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He built bridges from early on: Obama's sister

Aziz Haniffa in Denver, Colorado | August 29, 2008 11:51 IST

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At the fundraiser put together last month for the Barack Obama [Images] campaign and the Democratic National Committee by the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in Washington, DC's Mayflower Hotel, which included the participation of several Indian-Americans with the likes of Shekar Narasimhan and Dr Mahinder Tak being the leading 'bundlers', the then presumptive, now official Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama had said, "I was born and raised in Hawaii. I grew up also in Indonesia and Southeast Asia."
 
"Of course, most importantly, I've got a sister, who's half-Indonesian, who's married to a Chinese Canadian, so I don't know what that makes my niece (her name is Suhaila)," he said, and added: "So, this is part of my family, this is part of my DNA. This is part of my genetic make-up."
 
When I repeated this to Obama's sister (half-sister to be precise) Maya Kassandra Soetoro-Ng at the start of an exclusive interview in Denver at the Westin Hotel, she laughed heartily and said, "Interesting, interesting."
 
I also told her about his remarks at the same function when he had recalled that when he went to college, "My roommates were Indian and Pakistanis -- so I was creating peace. I was a peacemaker long before I held office." I mentioned that at a more recent fundraiser, in Silicon Valley, California, once again attended by several Indian-Americans, her brother had said, ""Not only do I think I'm a desi, but I'm a desi."
 
Asked if all this made her brother a man truly of the world and if this would make him a great president, Maya said, "He is very committed to this country. He is very much an American man, but I think that the world has offered wonderful layers of the flavours of the people and he respects all of it and he welcomes all of it."
 
"He takes it all in. The great thing about him is he doesn't really discard anything -- he keeps it and he treasures it and, I think, all of his experiences, all of those friendships, all of his travels and even the literature and the music and the food that we have had access to," she added.
 
"I think these have all made him a better diplomat -- a better leader, more perspicacious, more thoughtful, more interesting, smarter, stronger, and yes, that they certainly will impact the degree to which he is able to connect with the rest of the world and connect with different people here in this country in order to effectively impact their future."
 
Soetoro-Ng was born to Lolo, an Indonesian businessman and Ann Dunham, a cultural anthropologist, in Jakarta. She has a PhD in education from the University of Hawaii and is a high school history teacher at La Pietra, Hawaii School for Girls in Honolulu. In May 2007, she took a leave of absence to campaign for her brother's presidential campaign.
 
Asked how it was growing up with her brother, and his sense of humour, Soetoro-Ng said, "He does have a great sense of humour. I mean, Michelle is probably the funniest in the family. If you get to know her, you'll see that. But Barack has a great sense of humour and he can be very self-deprecating too. He's a very low-key guy. Growing up with him was great."
 
"He couldn't help but be inclusive because of the way he was raised. We had a mother who lived in so many different countries -- she worked in India and Pakistan and quite extensively in Bangladesh. She worked in West Africa like the Ghana region and in East Africa. She worked in South America, in Thailand and Malaysia and Singapore and so forth and she shared all these stories with us," she added.
 
"But also it was something that was part of her general perspective on life -- this notion that you know we are essentially the same at the core and that that should be emphasised, that that should be highlighted and that we should encourage open gatherings with as many different people from as many places as possible."
 
Then Soetoro-Ng said something she's mentioned on the campaign trail, "My mother left behind for me some dolls from my childhood. She left them for my children before she died. I wish she could have met her grandchildren, Barack's children and mine. She wanted so much to have grandchildren and she would have enjoyed them."
 
Quickly getting back to the dolls and their symbolism, she said, "They are funny. They look like the United Nations. It's like every conceivable place is presented."
 
"I believe that it was very important for her to remind us both that the world was an interesting tapestry and that we would become more interesting the more time that we spent touching these different textures," Soetoro-Ng said.
 
Soetoro-Ng also recalled that their mother had "a great sense of play and I think that our family in general were very low-key, we jest with one another, we jostle and we play games."
 
In interacting with his friends from all parts of the world during his college days, including Indians and Pakistanis, Soetoro-Ng said, "There was no conflict."
 
"We know that unfortunately sometimes, Indians and Pakistanis still struggle with one another. But Barack, he has never struggled with anyone and he actually managed to build bridges from very early on and he continues to do so."

"Obviously, I think that is a primary gift that he gives to us as a leader and we are beginning to recognise that it's so important in our world today and these sensitivities were always present and he managed to bring people together without forcing the issue, and he did it with a smile and they found themselves reaching out to one another without much reluctance at all," Obama's sister added.






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