it’s really like to work for an NGO in a war-torn country actually organising things like democratic elections on the ground level.
Also I had no idea that NGOs actually paid well – I don’t know why, but I always thought it would be something that was paid in love and very little money (rather like non-profit work?). Thanks for this amazing insight.

Ophelia (#2,171)

@TARDIStime Base salaries are pretty comparable in the international NGO world to the domestic non-profit world, but the allowances you get for living overseas on a contract/grant (particularly one funded by the US Government) can double your take-home pay (particularly if it’s a dangerous place).

@TARDIStime I read an article recently about how NGOs in Afghanistan are swimming in money because so much aid is being pumped into that country, and a lot of it gets abused by people in their early 20s who are making way more bank than they could in America, going clubbing in armor-protected SUVs and whatnot.

Granted, the following issue of the magazine I read this story in had a bunch of outraged letters from other people doing NGO work in Afghanistan saying that most of the money gets used very appropriately and the article focused on outliers of the situation. So who knows.

here’s the article if anyone’s interested.

Ophelia (#2,171)

@redheaded&crazy Yeah. While I think there is of course some waste and abuse of aid funding, for a US government contract, we actually have to invoice down to an insane level for things like office supplies, etc., let alone salaries and benefits. You can argue that the US Government offers too much in the way of incentives for people to live overseas, but I’m not sure the young idealists are the abusers in this situation (most people I know would’ve gone for less, but weren’t going to negotiate their benefits packages DOWN).

A heartfelt account of what it’s like to be a war profiteer. I especially liked your justification for the faint but uncomfortable moral qualms that threaten the war profiteer’s greed—you were in danger! Of course you deserve to milk the misery of the Iraqis. Un-fucking-believable.

wee_ramekin (#1,246)

@Miss Havisham@twitter

Wait. How is helping to set up an infrastructure for voting “war profiteering”?

oiseau (#1,830)

@Miss Havisham@twitter Yeah, I wouldn’t exactly say he was “milking the misery of the Iraqis”. If anything, he was just kind of bullshitting around, didn’t really agree with the war, and wasn’t actively harming anyone. If anything he did net good, but if he didn’t support the war or US meddling in Iraqi affairs, then I do agree he was in a somewhat morally gray area.

Ophelia (#2,171)

@Miss Havisham@twitter Yeah. I spent a month in Iraq as the communications person on a contract working to salvage Iraq’s agricultural sector. I did come out (slightly) on top, money-wise (as I received danger pay and had no expenses), but I don’t consider myself a war profiteer. I have a lot of friends who spent several years working in Afghanistan on community development projects, and similarly, while they did get paid well for their work, they also came back with deep ties to the people they worked with on the ground and accomplished some pretty amazing things while they were there.

The way I’ve always thought about it is: sometimes the US Government gets involved in conflicts I don’t agree with. Iraq is one of those. But if we do screw things up, it’s also our responsibility to put them right. We can (and should) have a conversation about whether our attempts to put them right have been successful.

Ophelia (#2,171)

@Ophelia Also, I’d very much like to talk about how F’d up it is that one of the only ways people of our generation are able to pay off their grad school debt (even people who were not as irresponsible as this author sounds), and do mundane things like buy an apartment is to live overseas in dangerous places.

oiseau (#1,830)

@Ophelia Out of genuine curiosity, how did you get that job? What requirements are generally necessary to get these types of jobs? Would you do it again? I would love to know!

Ophelia (#2,171)

@oiseau I have a BS in Foreign Service, and have worked for an aid contractor for about 9 years doing communications and proposal/ grantwriting. That particular assignment was to replace someone who had a family emergency and had to go back to the US. I was hired out of college (in an entry level position), and have stayed with the same company, which makes me a bit unusual. Typically, if you’re an American who wants to go overseas on an aid project, you need:
- At least 5 years of relevant experience, plus a (hopefully relevant)advanced degree;
- If it’s a management position, prior experience managing contracts or grants, and managing personnel; and
- Language skills are a definite plus.

Generally speaking, the higher the capacity of the country where you’re going, the more educated/highly experienced you need to be – it’s unlikely an NGO is going to hire an American accountant in, say, Kenya or Morocco, because they can just hire one from the local accounting firm. In Afghanistan or the DRC, on the other hand, where literacy and numeracy rates are low, and fraud is high(er), it’s more likely that they’ll hire Americans/Europeans for more junior positions.

The other option is to work for a smaller organization, where you can often get a position with less experience (although I’d recommend against this if it’s a dangerous place), or to join the Peace Corps (or a similar service organization) and get to know a country well, and then stay there and work with that country as your “home.”

I’d definitely do it again – I’ve been to a lot of places, including the West Bank, Liberia, Nigeria, Haiti, Ethiopia, Tunisia and Thailand, but I’m also not super-typical, as I like being US-based (so most of my travel has been short-term), and have kind of worn my wanderlust out via multiple 12-hour flights in coach :)

oiseau (#1,830)

@Ophelia Thanks for your response- I am quite interested in this sort of work but only graduated with a BA last year, so I probably have some more work to do to get to the point that I have options on the table. Lots to consider-!

nyikin (#32)

@Miss Havisham@twitter For god’s sake. What is the right thing to do then? To do nothing, stay in the US and ignore Iraq entirely? To go there, but refuse to receive any income? What is it?

Ophelia (#2,171)

@oiseau I’d say – apply for jobs (in the US, or wherever you’re based) with organizations that do the type of work you’re interested in – whatever jobs they’ve got at the entry level, and take a few years to see it from the inside :)

@Ophelia Haha, I’m still pretty sure the job I almost took in Afghanistan was with your organization. I’m kinda glad I didn’t, though it would’ve been great for my loan situation.

sox (#246)

@Miss Havisham@twitter
Actually, taking a regular, average US salary does not sound like war profiteering to me at all. Last month I was visiting with friends and asked how one of their younger brothers was doing, as last time I saw him he bailed on a weekend trip last minute because he was out partying too hard for multiple preceding nights – leaving us to still account for his share of the housing rental. Turns out right now he’s in Iraq as well, doing some ‘security infrastructure’ work. For emming-effing $485k a year. Half a million. HALF A MILLION.
And his political stance sure isn’t nearly as compassionate or wanderlusty as this author.

This account is brilliant. It is real. What I love the most is the surprising, scary , & satisfying turn of events all the way through the writer’s journey. Stories like this one are rare, beautiful, and inspire true happiness.

oiseau (#1,830)

Published under “Anonymous” = this guy is probably working for the CIA under some capacity by now, right? Interesting to think about what that job led him to next in his career. Private security consultancy?
Or maybe not, 11,285 mi from Brooklyn is pretty much South Korea or maybe Japan when I estimate based off google maps. So more likely he is living a more mundane existence somewhere in Asia.
All very interesting stuff anyway! Thanks for publishing.

selenana (#673)

@oiseau Or just worried for his safety and about people spewing bile at him and calling him a war profiteer.

How awesome that the war in Iraq has enabled someone who spent their thirties pretty much just traveling and “building a cool life” to pay off all their debt! I can’t believe W. didn’t mention that as a benefit when he first sold us the war! Thank you, beleaguered Iraqi people, for providing such great financial opportunities for my generation (of Americans).

I just hope somebody finally got around to taking the cat to the vet!

kellyography (#250)

This was a really, really interesting read. Love that the writer ended up with DD and a happy family, too.

whimseywisp (#220)

LOVED THIS. The things you have to do to pay off your debts… wow.

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