Susannah Sirkin balances family life with her fight for global human rights

Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), knows that her career doesn’t make for easy small talk.

“People will say, ‘What do you do? — Oh, human rights, that’s interesting. What exactly does that mean?’” she says. But they change the subject quickly when she drops words like torture and genocide. “It’s sort of a conversation stopper,” she admits wryly.

But for Sirkin, it’s a calling.

For the last 23 years years, this petite woman with a calm manner has organized and overseen PHR’s campaigns to investigate human rights violations around the world.

Sometimes she is on the scene, in places like Uganda, Kenya, Morocco, Haiti, Turkey and Sudan. Other times she remains in the organization’s Cambridge headquarters, lending support from afar as her colleagues travel to remote areas to exhume mass graves or interview refugees.

Her own area of investigation has been sexual violence and systematic rape as a tool of war, most recently in Darfur, Sudan.

Catching up on work in the office on a recent Saturday, Sirkin, 55, took time out to talk about her work, her career path and how she balances her dedication to this important but grim work with raising a family and taking necessary respite for herself.

As a child, Sirkin was steeped in issues of poverty and human rights. Her father was a diplomat, and she spent her formative years in South India, where she helped her mother distribute food to hungry women and children, and in Greece, where she overheard conversations about her parents’ artist and writer friends imprisoned and tortured under the military dictatorship of the time.

In college, she studied French and political science with an eye toward an international career. She added a master’s degree in education and began teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in Boston to refugees from strife-torn countries. In the evenings, she volunteered for an Amnesty International group in Cambridge. She rose through the volunteer ranks and accepted a job offer at Amnesty International’s New York City office.

“Once I started doing that work,” she says, “I realized [human rights work] was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”

In 1987, when she was ready to return to Boston for personal reasons (her husband-to-be lived here), PHR was just getting started. PHR founder and physician Jonathan Fine hired her, and the rest is history.

Since that time, she and her husband raised two daughters to young adulthood. Ana, 21, is studying to be a professional dancer; Naomi, 19, is pursuing a degree in nursing.

Juggling a full-time career and a family is no longer news in itself. But when that career provides a front row seat to killing and rape, is it possible to leave the work at the office and fulfill roles as spouse and parent?

Sirkin says yes, with some luck and some thought.

In terms of logistics, their life was probably no different from many families where both parents work full-time, Sirkin maintains. There were pick-ups and drop-offs and home daycare and bringing toddlers along on business trips.

“To be honest, when I think back on it, I don’t remember how I did it,” she laughs.

She was grateful to have three months of full maternity leave each time and to be in a workplace where it was okay to bring a baby to the office on occasion.

On the other hand, the travel was not so easy. “I tell younger women, doing international work that requires field travel is really, really hard,” she says. “I remember cutting trips as tightly as I could. I would fly all night, hit the ground running, and fly right back without one extra hour in the country. It was definitely a strain on me, on them, on my husband.”

On the personal side, digging in and letting go at the right times seems to be the key. Having children around naturally forced her to shelve gut-wrenching topics when she got home.

“Especially when the girls were little,” she recalls, “no matter what was going on, I had to put things aside and be a cheerful mom.”

But she brought the work home sometimes, she adds — and actually wanted to educate the girls, not let them be blind to important issues.

“Sometimes they would make fun of me,” she says. “They’d be talking about makeup, or a new pair of jeans they wanted, and I’d come in and start talking about work, and they’d say, ‘Oh no, here comes Debbie Downer!’”

She says she has tried to let her daughters choose their own paths. Recently her older daughter expressed some guilt about wanting to be a dancer, wondering if it is trivial in the face of the world’s problems.

“I felt terrible,” Sirkin says. “I had to tell her, the world needs art as much as it needs social activists. It’s wonderful to be able to give that to people too — that’s also what makes the world a better place. I almost had to give her permission to not feel guilty.”

From a shelf in her office, she pulls out a book on emotional and psychological effects on forensics workers who regularly uncover evidence of atrocities. She wrote a chapter for the book on how PHR tries to prevent or alleviate some of the post-traumatic response in its teams.

Sirkin hesitates to even talk about dealing with stress or balancing childcare with work. She knows it’s a privilege to even have such choices. But she mentions that her own family got a taste of catastrophic loss when their house burned down 10 years ago. They lost everything — and she was under treatment for breast cancer at the time. The cancer is gone now, and she says her daughters were resilient in weathering the crisis.

Her tone turns almost clinical as she discusses this traumatic time.

“I don’t like to talk about it a lot,” she says, “but it was very interesting for our family and for me especially, to experience facing mortality and facing a traumatic situation.

“It certainly was not related to human rights,” she adds hastily, as if to make sure not to equate her situation with those worse off, “but it has given me additional insight into how people do cope in extreme, or at least semi-extreme circumstances. It helped me understand a little better how people get up every day even while terrible things are happening, and have to take care of their families and go to work and brush their teeth.”

And for the most part, she follows her own recommendations for staying healthy amid trauma.

She tries to spend at least some hours each day or each week engaged in something totally different. “I listen to music, I see art, I watch dance,” she says.

She considers dance, in particular, as a direct antidote. “Our work deals with assaults on the human body, the destruction of the body in terms of torture, imprisonment, killing, rape,” she said. “I think dance shows the exact opposite —what the body can be when it’s allowed to listen to music and respond and be free, when human beings are able to express themselves at the highest level, physically and artistically.”

She also makes a point to get exercise and fresh air, and be in nature. These are all important for anyone dealing with human rights violations or with trauma, she says. But in the next breath, she stressed that emotional response is not to be shunned.

“The day that you stop responding emotionally to this work is the day you’ve become too numb to be effective,” she said. “I don’t want to cry all day — but if I never cried I’d be worried. It’s a matter of balancing emotions, not blocking them.”

Susannah Sirkin of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) calls for the release of Drs. Kamiar and Arash Alaei, brothers imprisoned by Iranian authorities since June 2008. (Photo courtesy of PHR)

Susannah Sirkin with lawyers, doctors and social workers who participated in training sessions on documentation and treatment of trauma in Darfur in 2006. (Photo courtesy of PHR)

Susannah Sirkin in her Cambridge office. (Sandra Larson photo)

A week on the job as deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights

Susannah Sirkin had little time to squeeze an interview between a busy workweek and departure for a much-needed vacation. When pressed for details, she mentioned some of her activities over one week in January:

  • Planned new actions to help free two AIDS doctors imprisoned
    for over a year in Iran

  • Did an interview on Al Jazeera English news network about
    recent violations by the Sudanese Government in Darfur and
    the new Obama policy on Sudan

  • Attended a lecture-discussion at the Harvard’s Kennedy
    School of Government by the International Criminal Court
    Chief Prosecutor

  • Made preparations for a visit to Boston by the president of PHR-
    Israel, a sister organization that works on health and human
    rights in Israel and Palestine

  • Supported her colleague in final planning as he left for the
    Burmese border for a major research project documenting
    crimes against humanity in Burma

  • Discussed next steps with PHR’s forensic director who is looking
    into torture cases in Honduras

  • Participated in a strategy session on the next six months of a campaign against torture by U.S. officials against detainees in our custody, including collusion of
    health professionals in enabling the torture

  • Traveled to New York to meet with other groups that will be traveling soon to Sudan to support women’s groups engaged in the peace process and human rights

  • Worked on a grant proposal to the European Commission for PHR’s work to support the International Criminal Court

  • Developed, with colleagues, PHR’s comments on health and human rights in light of Haiti earthquake catastrophe

  • Worked with colleagues on job descriptions for several new hires

  • Composed thank you letters to donors following end of year contributions to PHR