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Celebrating 10 Years at HealthBridge: A Q&A with Phaeba Abraham

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Phaeba Abraham is HealthBridge’s South Asia Regional Manager. As Regional Manager, Phaeba supports the implementation of Livable Cities projects in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. She provides technical assistance and capacity building opportunities to partners in the region. In 2018, Phaeba celebrated ten years with HealthBridge. Learn about Phaeba’s experience, in her own words!

How has HealthBridge changed or evolved over the last ten years?

When I joined HealthBridge in 2008, I felt at home. Ten years later, I still feel that way! I am proud of the way we have expanded our areas of work in line with global issues. For example, our work from tobacco control to livable cities.

Tell us about some of your favourite moments over the last ten years.

One of my favourite memories is with Debra (Regional Director) and Sian (Executive Director). They called me to Nepal for an interview in 2007. It was the 3rd and 4th of December, and we were in Pokhara. A Regional Workshop on EcoCities and Roads for the People was happening in the city at the same time. On December 5th, we all decided to take a hike. This was my first time hiking on a mountain! There had recently been a landslide on the mountain, and the trails were not yet fixed. We lost track of the trail and what was supposed to be a one hour hike took us more than five hours. Remember, I was in Nepal for my interview, and it was Debra who had introduced me to HealthBridge. The first thing I said to her when I saw her at the peak was: “You are fired from the post of being my boss!” And Debra said, “I don’t mind being fired, but I am proud you made it to the peak!” It was then that I knew I had found a good mentor.

I also fondly remember the days when Kristie (Livable Cities Program Director) and I would meet in Bangalore, India to plan and talk about our work. At some point we concluded that we are “sisters at heart”.

Another time I was presenting at a conference in Montreal, Canada. Jan Gehl, a good friend of HealthBridge and renowned Danish architect and urban design consultant based in Copenhagen, came up to me after my presentation said, “Great presentation, Phaeba. Keep up the good work!” I don’t know why, but that moment of encouragement has remained in my heart!

Tell us about some of your most challenging moments over the last ten years.

I work remotely, by choice, and at first, it was difficult. Being a South Asian, it was hard for me to sit alone in an office for 8 hours! I missed sound, and being around people. I remember I used to miss being around people so much that I would write emails, just to say that I miss them! Debra and Kristie made sure to spend time with me during those initial days. They took turns and visited me once a year. That was good enough to keep me going! Now it is fine, I am used to it.

Were you always interested in making cities better places to live?

No. I was taught to work for cities.

When I started working with HealthBridge in 2008, very few people were talking about the way cities are designed and their impact on our health, at least not in South Asia. Back then, tobacco control, HIV/AIDS and malaria were the issues that were addressed globally. Non-communicable diseases were not yet at epidemic levels. As we started doing research, studying policies, piloting projects, and disseminating information the concept of livable cities got the attention of governments in South Asia. The joy of adding knowledge to the global discussion is the most wonderful part of our work!

Tell us when you realised that cities were not built for everyone.

In 2009, I was doing research with our partner, Evangelical Social Action Forum in Nagpur, India. We were looking at how child friendly the city was. I was doing my homework so that I could provide technical support, and was reading many resources that Debra shared with me. The initial books I read were Growing Up in an Urbanising World, Cities and Sustainability, and our own publications on public spaces. These all opened my eyes to the issue that cities are not built for everyone.

After our marriage, we moved to Bangalore. I had seen the city as a child and when I returned to it in 2009, I saw the way the city had changed. I realised the city was being ‘killed’ just by planning it the wrong way. It really made me feel sad.

Understanding that our contributions can bring a change, we started working in the city of Bangalore. I am glad that Sian stood by and supported that decision. Today, I won’t say that we have changed the city, but we have made improvements. We brought a public bike sharing system to Bangalore and have been instrumental in bringing cycle days, open street events, and safe route to school programs—not just to India but to South Asia.

Tell us about your team.

As Manager of the South Asia Region, I work with five local partner organisations in four countries. I work closely with a set of vibrant advocates who challenge the norms and are creating impact in their countries. They do this with limited finances, and stretch their capacities and families to realise their goals.

I have Kristie Daniel with me, as my Director. I owe her a lot in terms of building me up professionally over the years.

I am humbled to work with such a good team. I have learned so much from them!

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I thankfully remember my husband, Abraham who lost his job because of my decision to join HealthBridge. He would say, “What you do is more important and beautiful, and I am with you in this ‘calling’. He would say my work is a calling, not a job.

My son Tejas was just 3 months old when I left him at home for a field visit. We faced our days with strength. In the words of one of my favourite authors, Ravi K. Zacharias, “His design for our life pulls together every thread of your existence into a magnificent work of art. Every thread matters and has a specific purpose…God is indeed the Grand Weaver of our life.”