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“I have been silent too long now”

Johanna Wilkie | Posted August 24th, 2009 | Africa

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A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to interview Julien, a 30-year-old survivor of an abusive relationship.  I have deliberately chosen to use her story as my last substantial blog post, for two reasons.  First, because it is the most direct profile that I have been able to put together.  I have interviewed several professionals that work with victims and survivors of domestic violence, and two people who lost loved ones to domestic abuse, but Julien is the only person I have interviewed who actually went through the abuse herself.  And more importantly, because I think it is the most hopeful interview I have done.  I think it’s almost miraculous that the person who has had the most direct experience with domestic violence is also the most hopeful and positive about not only her future, but the future of all those who suffer this kind of violence.

Julien was married in her early twenties.  Unbeknownst to her, her new husband was already married, and had never divorced his first wife.  He started abusing her when she found out that their marriage was not actually legal (polygamy is illegal in Namibia, despite the fact that some tribes practice it traditionally).  He beats her and often threatens to kill her.  He has a gun which he sometimes points at her.  He does all this in front of their two sons, who are only 4 and 5 years old.  In this video, Julien tells us about one instance in which he used the gun to frighten her:

She told me this story before I actually video-taped her, and she started giggling a little bit when she told me that after he brandished the gun at her by the side of the car, she started running, and he couldn’t catch up because he is “a little bit fat,” in her words.  I think that’s why she smiles when telling this part of the story in the video.  I loved that she could still laugh, could still find things funny, even while telling me this horrifying tale. She has an undeniable joie de vivre and enjoyment in life.  Talking with her, I found myself filled with admiration for her bravery, and also anger that someone would try to repress her joyful spirit the way her husband did.

I got to interview her because she took her kids, left her husband and her home, and came to Windhoek to find help.  She is working with Rosa Namises (I profiled Rosa in a previous blog post) who is helping her to find a safe place to live and work through the legal side of things.  Julien has taken out a protection order with the police, and as she put it, knocking on every door that could possibly help her, because ultimately, she does believe that her husband will eventually try to kill her.  She was not at all shy about being photographed and video-taped, and immediately gave me permission to use her name, because:

If there are women out there and they are are scared what their husbands are gonna do to them, if we don’t speak out no one is gonna hear us and know how we are suffering.  So really I’m willing to take a stand and make a change.  I might impact somebody else’s life, some other lady who cannot speak out.  So I’m willing to go that route.

After I was done asking all my questions, I asked her if there was anything else she wanted to say.  She thought for a minute and then said this:

I am so grateful that I got to meet Julien.  She reminds me that even after undergoing trauma, women can change their own lives for the better, and that they can even emerge with their spirits intact.

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A Visit to the WCPU

Johanna Wilkie | Posted August 20th, 2009 | Africa

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I wanted to visit one of the Woman and Child Protection Units (WCPUs) because of all the things I had heard about them.  I had heard praise: the Namibian government had seen a problem - rampant physical and sexual abuse and assaults on women and children - and had taken steps to solve it.  One of those steps was the system of 15 WCPUs, run by the Namibian police, scattered around the country, mainly in the largest cities of each region.  They were safe havens where women and children who had been abused, raped, or threatened could come and report the crime and could receive medical exams and basic treatment, counseling, and even temporary shelter.  But I had also heard criticism: the WCPUs were cold and often unhelpful, gave bad advice on legal issues and even discouraged people from getting services they were entitled to, and were not well stocked with necessary medical items such as rape examination kits.

I went to the WCPU in Windhoek last week to see for myself.  It’s housed at the Katutura State Hospital, one of the two public hospitals in the capital.  I was able to take pictures of the outside but not anything inside - the reaction when I asked to take photos was of horror (even though I made it clear that I would only take pictures of rooms, not people).

Katutura State Hospital
Katutura State Hospital

Katutura State Hospital


Women walking by the WCPU

It was a bit daunting first walking in, as the two women at the reception desk were less than welcoming.  I can only hope they are more sympathetic to the people coming in who actually need the WCPU’s services.  They directed me to the person in charge, a police officer, who was much friendlier and offered to show me around.  I accepted, and I believe he showed me every room in the building.

The space was sizeable.  Most of the rooms were offices for social workers and other employees.  While not fancy, the rooms were fairly clean, well-lit, and cheerful.  A lot of the walls had large Disney characters painted on them.  I saw three rooms specifically for the use of women and children needing services.  There was an interview room for children, colorfully-decorated and filled with toys, books, and dolls.  Looking around it made me sad that there was the need for such a room, but I’m glad it’s there for those who need it.  The medical examination room seemed reasonably well-equipped to my inexpert eye, and my guide even showed me a stack of four rape kits on the table.  Finally he showed me the waiting room where women and kids who flee their homes in the night can come and wait for WCPU staff.  It had a table, chairs, and a single mattress with a blanket thrown over it.  It was clear that this is a temporary space.

The WCPUs do not act as long-term shelters, and there is only one such shelter in the country.  It is also in Windhoek.  Most women and children requiring longer-term shelter are put up in hospitals or other makeshift lodging.  This is not the fault of the WCPUs but it does indicate a lack in the system.

Recently I met with Veronica Theron, who works at the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare.  She is a trained social worker who has worked for 15 years in the fields of gender-based violence and child protection, and is now in charge of the social workers at all the WCPUs.  She admitted that many of the WCPUs were not well-equipped: that they needed vehicles to respond to incidents, for example.  She also said that since there are only 15 units in such a large country, they are only in the larger towns and cities.  Women and children in rural areas may not be able to reach them, and the police in those areas may not be well-trained on issues of gender-based violence and child abuse.  She saw a need for more funding to improve the WCPUs and their reach.  She sees the necessity, too, because she confirmed the statistics that I’d been seeing - that violence against women has been steadily increasing since independence.  Every year there are more rapes and more assaults.  She also made an observation that I had not yet heard from any publications or officials: that cases of rape and domestic physical violence have been increasing in severity and brutality since the Combating of Rape Act and the Combating of Domestic Violence Act were passed in 2000 and 2003, respectively.  Because the penalties for these crimes are now harsher than they were, perpetrators are more likely to attempt to kill the victim in order to get rid of the evidence.  She specifically mentioned child rape cases in this context.

Veronica Theron
Veronica Theron

Veronica Theron

When I asked if she thought there was a problem with guns and domestic violence, she said something I found surprising but that in retrospect is obvious: that guns are much more often involved in cases of domestic abuse involving wealthy families.  This is because these are the people that can afford to buy a gun for protection.  The weapon of choice for a poorer abuser would more likely be a knife, although he may threaten her, saying he will buy or borrow a gun.  She said that women in wealthier families, too, are more likely to be isolated from supportive family and friends (specifically, she mentioned the wives of diplomats, far from their homes), so the psychological abuse can be far worse.  This often includes death threats.

Previously, I had interviewed Detective Chief Inspector Rosalia Shatilweh, the National Coordinator for the WCPUs for the Namibian Police.  I asked her what she thought the scope of the problem is here in Namibia, and here is her answer:

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Remembering Selma Shaimemanya

Johanna Wilkie | Posted August 19th, 2009 | Africa

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Erastus Nekuta agreed to be interviewed about his niece, Selma Shaimemanya, who was shot and killed by her abusive husband, Lazarus Shaduka, on July 13, 2008.  Erastus described Selma as “…always available to help where help was needed.”  He also said that she was hard-working and forward-looking, and that she was “trying to be somebody in life.”  She was well-educated: she attended university at the Polytechnic in Windhoek and then went to the UK to get her master’s degree.  When she came back to Namibia, she began working for the Ministry of Defense.  Soon after her return she married Shaduka.

Shaduka started abusing her immediately after the marriage and the situation deteriorated quickly.  He often threatened to kill her. Despite intervention by various family members, the abuse did not stop.  At one point, after he had threatened her with his gun, she went to the police to get a protection order.  However, she was pressured to withdraw her application by Shaduka’s family, and so she did not go through with the order.  The police confiscated his gun when she took out the order but he was able to retrieve it immediately after the case was withdrawn.  Soon after that, just one year after the wedding, he killed her with it, shooting her in the presence of their 8-month-old daughter.  Selma was just 33.  In this video Erastus describes her murder and what happened immediately afterward.

Shaduka is still waiting for trial.

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Breaking the Wall of Silence and National Reconciliation

Johanna Wilkie | Posted August 14th, 2009 | Africa

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Namibia never went through a formal process of national reconciliation after independence, as South Africa did with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  As part of its vision to be a consistent voice for the dignity of Namibian ex-detainees of the liberation movement and the development of a more open and tolerant society in Namibia, BWS considers formal national reconciliation to be one of its main goals.  Its approach is as follows:

National reconciliation is an imminent forerunner and prerequisite of unity, peace, stability and democracy.  BWS believes that the following steps are essential for conflict resolution leading to effective national reconciliation:

1.     Truth and honesty about events/causes leading to the conflict

2.     Admission of wrong-doing and showing of remorse by perpetrators

3.     Apology

4.     Acceptance of apology on the part of the victim

5.     Analysis and assessment of the impact these human rights abuses have on victims/survivors and families of the missing persons for effective intervention and remedy

BWS wants to see ruling party SWAPO begin these steps in regards to the ex-detainees from the liberation struggle.  (If you haven’t read my previous post on the historical background of BWS’s foundingyou might want to now).  As of this point, SWAPO leadership has never admitted wrong-doing in its abuse and torture of the detainees, let alone the fact that many of the victims were entirely innocent.  However, it is getting closer.  Just yesterday, this story appeared on the front page of the Namibian, announcing that the Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs will consider ex-detainees from SWAPO’s spy crisis to potentially be eligible for war veteran status.  The Minister, Ngarikutuke Tjiriange, made a garbled statement about the detainees, saying that SWAPO did have suspected spies, and “In the process, you may have arrested people who you suspected, but who may not have been as active (as initially thought).  So the answer is easy.  If someone was not convicted of any offence, but was caught in the crossfire, they will be associated with the struggle.  They will be treated as a veteran.”

To encourage SWAPO to begin the steps toward true reconciliation, BWS lobbies SWAPO party officials, Parliamentarians and other politicians; conducts a public relations campaign through the national media; and works to get the word out internationally through partnerships with international organizations.  BWS has also conducted a painstaking campaign to record the testimonies of all ex-detainees or their families, and to reach out to Namibians in all regions to ensure they know about the detentions.

A few weeks ago I interviewed Samson Ndeikwila, who was one of the founders of BWS and also its first chairperson.  I asked him what he thought were the most significant achievements of the organization, and also its importance to Namibia.  He spoke eloquently about the need for national reconciliation and BWS’s part in that:

Later I asked him whether he thought national reconciliation would actually happen, whether SWAPO would ever admit what it had done, and he said, “It will be resolved but I don’t know when.  I hope in my lifetime.”  I hope so too.

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Domestic Violence, Gun Ownership, and the Law

Johanna Wilkie | Posted August 10th, 2009 | Africa

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Part of what Pauline is working on here in her capacity as the lead activist on issues of gun violence in Namibian civil society is altering the legal landscape to make guns less accessible.  There is one major law that regards gun ownership, the Arms and Ammunition Act of 1996.  This law states that a person must be 18 to own a firearm, must apply for a license for each weapon and register it with the police, and must have a “strong-room” or safe in which to store it.  The law also allows for each citizen to own up to four guns.*

The Act provides for “declarations of unfitness” by police on grounds that the applicant is homicidal or suicidal, mentally unstable, “inclined to violence,” addicted to drugs or alcohol, or handles weapons “in a reckless manner.”  A person can be found unfit if he commits certain crimes without a firearm, such as murder, rape, assault, or robbery, but a court may find otherwise.  If a person is found to be unfit, his application for a firearms license can be declined, or a weapon in his possession can be taken away.

In 2003, Namibia enacted the Combating of Domestic Violence Act, which defines domestic violence (before 2003 not recognized as a separate crime in Namibia), provides for protection orders to be issued to victims, and outlines police responsibilities in responding to such crimes.  The law amends the Arms and Ammunition Act by including domestic violence as a crime that can render an offender unfit to own weapons.  In addition, the CDV Act allows for police seizure of weapons at the scene under section 23:

“Any police officer who reasonably suspects that a domestic violence offence has been committed may -(a)  question any person present at the scene of the offence to determine whether there are weapons at the scene; and (b) on observing or learning that a weapon is present at the scene, search any person, premises, vehicle or other place and seize any weapon that the officer reasonably believes would expose the complainant to a risk of serious bodily injury.”  [italics mine]

Notice that “may.”  This is not a requirement, but an option, for police officers.

Pauline’s goal is to make the link between the two laws stronger; for example, to have the Arms and Ammunition Act require that weapons be taken not only from convicted abusers, but those with a protection order against them, and to require that police consult with family members before granting licenses.  She is also working to raise the legal age of gun ownership to 21, to institute a competency test for gun ownership, and to ban the carrying of weapons in public places by civilians.  She is hoping that progress will be made this year.  Some Namibian Parliamentarians have publically expressed support for amending the law to include these changes, among others.  Meanwhile, lobbyists for gun dealers and hunting groups are taking every chance they can get to bend parliamentarians’ ears.

*A note on the four-gun allowance: This policy has been defended as vital to a country of farmers and hunters. In his report for the Institute for Public Policy Research in Windhoek, “In Self-Defense: Firearms Usage in Namibia,” researcher Martin Boer quotes security consultant Colonel Radmore as saying, “Namibia is a gun country.  A farmer will have at least two rifles or a shotgun and a rifle.  He needs them to hunt, he needs them to feed his people.”  But as Boer’s report reveals, the vast majority of applications for firearms licenses show the stated reason for the application as self-defense.  Moreover, most applicants are located in urban centers and are requesting licenses for pistols or revolvers, not the rifles or shotguns that would normally be used for hunting.[1]

[1] Boer,M., “In Self-Defence: Firearms Usage in Namibia,” IPPR Briefing Paper No. 31, April 2004, Windhoek, Institute for Public Policy Research.

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Johanna Wilkie | Posted August 5th, 2009 | Africa

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English is the sole official language of Namibia, but it is the first language of very few people here.  Generally, black Namibians speak their home or tribal language – Oshivambo, Damara/Nama, Herero/Ovahimba, San, Caprivi, Batswana, and Kavango being the major ones – then learn Afrikaans and English in school.  Some also learn German.  So English is a second or third language for most people here.  Frankly I find it amazing how well most people that I meet speak it, considering that it has only been the official language since independence in 1990.  It has become one of the two lingua franca‘s of the country (or at least the major cities) in a very short period of time – the other being Afrikaans.

Namibians do have their own way of saying things, of course.  Many people call Namibian English “Namlish” to point out these differences in pronunciation and vocabulary with other English dialects.  Following are a few of my favorite Namlish expressions.  Some of these may also be used in South Africa, Botswana, or other African countries.

My dear – many people call me this upon meeting me, especially black Namibian women who are older than me.  Black Namibian men tend to call me sister or Mma (I am assuming it is similar to the Batswana term of respect “Mma” and have therefore spelled it the same way.  It is pronounced “meMA.”).

Are you fine? – Used equally to ask “How are you?” and “Are you OK?”

Even me/neither me – Used instead of “me too” and “me neither”

Learner/student – Children and teens in primary or secondary (high) school are called learners.  People who go to university are called students.

Bakkie – Actually from Afrikaans.  A bakkie is a kind of truck.  Honestly it looks just like a pickup truck to me but Namibians tell me that they are two different things.

Robot - Traffic light.  From my friends in South Africa I have learned that the same word is used there.

Honestly speaking – Used far more often than in the US, for emphasis.

Can you borrow me $10? – Namibians use “borrow” to mean both borrow and lend.

Is it? – A question of confirmation or disbelief, used regardless of the subject or verb originally used by the other person talking.  A couple of conversational examples:

A:  “I think Laura is cool.”   B:  “Is it?”

A:  “They don’t want to go to the soccer match tonight.”   B:  “Is it?”

Generally, Namlish uses many Briticisms (pants instead of the American underwear, for example, which I often forget to my embarassment) but surprisingly Namibians usually say soccer and not football.

If you’re interested, here is a website with a far more inclusive guide to Namlish.

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Remembering Rudolfine Gorases

Johanna Wilkie | Posted July 29th, 2009 | Africa

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Today I spoke with a woman aptly named Memory.  She agreed to tell me about her cousin Rudolfine, who was shot and killed by her boyfriend in September 2004.  Rudolfine was only 24 and had a 9-year-old daughter who is now without a mother.

Rudolfine’s boyfriend was a member of the Namibian Defense Force (the Namibian military), which is how he had obtained the gun that killed Rudolfine.  Her family does not know whether he abused her previously, or whether he had ever threatened her with the gun.  All they know is that one day the couple had an argument.  The boyfriend left the house briefly, came back with the gun, and shot and killed Rudolfine.  He then shot himself, but he survived.

Rudolfine’s killer was taken into custody later but Memory did not know whether he had been convicted or even on trial.  She said that the family had chosen not to follow what happened to him.  When I asked her about the relationship between her and Rudolfine, she said that they had actually only met a few years before her death, “so it was such a short time and it was really bad losing her.”

When I looked up Rudolfine’s death online to see if any news stories had been written about it, I found just one very short item, apparently without follow-up, in The Namibian.  Discussing the suspected murderer, its closing line reads: “The reasons for his actions are not yet known.”  I doubt they will ever be known, or can ever be comprehended.

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Interview with Pauline Dempers, BWS National Coordinator

Johanna Wilkie | Posted July 28th, 2009 | Africa

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I sat down with Pauline Dempers, National Coordinator and co-founder of Breaking the Wall of Silence (BWS), and asked her about the history and mission of the organization, how BWS became involved in combating gun violence, the challenges BWS is currently facing, and her vision for the future of the organization.

A little historical background will be helpful in understanding BWS’s roots and Pauline’s experience. During Namibia’s struggle for independence from South Africa, which was ongoing from the 1960s through the 1980s until independence was finally achieved in 1990, many Namibians left the country in order to train and fight in the struggle.  The South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) was the leading voice of the liberation movement, and it was training soldiers and leaders in camps in Angola, Zambia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.  Starting in the 60s, tension developed between the older leadership of SWAPO and young people coming from Namibia.  In the 80s, the SWAPO leadership became convinced that there were spies for the South African government among the new arrivals.  They began jailing and torturing suspects in underground prisons.  No one knows how many people were imprisoned overall, but the number is somewhere between 1000 and 2000.  Many did not return.

In 1989, as part of the UN agreement that ended hostilities between South Africa and Namibia and granted independence to the new nation, surviving prisoners of war were repatriated to their respective countries.  Just 169 men, women and children were repatriated to Namibia from dungeons in Lubango, Angola.  The whereabouts of the rest of the detainees remains unknown.  Breaking the Wall of Silence was formed in 1996 by the survivors of the spy crisis to advocate for the human rights of the ex-detainees and their families.  SWAPO was elected as the ruling party after independence and remains the ruling party after 19 years.

The rest is best said in Pauline’s own words:

For more information on the mission and programs of BWS, please go to the new website at: http://sites.google.com/site/breakingthewallofsilence/Home

One Response to “Interview with Pauline Dempers, BWS National Coordinator”

  1. [...] Interview with Pauline Dempers, BWS National Coordinator [...]

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A Veteran of the Women and Child Protection Unit

Johanna Wilkie | Posted July 24th, 2009 | Africa

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The Namibian Police Force has several “units” or divisions.  The one that specifically works with cases of domestic violence or abuse is the Women and Child Protection Unit (WCPU).  There are WCPU offices in various cities and towns all over the country, and it is here that people can report abuse, receive counseling or medical examinations, and even receive temporary shelter if needed.  There is some debate about how welcoming or well-equipped some of these WCPUs are, and I hope to visit one soon to get a better picture of what happens there.

In the meantime, I spoke with a police detective who worked in a WCPU for 11 years (she asked me not to use her name in this blog).   When I asked her about domestic violence cases involving guns, she told me the story of a woman whose abuser used to clean his gun in front of her, or sleep with his gun under his pillow, when he wanted to intimidate her.

I asked her how it was for her personally, to do this work for so long.  She immediately responded that it was “emotionally draining” and that it had had a “huge impact” on her and her marriage.  In the year or so since she left that position and started doing general detective duties, she said, her husband has noticed big changes in her; specifically, he said that she has been much more relaxed since leaving the WCPU.  This despite the fact that she voluntarily participated in group therapy with the other staff of the WCPU while she was there.

This last part of the conversation was of particular interest to me as I have been thinking about the impact of the work I am doing here on my own mental and emotional well-being.  There is no doubt that reading page after page of horrific stories of rape, assault, and murder is disturbing, and hearing the stories directly even more so.  However, it does sometimes feel a little overly indulgent, even selfish, to worry about myself when I am not suffering directly.  The women I am reading about and meeting are the ones who are really going through difficult times.  Recently though, I have been receiving some reminders that I should take care of myself, and not just from this police detective.  Yesterday I met a woman who is doing her Ph.D. research on domestic violence here, and she warned me that I must make sure I have support, and that I should take time to relax and enjoy life.  “Believe me,” she said, “I know.”  Both of these conversations serve as a reminder that violence is far-reaching, and affects not only the victims, but also their caretakers and advocates.

Don’t worry, friends and family, I am taking care of myself!  I have the weekend to take a time out.  I just wish it was possible for the victims of these crimes to have the same opportunity.

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Breaking the Wall of Silence

Johanna Wilkie | Posted July 15th, 2009 | Africa

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You may be wondering why it took me over two weeks to post, and one of the main reasons is that I’ve been hard at work on the website for Breaking the Wall of Silence (BWS).  It’s not nearly finished, but the main information on the organization’s mission and programs is up.  I realize that I have not gone into a lot of detail about the work that BWS does (its programs combatting gun violence are only a part of its focus), and I figured that unveiling its new website would be a good way to formally introduce it.  The Home, About Us, and Approach and Activities pages are active; I especially recommend checking out the “About Us” page to get the basics on BWS’s history and mission.  So, here goes: I give you Breaking the Wall of Silence!

3 Responses to “Breaking the Wall of Silence”

  1. iain says:

    This is a really good development. We’re getting a good sense of the challenge, and the response of advocates, through your blogs. Now they’re starting to put up the information. This is how successful campaigns begin. Well done….!

  2. Johanna Wilkie says:

    Oh that’s great! I linked to IANSA a few times as well…

  3. Great, I have just linked to it from our DDV campaign page!

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Fellow: Johanna Wilkie

Breaking the Wall of Silence in Namibia


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Audrey Roberts
Caitlin Burnett
Devin Greenleaf
Jeff Yarborough
Julia Zoo
Madeline England
Maha Khan
Mariko Scavone
Mark Koenig
Nicole Farkouh
Saba Haq
Tassos Coulaloglou
Ted Samuel
Alison Morse
Gail Morgado
Jennifer Hollinger
Katie Wroblewski
Leslie Ibeanusi
Michelle Lanspa
Stephanie Gilbert
Zach Scott
Abby Weil
Jessica Boccardo
Sara Zampierin
Eliza Bates
Erin Wroblewski
Tatsiana Hulko

2006 Interns

Laura Cardinal
Jessical Sewall
Alison Long
Autumn Graham
Donna Laverdiere
Erica Issac
Greg Holyfield
Lori Tomoe Mizuno
Melissa Muscio
Nicole Cordeau
Stacey Spivey
Anya Gorovets
Barbara Bearden
Lynne Engleman
Yvette Barnes
Charles Wright
Sarah Sachs

2005 Interns

Eun Ha Kim
Malia Mason
Anne Finnan
Carrie Hasselback
Karen Adler
Sarosh Syed
Shirin Sahani
Chiara Zerunian
Ewa Sobczynska
MacKenzie Frady
Margaret Swink
Sabri Ben-Achour
Nitzan Goldberger

2004 Interns

Ginny Barahona
Michael Keller
Sarah Schores
Melinda Willis
Pia Schneider
Stacy Kosko
Carmen Morcos
Christina Fetterhoff
Stacy Kosko
Bushra Mukbil

2003 Interns

Erica Williams
Kate Kuo
Claudia Zambra
Julie Lee
Kimberly Birdsall
Marta Schaaf
Caitlin Williams
Courtney Radsch