International Spotlight: Filiz Odabas-Geldiay
JUMPING INTO THE UNKNOWN
Filiz Odabas-Geldiay grew up in a family of pioneering leaders. Her father, Mehmet Odabas, was the Secretary-General with the National Productivity Center of the Turkish State. He helped to progress backward communities in a sustainable manner and dreamed of creating conditions for people to have equal access and opportunity to education, employment and services.
Mehmet was in a tragic car accident when Filiz was in first grade. He was so beloved that factories closed their doors so that their employees could donate blood to aid in his recovery. Sadly, Mehmet eventually succumbed to his injuries and Filiz’s mother, Nermin, became a young widow with two children and no visible income.
“The strength and fortitude that my mother showed during this time shaped my life forever. She established an organization in my father’s name and not only persevered, but became very successful in a field dominated by men,which is particularly challenging in a Muslim country,” said Filiz. She continued, “ My grandmother and aunt moved in to help take care of us. Mom continued to educate herself on how to establish state-labor relations and best practices.”
This was a turbulent time in Turkey; people were killed during clashes and strikes for better wages and working conditions. Yet, Nermin continued her work organizing global seminars on state-labor relations, bringing together world experts and Turkish leaders. “My mother’s role as a mediator, often as the only woman in a room full of men, made a huge impression on me,” said Filiz. “There is a Voice of America documentary and a novel based on her life. Mom is elderly now with health challenges, yet she remains my strongest role model, both as a woman and a mother.”
Filiz completed her formal education and went on to found the successful World Children’s Day Foundation. Its aim was to inspire children to take responsibility to create the kind of world they want to live in and to demonstrate the possibility of becoming good government leaders. Every year school children from around the globe brimmed with pride as they took seats in the United Nations General Assembly.
“When I was growing up, I was passionate about parachute-jumping and took advantage of free classes offered by the State to encourage young people in aviation. Though it was scary at first, I still went ahead. Jumping into the unknown has become a metaphor for my life,” said Filiz.
WOMEN AND PEACE
Her life took a fascinating turn in 1995, when she met renowned spiritual leader and humanitarian, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Several years later, Filiz was appointed Executive Director of the International Association for Human Values, founded by Shankar. Its mission is to reduce stress and develop leaders in order that human values can flourish in people and communities, worldwide.
“Sri Sri believes the role of women in the development of society is of the utmost importance; it is the only thing that determines whether a society is strong and harmonious, or otherwise. It’s a message that resonates with me,” said Filiz.
It’s encouraging to note that US Secretary of State John Kerry agrees with the esteemed spiritual leader. In an official State Department blog, Kerry wrote, “Countries that value and empower women to participate fully in decision-making are more stable, prosperous, and secure. The opposite is also true. When women are excluded from negotiations, the peace that follows is more tenuous.”
Filiz traveled to Baghdad earlier this year, during one of the highest episodes of violence since the start of the Iraq war. The New York Times reported 703 people killed in February alone, with Baghdad being the worst affected.
IAHV is conducting two of its women empowerment programs in Iraq, with grants from the Office of Global Women’s Issues, US Department of State. The focus is on the prevention of gender-based violence against women and the advancement of women’s careers.
“I was eager to explore ways to sustain our programs and honor our local teachers. They have been working tirelessly for years surrounded by extreme violence in a society that traditionally doesn’t support the empowerment of women. My colleagues tried to arrange for security guards to accompany us, but it didn’t work out. We just moved on with our meetings, noting many foreign businessmen wearing bullet-proof vests and traveling with security details in huge armored vehicles.”
An underserved population extremely impacted by years of war, are Iraqi widows. Traditionally widows are supported by extended family, neighbors and mosques. However, due to the high casualties of war, particularly among Iraq’s male population, available assistance no longer meets the growing needs.
IAHV’s programs provide women with vocational training and leadership development. Training includes tools to release negative emotions such as; fear, anxiety and grief; recipients report greater peace of mind, strength, clarity of mind and renewed hope IAHV reports that almost 600 Iraqi women have benefitted from its Life Skills training, 70 young professionals graduated from its Community Leadership Training programs,150 women completed vocational training and 64 women have received academic certificates in finance.
SECRETS TO A HAPPY LIFE
It’s absolutely inspiring to note how Filiz was able to move beyond profound personal loss at such a young age, to lead a fulfilling and happy life dedicated to uplifting others, while also raising two daughters with her husband, Vedat. “He is my main supporter,” said Filiz.
I wondered what her secret to life is, or if she has special super powers?
“The breathing and meditation techniques I learned through the Art of Living Foundation, founded by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, give me more energy and happiness than I knew in my 20’s!” At times when I feel like giving up, President John F. Kennedy’s famous quote, ‘to those whom much is given, much is expected,’ speaks to my heart. I choose to ease the suffering of others as a way of coping with the suffering in the world. Nothing matches the immense joy I feel when I can share a smile and bring relief to someone.”
Wise words from a wise woman.
Filiz Odabas-Geldiay Executive Director, International Association for Human Values. Filiz supports IAHV’s governance, strategic partnerships and public relations. Filiz is a member of the Secretary’s Subcommittee for Women in the US Department of State, and was selected as one of the Nation’s Top 90 Women Mentoring Leaders at the Global Women Mentoring and Philanthropy Summit in 2011. Formerly the executive director of World Children’s Day Foundation, Filiz received MA in Communications and Conflict Management and BA in International Relations from American University.