Achievement against all odds
Like the brilliant American Economist, Robert Reich, whom former American President Bill Clinton once observed his short stature on a voyage to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, but ended up describing him as the “tallest of his generation” when he nominated him to serve as his Labor Secretary, it is also easy to judge Harvard educated lawyer, Martha Basazinw Kassa. The up and coming international law and policy practitioner is fulfilling a busy citizenry. Her abilities, not disabilities are being noticed by many including by the celebrated Harvard-educated Ethiopian lawyer, Tadesse Kiros. He was one of a slew of mentors who helped engineer her place at Harvard Law School. For him, she is “simply outstanding”. The 28-year-old talked with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew, on her daring journey to the Ivy League, her childhood, mentors, regrets, and memorable experiences spent at Addis Ababa University Law School and reflects on the ideals of International Women’s Day. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Martha - You have a very interesting background. Can you tell me about yourself?
Martha Basazinew Kassa: Thank you. My full name is Martha Basazienw Kassa and I just celebrated my 28th birthday. My parents divorced when I was nine, so I lived most of my formative years, from 13 to 23, with my father, who I consider to be the catalyst and reason for most of my achievements. My mother was ever present as well. I get all my creativity, stubbornness and flair, fashion and color from her.
No story of mine is complete without disclosing the fact that I have Cerebral Palsy. It's a pretty terrible condition with different manifestations, but mine is thankfully a milder version. It limits my motor skills especially in regards to my mobility but again, fortunately, my intelligence is intact.
How did that affect you growing up?
I was able to have an excellent childhood with my father dragging me to kindergarten before I learned how to walk. I had a nanny at school that looked out for me. My father taught me about the solar system before I went to elementary school and we used to look for constellations in the night sky while listening to Bob Marley.
I think from the get go, my father realized that the environment I was in, the world in general wasn't exactly welcoming or attentive to the need of a black disabled girl. He knew the only way to get me out was through education. He was serious about it all that I never realize that I was all that different growing up. Yeah, I didn't run and chase friends at school but I still had quite the full experience.
Has there been any particular experience that made you feel different?
The realization that I was different hit me when I was denied entry into medical school after I had actually registered for classes. Some felt, because of my disabilities, I would not be an ideal candidate to be a doctor. That was the only time I saw my father at his wit's end. He was speechless and so was I.
We tried to fight the decision but again, like I said, not a lot of people are willing to see opportunity and possibility. While that dashed my hope to be a world renowned diagnostics specialist, I instead headed for Law school at Addis Ababa University.
What was that experience like?
It was an uphill battle. It was a battle as I was forced to catch up to 5 weeks of missed classes. In looking back, I am shocked; I was not allowed to proceed as a medical student. The person who engineered my downfall at medical school was in fact a pediatric surgeon. He was supposed to understand more than anyone that my condition was a result of a botched delivery. My first two years of law school, I was in a complete daze. I wasn’t able to come to terms of how my life took such a sharp and undesired turn.
I was very lonely. I kept on over thinking every relationship I had ever had and every rejection that I have experienced. I saw every conversation through this microscope to see if my disability had anything to do with it. I was also concerned if people really did see me and treated me differently because of it.
I woke up from my daze the first lecture of my public international law class. Shout out to Professor Yonas Birmeta. I don’t know why but I really enjoyed the class and had really long discussions about how I wanted to dedicate my life or have a career in international law with him.
Did you have adequate mentors?
I have weird role models .I am not entirely sure about the exact date but I do remember I was 13 and it was New Year’s Eve (according to the Ethiopian calendar). Like every other kid in Addis, I stayed up to watch the Saturday late night movies and that was when I first heard of John Nash Jr. The movie, the Beautiful Mind was being show on TV. Nash is a Nobel Laureate in Economics.
He suffered from schizophrenia and was hospitalized a number of times. His perseverance to rise above it all, to come back to reality and fight whatever his mind was telling him was real. For a man, as rational and quite vain about his mental acuity must have been a very painful process. He got through it and was able to come back to Princeton University.
That movie, Nash changed me in so many ways I can’t even begin to unpack it all. It’s been 15 years but I still remember how I felt watching his life story and I still bawl like a baby whenever I see the movie or read the biography from which the movie was adopted. I became ambitious that night. All I had wanted ever since then is to see my name in history books one way or the other. While Nash died in a car accident in 2015, I longed to meet him in person.
It did not stop with Nash but with Alan Turing (the father of artificial intelligence) is also a source of immense inspiration. Another person is David Sedaris. I don’t know how I can relate to an old, Jewish, white, homosexual man on such a deep personal level, but he has helped me navigate some really right corners.
Someone I know in the flesh, who has made an early impact on me, was Seyoum Yohannes (PhD) of Addis Ababa University. I wouldn’t have gotten to law school without his support.
You went from failing to go to Columbia University (your preferred school) to being accepted at Harvard all within a week. How did you break the news to your father?
In the winter of 2009, I went online to see the best graduate programs in international law. I found out that year, it was Columbia. I just decided to go there. As the years went by, a simple declaration turned into an outright obsession. Friends and family members must have been worried, as I constantly talked about it.
By the time I applied to Columbia, I also applied to Georgetown, partly because my father talked about it. But most importantly, I also applied to Harvard at the behest of a previous boss, lawyer Tadesse Kiros, who was an alumnus. My application was sort of a joke, convinced I had no chance. Instead, I became known as a Columbia fan.
I was crashed when Columbia rejected me. I don’t think I have recovered or will ever recover from the rejection I received from the University. Then I got a surprise of a lifetime, when I got a Facebook invite from the Harvard Law School LLM 2015 group. When I clicked on the email telling me that I was invited to the group I for some reason, was so sure that it was a sick joke, perhaps a support group for those rejected. I looked down and saw that I had another unread email.
My father is on the stoic rarely emotional kind of a guy, so when I called and was shrieking in decibels, only discernable to bats, trying to tell him the news, he was cool as a cucumber and told me not to freak out at work and that he will call me late on, after work.
He has always expected the unexpected, always demanded perfection to such an impossible degree that I think he must have been a bit taken back also not wholly impressed He definitely became a bit more generous with the complements once the financial aid decision came through.
How was your experience at Harvard like?
I did a bit of public international law, international humanitarian law (laws of armed conflicts) and worked on the protection and assistance of victims of armed conflicts. I do more of the same thing at the Norwegian Refugee Council Pan African Liaison Office to the African Union, here in Addis.
With yet another amazing boss, Yemisrach Kebede, who I can’t thank enough, I am learning and doing my bit, in working with international and African humanitarian policy documents that seek to alleviate the suffering of those who find themselves either caught in armed conflict, complex emergencies, natural and / or man-made disasters or a combination of all. I am an admirer of Jan Egeland, the former Under-Secretary-General (USG) for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordination.
With all I have gained and experienced, including Harvard, I am constantly looking for opportunities to broaden my horizons and challenge myself. Career wise, the plan is to become someone of merit, influence and great knowledge about the thing that makes the world go round.
What is your take on feminism? Do you think the International Women’s Day (March 8) is still relevant?
I do think it is worth it. We still need to celebrate the women who have persevered with all insurmountable odds stacked against them. We celebrate women and we also have the opportunity to discuss issues that affect us all. That is whether it is marginalization, discrimination or disenfranchisement because of our gender of the harassment women face every day when they fulfill basic living, such as walking on the street or riding on a taxi.
It just brings a lot of people out from the woods worked so we can discuss subjects that majority of society either brunches off or doesn't feel comfortable discussing. The day can also be an excellent learning opportunity for both, men and women, to understand what feminism is and what it really stands for. Feminism isn't about hating men, it is the belief that both gender are equal and that women are equally capable of doing anything and everything much like men are, if only given the opportunity to do so. Equality in the politics, society, sex and relationships, employment and healthcare...you name it.
Any parting words?
I am never where I plan or what to be. God has been throwing curve balls at me all my life. I have blundered multiple times, but he has come through for me and lifted me up to amazing heights. I am currently dealing with one of his curve balls and waiting to see what comes next. I aspire to have a career in international law with a bit more focus on the maintenance of internal and/or regional peace and security.
I will always be a proud graduate of the Addis Ababa University School of Law. I met the smartest people while I was there.