New PAX General Director: An optimist in the midst of conflict and war

January 13, 2020

Anna Timmerman, a born optimist who wants to touch people’s lives, has started work in her new role as PAX’s new General Director. Timmerman has fought for human rights both privately and professionally and will continue to do so at PAX. Hein Bosman spoke with her recently about peace, getting life lessons from her young children and the impact of the digital era on societies worldwide.

Anna Timmerman was born 1972 in Purmerend in North Holland and grew up in Amsterdam. During a school trip to Rome, walking around in the midst of all that antiquity, she suddenly knew what she wanted to do. “I’m going to study history.” She was the first in her family to go to university, at the University of Amsterdam. There she continued to pursue her interest in Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism, which had developed when she was quite young. And now it was time to study Islam. “I started to focus on the contemporary history of the Middle East and Islam. I had the feeling that a lot was going to happen in the Middle East and North Africa.” After her studies, she got to know the area better by working as a tour guide in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and, a little further off, in Yemen. “A beautiful country, Yemen. It’s painful to see how the Yemenites are suffering now.”

Things are going wrong in more and more countries in the Middle East. Is that a reason to be pessimistic?
“I’m a very optimistic person and I believe in people’s resilience. I learned a lot from people like Frieda Menco, co-founder of Humanity in Action, where I worked for years. Frieda survived Auschwitz and then built a life for herself. That kind of resilience gives me hope. There are always people who come together to pick up the pieces, offer you a chair and say, ‘Sit down, let’s talk, let’s start again.’ That always gives me hope. People still do that today, I want to support that, I see that as my duty.”

Does that duty come simply from being human?
“Everyone has to determine that for themselves, but I think so. At PAX I see colleagues who share that sense of duty, who want to work for peace. And they do that in an impressive way. I was familiar with PAX’s work during my time as director of Human Rights Watch. Even then it was clear: these people are experts. And that’s only been confirmed since I’ve gotten to know PAX better. During the Christmas holidays I read a lot of work we’ve produced in the last few years, and was impressed with the high quality of the publications. Add to that the deep involvement that PAX employees have with the people we’re working for, and you know why I’m proud to be able to work here.”

What did you learn during your years in the Middle East?
“I studied for six months at the University of Bir Zeit in the West Bank in the mid-1990s. At that point, we thought that it would work out, that there would be peace. [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat had returned to Gaza and he and [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin shook hands. But while I was living there, Rabin was shot and it became clear that things would go wrong. I’ve seen what it means to live under occupation. I had little trouble myself, as a blonde foreigner, but I lived with Palestinian girls who suffered from the occupation. I had a roommate from Gaza who hadn’t been able to see her mother for five years. Things like that show you what occupation means for people.”

You’ve worked as a freelancer for a few years. Will it take some getting used to, being back in an office?
“I missed being part of a large organization that really makes a difference in the world, that gets things going and offers solutions. That’s what drew me to PAX.”

If you don’t mind my asking, what is your situation like at home?
“My partner and I live in Amsterdam, together with two children, ages 11 and 13, a girl and a boy. Indeed, we have a good gender balance in my family. No pets by the way — I’m allergic. What music do I listen to? Everything. Bach, yes. But also quiet piano music from Sátie. In addition, a lot of pop music, from Elton John to Stromae, and I listen to music my children like, such as Billie Eilish. I learn a lot from my children in general. They hold up a mirror for me and they’re not afraid to say anything to me. They’re especially good at catching you out in a contradiction. My daughter thought it was great that I applied for a job at PAX. From the beginning she said, ‘This is going to be it.’ Another time, I thought an interview could have gone better. ‘You did well,’ she said. An 11-year-old who tells me everything’s okay. I love that.”

On another note. Are there any issues that PAX should work on more in the new millennium, the climate, for example?
“The impact of climate change on conflicts will only become more relevant. It’s a threat to peace. Conflicts in and of themselves have an impact on the environment, and PAX has been doing ground-breaking work in this area. Another topic is digitization. That has a lot of influence on peace building and conflict, on how people see each other and how they engage in conversation.”

Thanks to digitization, we hear more about, or even directly from, ‘the other’. Perhaps this makes us more unified. But it also accentuates the differences …
“It’s now easy to stay in your own bubble. It used to be that the more or less objective eight o’clock news [the Dutch public television evening news broadcast] presented the same story to all viewers about what happened in the world that day. The consideration of what was important and not important was made for us. Now we can determine that for ourselves. That’s a big advantage, but the disadvantage is that you can surround yourself with like-minded people who reinforce what you already think. And then you don’t know what’s happening ‘on the other side’. I’ve also noticed from my children that for their generation general knowledge about what’s happening in the world is missing compared to how it was for my generation.”

In conclusion … do you have a life motto?
“My motto is simple: make the best of it. My ringtone is the song ‘Always look on the bright side of life’. That’s how I look at things. I’m someone who finds meaning important. My parents were brought up Catholic, but they didn’t bring me up in the church. My grandmother preached with [Dutch TV celebrity] Jos Brink in De Duif in Amsterdam. They sang and prayed, but also looked critically at their faith. As a child, I thought it was great that she thought about her faith from a feminist perspective. I myself want to use my talents for something bigger. And PAX works at that bigger level, on human dignity and solidarity. I am grateful that I have a chance to contribute to that.”

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