Fiona Shukri '89 has lived a life across borders, oceans and cultures. A life happily spent fostering international development, government outreach and civil society engagement. From Washington, D.C. to Paris to Kabul. From Azerbaijan to Egypt to Palestine, Jordan and Iraq.
Now a senior advisor and independent consultant for non-profit and private contractors, Shukri previously worked for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the United Nations Educational Scientific & Cultural Organization. She has also been a journalist, her writing appearing in outlets like the Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Daily Beast and PassBlue. She still provides occasional analysis and news stories to select publications.
Breaking down exactly what her job entails, Shukri explained that she works on U.S. or U.K. government-funded programs to foster democratic structures and practices.
“This is in countries emerging from war or moving away from authoritarian rule,” she said. “I work alongside other international development professionals from around the world with expertise in government, agriculture, banking, human rights and so on.”
“I focus on improving national government outreach to the media and the public,” added Shukri, who holds an M.A. from NYU in Middle East studies and journalism. “Hopefully by doing that, it creates more government transparency.”
She also encourages government officials to cooperate more with outside experts – academics, activists, non-governmental experts.
“This can be for public dialogue and feedback or it can be more formal, such as to include non-government actors in development of national policies,” said Shukri, who studied English at Union. “This is the civil society engagement part.”
Shukri recently moved to Bangkok to work on USAID health, humanitarian and human rights programming in neighboring Myanmar. This past winter, she was in Baghdad on a U.K. government-funded project to improve a federal commission’s public information and media practices.
“Years ago, I’d have thought this sounded terribly boring. But I find it fascinating. I get to learn about Iraq’s politics and work in my area of expertise,” Shukri said. “Also, the commission is designed to combat corruption, so being transparent and responsive to the public is really important.”
It’s a big job with lots of challenges, but also its share of big rewards.
“Recently, I was evacuated from a government building in Baghdad because of nearby Katyusha rocket attacks. That’s the dramatic answer to what’s challenging,” she explained. “And working with people from different cultures, in different political structures, is both rewarding and challenging. So that’s the snappy answer to what’s rewarding.”
But the highs and lows go well beyond the very real threats of danger and meeting new people from varied backgrounds.
“The most personal challenge is being of practical service to my host-country colleagues while fulfilling the demands of these big government programs. Government funders want ‘I trained X number of people on X topics,’” she said. “But my Afghan colleagues, for instance, risked their lives trying to improve the Afghan government. How can checking a box on my contract be enough? It’s hard to meet the demands of the government contract and be of use to your counterparts. Sometimes it’s double duty.”
“The best personal rewards come from supporting host-country colleagues. I met an Afghan woman in Kabul who had run an underground women’s rights group during Taliban rule in the 1990s,” Shukri continued. “I can’t articulate the courage that took. It’s very humbling to be at a table with someone like that, let alone work with her. Those are the moments I remember.”
Shukri spent a decade living in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2018, during which time one of her jobs was advising the Ministry of Interior – the country’s police and national security ministry.
“It was very dangerous, but advising the media team felt important. That experience made recent history even more painful,” she said. “There was no good strategy for international troop withdrawal, but the way the U.S. left was devastating. I spent that August crying, and trying to assist Afghan friends and colleagues terrified for their lives. Some of them got out. Some are still trying.”
Indeed, Afghanistan left an indelible mark on Shukri, whose sister, Buthaina Shukri, is a member of the Class of 1981.
“Folks who spend a long time in Afghanistan (there aren’t many of us because it’s a tough gig) agree that the country seeps into your bones,” she said. “It’s a haunting, poetic, singular place. It’s not my favorite place to live, but it’s affected me more than anywhere else. I see myself and the world differently because of my time there.”
While a long way from Kabul, Schenectady is also memorable for her.
“Union influenced my career entirely. Serving as co-editor-in-chief (with Christine Hong ’89) of Concordiensis revealed my professional passion and strengths,” Shukri said. “I worked harder on Concordiensis than I’d ever worked on anything, and loved every minute of it.”
The initial impactful experience of the paper, though, came before she was even a writer, let alone an editor.
“Dave Gulliver ’88 and I were dragged to Rupsi's Tavern by our respective roommates on their first date,” Shukri remembered. “I said to him, ‘You’re an editor for the school paper? You should make me write. I need something to put on my resume.’”
“He did and the rest is history. My career and lifelong friendship with Dave were launched from those barstools. Concordiensis served us both well, actually. Dave made a successful career as a journalist.”