Kirsten Forbes is the Supply Chain Manager at the International Committee of the Red Cross – ICRC, officially based in Kabul Afghanistan, though recently relocated to Dushanbe Tajikistan. Kirsten has worked at the red cross for a little over 2 years, prior to that she worked for 3 years at a FTSE top 10 FMCG. Kirsten will be speaking with me live on LinkedIn about her career journey. She will also be speaking about what she personally experienced being based in Afghanistan at the time that it fell.
This is going to be a session that faces head-on what it’s like to manage a career with impact, and how to lead with compassion amidst adversity and challenge.
Katherine Ann Byam 0:01
Tell us a little bit about leading up to that moment when things sort of fell apart. I mean, we were all watching on TV and sort of you knew that something was coming, right. It’s like before Kabul fell, there was the news was starting to ramp up the rhetoric was starting to ramp up.
Kirsten Forbes 0:18
Kabul fell on the 15th of August. And at that point, I had already told management, I already told myself I prepared myself, that I was going to stay, and that I was going to stay with my team and I was going to support them. And what happened that week is there was just this explosion in the media of what was happening at the airports with children going over in, going over the gate, people falling off planes it was, it was a scene of horror, it was terrible what was happening. And I got a lot of support from friends and family. It also caused me an incredible amount of stress, because a lot of the questions were; when are you evacuating? Or have you been evacuated, and I wasn’t planning on being evacuated.
Katherine Ann Byam 1:04
My name is Katherine Ann Byam and I’m your host. What’s your purpose? And how does it integrate with sustaining life itself? For some of us this question is a deep ache that we spend a lifetime trying to find, perhaps shifting direction as we learn and grow from one path to another. For many of us, our children give us a clear definition, providing for them becomes our reason for being. For others, it’s about enjoying the present moment ever so fleeting and ever so beautiful. For still others, it can be financial, status, contribution or impact. In this podcast, my guest and I will share with you tips, ideas and methods on how to build a career that integrates with who you are and the life you want to lead. We will explore the social foundation on which to build your transition and an ecological ceiling above which we need not climb, so that we live not just for ourselves, but for our collective ability to thrive. Welcome to The Purpose Driven Career Podcast; Do What Matters. This interview was first recorded in August 2021. And it is available on YouTube on my channel courageous career club. This is a really interesting episode about humanitarian work and understanding how it is experienced by the people who live it. Kirsten works for the ICRC I will let her tell you more about what she does. Kirsten, welcome to the show.
Kirsten Forbes 2:28
Thank you very much. I’m very excited to be here.
Katherine Ann Byam 2:31
Tell us a little bit about what you do at the moment for the ICRC in Afghanistan.
Kirsten Forbes 2:35
Yes. So I am currently the supply chain manager, I started the mission in April 2021. I mean, I won’t get into too much logistics terms, but basically just making sure that all of our medical and non medical stock gets there on time and in full, so that we can support the various programmes in Afghanistan.
Katherine Ann Byam 2:59
This is really, really essential work. And, and I know that what we’ve experienced looking at the TV for the last month or two around Afghanistan, and what you’ve experienced in the period of time from April till now, probably very different. I’d love to know a little bit about the journey and sort of your, your entry into Afghanistan, what that experience was like for you what that transition was like for you, because I understand you were coming from Jordan, you were coming from an assignment from Jordan at the time. If you can tell us a little bit about what that transition and experience was like for you. When you got into Afghanistan. The first time.
Kirsten Forbes 3:36
I really didn’t have many expectations. I tried to keep my expectations low, let’s just say, I mean, I knew that I was going into primarily a Muslim country 99% I knew that I had to dress differently. I knew that the cultural, there was, you know, cultural differences, of course. But I really kind of went with low expectations. So that when I went there. I really lived it fully. And I made my own opinions and my own, it just made my experience better, really. So yeah, so I arrived in April 2021. And it’s been great, really, ever since I’ve loved my experience so far. Unfortunately, I’m not there with my team anymore, but I talk to them on a daily basis.
Katherine Ann Byam 4:23
Tell us a little bit about leading up to that moment, last month when things sort of fell apart, to say the least. I mean, we were all watching on TV and sort of you knew that something was coming. Right. It’s like before Kabul fell there was the news was starting to ramp up the rhetoric was starting to ramp up. And we all felt that something was was going to happen spectacularly. And then Kabul fell but tell us a little bit about the lead up to that moment and how you experienced it from your side.
Kirsten Forbes 4:55
Yeah, absolutely. So I think something, something that we often forget is Afghanistan has been in war for about 40 years, you know. So these people are incredibly resilient are incredibly, you know, strong people, they’re very, very beautiful people, very hospitable. And you could see how their moods and their mannerisms, were slowly changing with the context with the changing situation in the country. And that’s what made me a little bit on edge. Made me a little bit, I care a lot for them. And I, it was very, very hard to see them go through these through, when the, you know, the Americans left, Americans left in July 4 2021, obviously, this year. And it was kind of after that, that things really started to pick up and Taliban started advancing very quickly. So they gained momentum, pretty much by the end of July, or no, sorry, it was about a couple of weeks before, before the fall of Kabul. They had gotten Herat and Lashkargah, Kandahar, which are major cities in the country. And it’s the day before Kabul fell. My, the Taliban, sorry, we’re 45 minutes away from Kabul. And that night, there were helicopters flying, because they were trying to evacuate the people from the embassies. And most of the staff didn’t sleep. So you came to work. And they had just big, big, big bags under the eyes, very uncomfortable. They knew that it was they were just around the corner. And you know what happened, and we’re very thankful that it, it was a peaceful day. So August 15, when Kabul fell was peaceful, and that there were very little casualties. And that overall, it was a peaceful transition of power.
Katherine Ann Byam 6:57
That’s, I can imagine that that was a hugely significant moment for you and the team. Certainly, I know that you work with quite a number of people there. If you’d like to share with my listeners, how many people you actually work with? And how many people you support in terms of the aid work that you do as well?
Kirsten Forbes 7:17
Yeah, absolutely. So in Afghanistan, we’re about 1800 people, most of our staff work in orthopaedic centres. So we have seven centres across the country. So huge, huge amount of people there. And I believe, and what we shared with our donors is that from August, we supported about 8000 patients, war wounded patients, through one of our programmes. And this is just one of the many programmes that we have in Afghanistan,
Katherine Ann Byam 7:46
it’s really important to know exactly how, how much impact and how relevant the work is that the organisations are doing in this country even before the situation happens. Tell us a little bit about that time from I think it was Sunday when Kabul fell to sort of Wednesday when you were able to leave the country. And I mean, perhaps, perhaps you didn’t even want to leave. I mean, I don’t know how complicated this emotional situation was for you. So tell us a little bit about the time between the falling of Kabul and your, your exit?
Kirsten Forbes 8:24
Yes, indeed. So Kabul fell on the 15th of August. And at that point, I had already told management, and I already told myself, I prepared myself that I was going to stay, and that I was going to stay with my team and I was going to support them. And that whatever happens I was going to be there. And what happened that week is there was just this explosion in the media of what was happening at the airports with children. Going over, going over the gates, there were people falling off planes, it was it was a scene of horror, it was terrible was happening. And I would get, I got a lot of support from friends and family, from people on Facebook that I hadn’t spoken to in years. And I was very, very appreciative for that. And for people worrying about me, but it also caused me an incredible amount of stress. Because a lot of the questions were, of course, you know, how are you doing, but when are you evacuating? Or have you been evacuated, and I wasn’t planning on being evacuated. I had already developed my coping mechanisms I had my pictures, I had my you know, my daily calls with my friends and I had ways to deal with the situation. But it came to a point where I had to decide if I’m going to stay with with my staff and my people and stay on the ground or care about the mental health of my family. And at that point, it just got too much for them to deal with. And they were also dealing with people contacting them, right. So my mother was getting calls from all over and it made her very anxious. And I’m not putting the blame on my mother, or on my partner by It’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, I have to have, I can’t just think about myself, I have to think about others. So this is why it led me to the decision to leave on the next flight.
Katherine Ann Byam 10:13
That must have been incredibly, incredibly difficult to manage. And I can also imagine, imagine that being in the airport was not exactly anyone’s idea of a safe place to be in that week. Tell us a little bit about that.
Kirsten Forbes 10:32
Yeah, absolutely not. I didn’t really know what to expect. I mean, I knew that there was, we saw a lot of the pictures coming out with a lot of the videos. But for some reason, I didn’t think he was going to be actually that bad, I thought, possibly we would go through different gate or I wasn’t expected for it. And when I got to the gate, it was I mean, I’m, I get emotional, just even thinking about it was, it’s awful. Like, you see people with just a diploma in their hand, you see, children, not flinching a second, with the sight of tear gas, or with a gunshot is, they were just super, super calm. You have women, children crying, and I’m really not exaggerating. It was that was the sight at the airport. And it felt very uncomfortable as a humanitarian, as a international person to be able to get on a flight that day. So that’s really, all I want to say it’s very uncomfortable leaving and I’m still dealing with it to this day.
Katherine Ann Byam 11:45
I mean, I can imagine that you would have built quite a bond with your team. By that time, you’ve been there already for four months. Tell me a little bit about culturally what it was like to sort of transition into into this this new culture. Tell me a little bit about how you experienced that. And, and what do you miss probably the most, now that you are in Tashkent.
Kirsten Forbes 12:09
So, I mean, to prepare for the cultural, the different culture, you get a briefing, I mean, we do get a nice form, or a nice piece of paper with written all the main things you need to know. But it’s really once you’re in the context. And once you’re really living with the people that you experience things much differently. And that was actually a key thing for me is to develop trust, through cultural norms. So things like drinking tea in the morning, for a good hour, like not an hour every morning, but like, a good chunk of time to talk about their families, or talk about what they did on the weekend, what books they’re reading, whatever, you know, whatever conversation and then to sit on the floor, when we’re having lunch, to, that’s they eat. That’s how they eat their their meals, or to eat jugaad, which is liver, they love to eat that for breakfast. So I really enjoyed living through those different custom or different customs. Another thing that will, I vividly remember is when someone passes away in Afghan culture, when in Islam really, is people get together. So you know, at this time, there was a lot of COVID cases, there is a huge spike in cases, probably around, probably around July, so a few months into my mission. So there were seeing a lot of unfortunately, deaths in the compounds and family members. So frequently, we would all get together and we would there’s someone chanting the Koran and it was just a really beautiful moment to even if you didn’t know that person, but to pay their respects. So I, something that we don’t really do in Western culture. I mean, there’s always the My condolences and the texts, but actually to reunite together and to to to commemorate this person is really beautiful. Yeah, yeah.
Katherine Ann Byam 14:09
So tell me tell me a little bit about your transition from traditional type of supply chain roles to humanitarian supply chain roles. What was the big takeaway, the big learning for you having done this, this type of work for the last two years?
Kirsten Forbes 14:26
That’s a very good question. I mean, I, my previous job was working for a fast moving goods company in tobacco. And I look back on that experience with very fond memories because they really prepared me to, you know, be very process oriented, dealing with also different cultures. I mean, just in in Southampton, where I was located in the UK. I don’t know I don’t remember how many but it was definitely over 20 different nationalities. So it does prepare you to deal with different cultures and different different, different people, different cultures, and also managing a team, I was able to manage a team at that time. So to prepare me to lead with compassion and lead with lead with integrity.
Katherine Ann Byam 15:17
Yeah. I can imagine. And what, what do you think is, is sort of on the horizon for you, as you look at your career, you look at what you’ve experienced, and you’ve seen sort of things that other people don’t really have the opportunity to see firsthand. What, what do you think this will mean, for the rest of your career and your outlook?
Kirsten Forbes 15:42
Definitely, I will always work with purpose, that is something that I am now very confident in saying, I was not sure at the time, but now it’s very clear that I want to feel proud of the organisation that I work for. And I want to be very much in line with my values, I want my values to be in line with with the organisation. So for me, that’s, that’s something that will, that will follow me forever. Now, what I’m going to do next to be seen, and please follow me on LinkedIn. But yeah.
Katherine Ann Byam 16:20
Congratulations on all that you’ve accomplished, I think the work that you you’ve done to, to help countries that are really struggling at this moment, it’s so important, you know, the world is going through what I want to call a flux right now. And there’s a lot of change happening, you know, they call it the great resignation on LinkedIn and stuff like this. But I think there’s really a movement to, let’s try to save as much as we can, let’s try to do the best we can. And let’s try to give as much as we can, instead of take as much as we can is, which has kind of been the philosophy of the past the past few years. So it’s really a pleasure and an honour to have you on the show. Thank you for joining me.
Kirsten Forbes 17:04
It’s such a pleasure, thank you for having me.
Katherine Ann Byam 17:07
it’s been really wonderful to have this interview with you. And I look forward to our work together as we go through the rest of this year.
Kirsten Forbes 17:13
And I just want to end by just saying something very, very quick is just to thank so many people for their support. And they’re kind words through this difficult period in Afghanistan, and, you know, especially to my partner, who’s my, literally my rock through my whole, through my whole time, and of course, to my parents and to you for your support. So, thank you very much.
Katherine Ann Byam 17:41
Thank you as well, Kirsten. This episode was brought to you today by the Courageous Club Have you picked up your own copy of Do What Matters: The Purpose Driven Career Transition Guide Book? To find out how you can get your copy, as well as resources that go alongside it, Visit my website, www Katherine Ann byam.com or engage with me on the socials. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.