Interview: “SEKEM is my first step to independence”

Her Japanese name is Hana Sawadaer. Her Egyptian name is Hana Tarek Mohammed. She is a 24-years-old woman that was raised in a family with disparate cultural backgrounds and that is passionate about animals. At the moment, Hana is building her dream career by studying at the veterinary faculty and working with cows at the SEKEM Farm. In this interview she talks about how she came to SEKEM and about what it is like to follow your passion, even if it does not align with public expectations.

Interview by Doris van Regteren Altena and Kseniia Popova

Hi Hana! Could you explain to our readers what is your role here at SEKEM?

At this moment, I’m an intern. I study at a veterinary faculty and work with cows at SEKEM Farm.

How did you hear about SEKEM for the first time?

Angela Hofmann a longstanding member of the SEKEM community, sings in the same choir with my mom in Cairo. Some years ago, she started to give us music lessons and for some time I was accompanying on the piano for two girls who played block flutes. Once we performed in the SEKEM School, and I had the chance to take a tour around the farm. That day I fell in love with SEKEM and the way they treat their animals. Then I knew right away that I wanted to work here.

Later I came to stay at the farm for a month after my first semester at the university. After this I wrote my first ever resume, sent it to the management and received a job. Now I am working here. I have some income and am taking the first steps towards my adulthood.

Where are you originally from?

My father is Egyptian and my mother is Japanese. I was born and raised in Cairo, though I visit my grandparents in Japan every summer. At home, me and my sister speak Arabic with my dad, and Japanese with my mom. When we are all together, we speak English. So, from a young age on, I already spoke English quite well, but my Arabic was not that good. At eight grade my parents even had to transfer me from the Egyptian school to the British one, so my bad grades in Arabic would not affect my final score. In my childhood I also spent a lot of time in the community of foreign kids. I really enjoyed meeting children from different cultures and that is what I like about SEKEM. Here I also have a chance to meet people from different countries who come to stay here as guests.

What is your favorite thing about working for SEKEM?

When I came here, I already knew some people from the top management. And because of this, somehow, I became a connection point between the workers and decision-makers. I really like it because for example, at the stables, there are lots of people who have their concerns about some working issues, but they do not feel confident enough to communicate them to the people in charge. So I play the role of their ‘messenger’ and take their concerns to the management. I’m close to the workers, so they are very comfortable talking to me. Besides, I always encourage others to say if they need anything or to ask questions if something is not clear. Mutual trust makes this work very pleasurable to me.

Most of the workers at the farm are men. As a young woman how do you find it working with them?

I find it very easy. I think it has a lot to do with my personality. I am a tomboy type of a girl. I take things very simply: if I have questions I ask, I do not overthink and I don’t like to make assumptions. Me and my co-workers have very different backgrounds: I am a city girl in my early twenties, and they are grown men from the countryside. To establish a fair ground we need to be able to talk and listen to each other. Regardless of gender, I find it’s important to be a simple good person, so people will sympathize with you and it will be really easy to have a dialogue and work along with each other.

In your experience, in what way do you think you differ from most Egyptian young women?

First of all, I would say I’m not into dressing up and going out with my friends all the time. I’m a huge introvert. I like to stay home or hang out with my friends either at my place or at theirs. I don’t like to go to crowded places with loud music. I would prefer to spend time with my dogs, rather than with strangers. I like being alone. I prefer reading, rather than watching movies. I don’t feel like a black sheep in the city, where more and more girls are starting to choose careers and finishing their education. But when I come to the countryside I notice that I am different, because lots of girls my age here are already married and have children, and if not, people assume that there’s something wrong with them.

Do you know any other young women from the city that chose the same career path as you did, and now are working in the countryside?

None that I know. Even at my university, the veterinary field is not a popular one to study. It’s mostly medicine, engineering and law. For me, studies are easy because I got into veterinarian medicine willingly. I remember that at the very first lecture our professor said that it was probably not our choice to be here, but faith or God’s plan. It was weird for me to hear it, because I knew that it was definitely my hard work that brought me here. Though, I belong to the minority.

What made you choose this path, even though it is not a common thing for young women?

This is my childhood dream. I’ve always loved animals. I think that I got a huge influence from my mother. A lot of Egyptian moms nowadays try very hard to shield their children from the outside world. ‘Don’t climb the trees, don’t play in mud, don’t touch a street cat. What if you get scratched or bitten?’ My mom always told the exact opposite. As children, me and my sister had really amazing memories of playing in rivers, climbing trees and going camping in Japan. I think this is why I feel such a strong connection with nature.

Do you think it is possible for all young women in Egypt to do what you do?

If they love what they do, yes. I love what I’m doing. If you let me start talking about animals I’m not going to stop. So I believe if someone has the same passion and enthusiasm about something, they can achieve great things. Nowadays many parents put a lot of pressure on their children to become a doctor, an engineer or a lawyer. I know a lot of students who study the speciality that their parents chose for them. And after 10 years they still can’t graduate. Looking at them, I realize that I was privileged to have a clear vision of what I really want to do, instead of living my mother’s wish of me to become an engineer. I think it is important for the parents to embrace the fact that it’s not their lives but their children’s, give their kids the freedom to choose, and support their decisions no matter what. It doesn’t matter if the children will make a wrong step now, they can always correct their path later.

Would you consider yourself happy in this career path?

Yes. I’m doing what I love. At the same time, with Organic Egypt and EBDA  I am helping to make life of the animal stock in Egypt better. By transforming farms into organic or bio-dynamic ones, we are ensuring a better life quality for the animals there. We improve their conditions, such as space, water and food. I feel like I am doing a good thing and it gives me fulfillment.

What is the thing you did that you feel proudest of?

Two years ago, there were several challenges in the area where I work. The fact that we’ve overcome these and I played my role in it makes me feel proud. Obviously I can’t take all the credits alone, I had an amazing team to make it possible.

Another thing, when I was younger, I created a plan of how I will start my adult life. It was a very sketchy plan, starting with moving out, being free, doing whatever I want, and whenever I want. Then slowly the pieces fell into places because of SEKEM. Now I know that I want to come here, live here and work here. Now I’m no longer tied to my parents, financially or accommodation wise. I will graduate soon and come work here full-time and become independent for real. That will be another step in my plan and I am very happy and proud that I can finally do it.