It was late Thursday afternoon when Aji, Muzhgan and I, “the IJ interns” as they refer to us around the office, were signalled to join the large crowd that had already formed on the 35th floor. Having spent most of the day glued to my computer, researching the latest updates on the Special Criminal Court in Central African Republic or on Laurent Gbagbo’s trial at the International Criminal Court – whichever it was – I welcomed the distraction and walked the short distance between my desk and the party. And as I did, it became clear that this would be no ordinary Human Rights Watch celebration: platters of cheese and crackers, champagne flutes and a large cake iced in the true “Human Rights Watch blue” covered the tables around which fifty smiling employees gathered. At the centre of it all stood Ana, one of HRW’s oldest and most beloved family member. Holding a flute and smiling wide, on this Thursday afternoon Ana was celebrating her well-earned retirement.
Of course, I recognized Ana. Every day around 5:50 pm, as I signed off and packed my bag for the commute home, she arrived on “our floor” of the Empire State Building, grey cart in hand, and began cleaning the office. Until today, this had been her daily routine for nearly twenty years.
For many like myself, Ana’s arrival signalled the end of the day and our brief interactions – courteous hellos, goodbyes, nods and smiles – reflected this. But as others noted in heartfelt speeches, the office’s night owls – few of which had worked at Human Rights Watch for as long as Ana had cleaned its halls – had often exchanged much more with the beloved custodian. She had offered them words of support during particularly arduous assignments and had shared her motherly wisdom with expecting mothers and parents throughout multiple pregnancies. Most notably, she had encouraged all to promptly adjourn their workday and return home to their loved ones.
I say notably because, as the night owls fondly recounted memories of long nights and early mornings worked alongside Ana, the eyes of a younger Ana began to fill, with soft tears pearling down her cheeks. Explaining her emotions, Ana’s daughter told us that though she was happy to witness the office’s love and appreciation for her mother, she couldn’t help but shed a tear for all the times she and her sisters had returned from school to an empty house, or had left in the morning without the warm greetings and encouragements her mother routinely offered us.
Moments later, as Ana bid us adieu in her own heart-wrenching speech, she confirmed the now teary-eyed crowd’s suspicions: Ana was retiring early so that she could finally spend time with her family.
The celebration I witnessed on this otherwise ordinary Thursday afternoon was heartfelt, beautiful and one I will remember for a long time. I will remember the stories, the tears and the smiles as Ana excitedly shared news about her family’s upcoming move to warmer climates “to be together again.” I will remember how I struggled to hold back my own tears, how I inevitably failed to do so and proceeded to awkwardly fan and cover my flushed face for minutes after the toasts ended.
I will also remember the feeling in my stomach as I recalled all the other women in this gender-biased profession whose tireless work would not be celebrated, whose sacrifices would not be recognized.
I have yet to shake this feeling.
As I sit here, sipping my second coffee and penning this story from the comforts of a far-too-trendy New York City café, I realize I am neither prepared nor willing to do so. After all, I recognize this feeling – a mix of shocked awareness, appalled recognition of social injustices, determination and yes, guilt – the same feeling that motivated me to apply to law school, to enrol in every possible human rights course at the faculty, and that led me to this truly incredible summer at Human Rights Watch.
This post is dedicated to Ana and her family. May you enjoy many mornings and evenings together in your new sunny abode.