From Turkmenistan and Italy, Two Women Blaze New Trails
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit war-torn Syria, Akjemal Magtymova, F14, didn’t hesitate to move there from Oman in April 2020, even though all commercial flights were canceled and she faced an increased risk of falling ill.
"I felt that the decision was critical, and it was imperative that I used my skills and everything that I had learned throughout my career to combat the pandemic's influence in Syria and save lives," says Magtymova, a physician who manages emergency operations as World Health Organization representative and head of office in Syria.
The pandemic has also affected the work of Benedetta Berti, F07, F11, a leading voice in international security who serves as head of policy planning at the office of the secretary-general of NATO. Berti has been rapidly developing new policies for the 30-country alliance as it leads an emergency response to treat and vaccinate staff and provide medical supplies and assistance to its members.
“The pandemic made me realize that I chose the right career path,” she said. “Although the day-to-day is fast-paced, energetic, and dynamic, I am very lucky to be doing work that is meaningful.”
For their work as leaders in global public health and international security, Magtymova and Berti will receive the 2021 Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award (FWLA) on May 20 in a virtual celebration (registration required). The FWLA was established in 2014 by the Fletcher Board of Advisors and the school’s executive leadership to honor outstanding female graduates in the private, public, and nongovernmental sectors.
"Akjemal and Benedetta are true leaders who harness skills they honed at Fletcher to save lives and increase global health and security," said Alice Finn, F86, CEO of Powerhouse Assets, who is a member of the Fletcher Advisory Board and chair of the Fletcher Women's Leadership Award Committee. "I'm honored to recognize two such outstanding models of the kind of impact Fletcher graduates have in the world."
A Global Healer
Long before she became a prominent figure at the World Health Organization, Akejmal Magtymova was a girl in Turkmenistan who wanted to be a doctor. Being born during Soviet times and living through her country’s rocky transition to independence influenced her decision to pursue a career in the medical field, and those close to her supported her vision.
"When I was very young, my grandfather took my hands in his and said to me: ‘These are not the hands of Akjemal. These are the hands of a healer,’" she said. At the age of 15, she met the boy who would become her husband years later, and says, “throughout my career, he has been the wind beneath my wings."
After training to be a gynecologist, Magtymova worked in clinical practice and epidemiological research in Turkmenistan before joining the United Nations in 1998. She attended Fletcher through the mid-career GMAP program, which allowed her to continue working while earning her master’s degree. She was proud to be the first woman from Turkmenistan to study in the program.
The Fletcher School helped her connect medicine and public health with international trade, security, finance, and government leadership, she said. That background proved to be critical at WHO.
"The program helped me to draw on a deeper understanding of how the world operates and how states interact with each other,” she said.
Magtymova has served in the Maldives, North Korea, Laos, post-earthquake Nepal, and Yemen. In her current assignment in Syria, she oversees 120 staff and 50 contractors in the field, as well as a budget that is close to $100 million.
Years of political division and war have devastated Syrian society, she said. COVID-19 vaccines received so far through the global COVAX partnership are enough for only 0.5% of the population, making it nearly impossible not only for regular citizens but even for high-risk groups to gain access. To tackle this problem, Magtymova is putting all of her skills into practice to ensure that more vaccines are secured.
“We do not give up. We hope that as more vaccines get produced and become available, there are greater chances to secure the next batches of vaccines for Syria and other countries to stop the pandemic,” she said. “Nobody is safe until everybody is safe.”
A Security Policymaker
Long before she became the director for policy planning in the office of the NATO secretary-general, Benedetta Berti left her hometown of Bologna, Italy, at the age of 16 to move to the small town of Danvers in Southern Illinois as an exchange student. It was the first time that she ventured out on her own without the support of her immediate family.
“That experience triggered my interest in the world around me," she said.
By 2002, while a full-time undergraduate student in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Bologna, Berti was living and working in Mexico. She would travel to Bologna for one month each year to take her exams, then return to her job as a human rights advocate in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, where the militant Zapatista movement has been in conflict with the government since 1994.
Berti’s budding love for adventure and travel—and the questions raised by her experience in Chiapas—led her to Tufts. The contrast between the remote, poverty-stricken region where she had been working for three years and the relative luxury at Fletcher was overwhelming when she arrived in the summer of 2005, she said.
Yet, inspired by her time in Mexico, she studied how internal conflict affects civilian populations, earning both a master’s degree and a doctorate at Fletcher. After graduating, she went on to become a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a visiting professor at the College of Europe.
Berti continues to study the impact of conflict on civilians and is an expert in the role of armed groups, especially in the Middle East. A foreign policy and security researcher and analyst, she has written four books.
She applies her insights at NATO, where she plays a key role in shaping strategy and policies on topics including climate change, emerging technologies, and the future of the alliance.
The work, with security at its center, is inspired by her experience years ago in Mexico. “Seeing first-hand the impact of violence on the Indigenous civilian population in Chiapas made me become interested in better understanding conflict dynamics, with the hope of playing a small role in mitigating the impact of violence on the civilian population,” she said. “That same interest continues to shape my career.”