Helping women and children recover from exploitation in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Vietnam… meet our next That Mama, Melissa Petros
As the Executive Director of Hagar International, Melissa has lived all over Asia and worked at the United Nations in Bangkok. She has championed justice for women and children’s rights and welfare for years. When the opportunity for Hagar International to open its doors arrived in Hong Kong, she took a step of faith and decided to spearhead the office here in the 852. A mama to two under two, the balancing act can definitely be a challenge for her – but she takes it all in stride as she dishes out her organisation tips and the importance of staying flexible. More than that, she offers encouragement to mums and people everywhere to get involved with a cause that is important and meaningful. We’re honoured to feature Melissa in this edition of That Mama.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up in Hong Kong.
I have lived and worked in various cities in Asia (Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Bangkok, Singapore, and Hong Kong) over the last 12 years. My husband and I met in Singapore. When he moved to Hong Kong for a new job, I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in New York so we did two years of long-distance relationship before we married and I joined him in Hong Kong in 2012.
What is Hagar International and how did you get involved?
Hagar International is a non-profit organisation that specialises in providing comprehensive recovery services to women and child survivors of extreme abuse including human trafficking, gender-based violence (e.g. rape and domestic violence), and exploitation in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. Specifically, our mandate is to work with survivors of the worst forms of abuse. We focus on the most severe cases in places where the need is greatest.
Hagar works at the individual, community and systemic levels, using a long-term holistic approach, to help heal individual women and children as well as prevent future abuse. Our commitment to each person through their whole journey to recovery means investing in empowering them, their families, and communities through education, sustainable livelihood opportunities, and social capital.
I have known about Hagar since my days working at the UN in Bangkok. Even then, it had a reputation for innovative and impactful work. When I first moved to Hong Kong, I was volunteering at The Women’s Foundation when the Foundation’s CEO, Su-Mei Thompson, shared a job opportunity to start Hagar’s office in Hong Kong.
Read more: That Mama: Su-Mei Thompson of the Women’s Foundation
Can you tell us more about the programs Hagar runs for vulnerable women and children in Cambodia, Afghanistan and Vietnam?
Hagar’s work centres on “The Journey to Wholeness,” and essentially it’s about helping each survivor break their cycle of abuse and violence. Our programs provide survivors with safe housing, healthcare, trauma counselling, legal support, catch-up education, vocational training, job placements, and reintegration support back into the community. What we have found through over 20 years of experience is that providing only one or a few of these services is simply not enough to truly help survivors rebuild their lives after the severe trauma they have experienced.
Collaboration is also crucial to our work and through our partnerships with other NGOs, governments, academic institutions, businesses, and civil society, we are able to influence positive systemic change with and on behalf of survivors. The systemic change piece is particularly important because this is our multiplier effect. Through our direct programs, we can help about 1,000 survivors/year but by leveraging our trauma recovery expertise to capacity build; our government and NGO partners, educate communities, and provide research on best practices in trauma care, we are able to reach thousands more.
How has working at Hagar International changed you as a person and as a mother?
I have worked at and with a number of non-profits over the course of my career, and while many of them are doing good work, Hagar is the first organisation where I feel completely bought in to the cause, the mission, and the approach. What Hagar does matters. We do so much with so little and our program staff, some of whom work under extremely hazardous conditions, somehow always manage to make miracles happen.
Becoming a mother has only enhanced my respect for, and hopefully understanding of just a small part of the load that many survivors carry. Motherhood is difficult enough without worrying about many of the things we take for granted like the safety of our children, the security of our next meal, and the freedom from fear of violence. Their strength and resilience is nothing short of extraordinary. They inspire me.
For readers who want to get involved and support the amazing work you do, what are ways they can be in touch?
There a number of ways to get involved including volunteer and partnership opportunities, and I invite anyone who is interested in learning more to contact me directly. Since Hagar’s presence is small here in Hong Kong, we have the advantage of being able to work flexibly with our supporters. In fact, I am constantly amazed and impressed by the creativity and the range of ways that people offer to support our work.
Can you tell us about how your career was pre-baby as compared to post-baby?
Before becoming a mum, I worked in seven different countries and never lived in one of those countries for longer than three years until I moved to Hong Kong. It was a whirlwind of travel, steep learning curves, and many fish-out-of-water experiences. I loved it.
Becoming a mum has not only made me want to put down some geographical roots but has also raised the bar regarding what type of organisation/company for which I would be willing to work. When my children are old enough to understand the nature of my work, I hope that they are proud of me and that they feel like the time I spent away from them working was for something important and meaningful.
How do you balance work and mama life?
Trying to stay as organised as possible and plan in advance helps. Of course, there are always times when things don’t go as planned, but becoming a mum has actually made me better at prioritising at work, and thus more efficient with my time.
How do you save time? Can you share any organisational tips and tricks?
My entire life, work and personal, is in my Google calendar. In terms of keeping the children’s stuff organised, my husband and I created several different versions of packing lists that are tailored for different occasions (e.g. an afternoon out, flights, etc.) so that we don’t have reinvent the wheel every time.
What do you do to get in that “me” time?
I try to do some sort of physical activity every day whether that’s training or simply going for a short walk. Reading is another escape for me. I’m also quite partial to a foot massage when I can find the time.
What do you find to be the most challenging part of parenting?
Coming to terms with the fact that I will feel completely out of my depth at least once every day.
Favourite family holiday spot?
Our family home in Nantucket. It’s our haven away from the fast-paced city life. My husband and I were married in the backyard, and being able to now bring our children there has only made us love and enjoy it more.
What are your favourite spots to eat at with your family in Hong Kong?
Because our children are still quite young (2 years old and 1 year old) we don’t often eat out with them. When we do, it’s usually at the American Club where we can sprawl out on couches by the pool and not worry too much about making a mess.
What’s the best advice you’ve received as a parent?
The best thing you can do for your children is have a strong, respectful, and loving relationship with your partner/husband.
Someone once told me that I would regret not having the same last name as my children (because I didn’t take my husband’s name when we married).
Something that you wish someone had told you about motherhood?
The most important thing you need to stay sane as a mum is a good sense of humour.
What has been your most humbling moment as a mum?
Holding my two day-old daughter as a first-time mum and crying tears of terror as the illusion of having everything “under control” completely shattered. It was a valuable lesson for me.
How do you keep the romance between you and your husband alive with such a busy work and family life?
Having a good routine for the children helps us carve out alone time. We have also developed a much greater appreciation for the unexpected moments that we have with just the two of us. We joke that being able to walk home from work together has begun to feel like going on a date.
As a mama, I wish I were better at…
Being silly and uninhibited.
I wake up in the middle of night thinking about…
Whether it is our son or daughter who has woken me up and if they need help to get back to sleep.
Bedtime is always smoother when…
My husband is around. He has put our daughter to bed nearly every night since she was a few months old.
My favourite moment of the day is…
When my son/daughter does or says something funny or unexpected. In many ways, I am still getting to know them and these moments are fun little surprises.
Thanks to the talented Michelle Proctor of Michelle Proctor Photography for all of the beautiful images above! Follow her on Instagram @michellejproctor