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By Mark Mulligan, Financial Times, Published: October 22 2007 09:51 | Last updated: October 22 2007 09:51

Coming from two cultures as diverse as Spanish and Indonesian has its drawbacks: Jamila Bravo Maagdalia says she feels like a foreigner in both countries.

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However, a dramatic series of events not only led to the 31-year-old law graduate enrolling on the EMBA at the IE Business School in Madrid, but also to a reconciliation of her unusual provenance.

After learning of the tsunami that devastated large parts of coastal southern Asia in late-2004, she offered her services as an interpreter to aid agencies. Three weeks later she was on a Spanish battleship with 550 troops bound for Aceh, north-west Sumatra, where an entire city had been wiped out by the tidal wave, and 125,000 people killed.

She remembers the stench of death, and an eerie mist hovering above the flattened landscape around Banda Aceh, the razed capital. Her maternal grandfather was from the worst-affected suburb of the city â?? her mother lost more than 40 relatives in the catastrophe.

One of her most enduring memories of what became two separate missions to the region was the shipâ??s approach to the closest intact port to Banda Aceh.

â??Warships donâ??t have windows, so I couldnâ??t see anything,â? she recalls. â??However, I suddenly got called up to the bridge by the captain, because the person guiding the ship into port didnâ??t speak English. Before I knew it, I was translating directions from Indonesian into Spanish, basically giving orders to the captain on how to berth this massive ship. It was an experience I will never forget.â? It was just the first of a series of challenges during Ms Maagdaliaâ??s three-month stint, during which she pitched into every part of a Spanish relief effort focused on logistics, reconstruction and medical back-up. With fluent Indonesian, English and German, she also found herself acting as an interpreter for relief teams from other parts of the world. One of the most â??enrichingâ? experiences, she says, was translating for Spanish surgeons operating on Acehnese in the shipâ??s fully-equipped hospital.

â??The truth is that most of the surgery was not tsunami-related because this was two or three months after the event,â? she says. â??But we were there with a full medical team, so we invited the locals to take advantage of us.â?

That experience was particularly poignant for Ms Maagdalia, who had always dreamed of studying medicine. The vocation for caring, she said, was born when she was barely five years old, during a holiday with her parents in the mountains north-west of Madrid. On a lonely road one night, the three came across a particularly gruesome traffic accident, in which two young people had been killed on impact. A third person, however, still showed signs of life. â??My parents were torn between racing to the next town and raising the alert â?? and risk letting him die â?? or taking him themselves to the nearest hospital and traumatizing me in the process,â? she says.

â??In the end, they took him to hospital.â?

â??I donâ??t remember anything, but my parents constantly remind me that I decided then and there that I was going to be a doctor.â?

In the end, Ms Maagdalia did not study medicine, despite spending a year in Jakarta preparing for the entrance exams. Instead, her peripatetic childhood and adolescence steered her back to Madrid and a then-novel degree in European Community Law, the final year of which took her to Germany, her country of birth.

To the delight of her father, a career diplomat, she then won an international scholarship run by the Madrid Chamber of Commerce, and worked as a commercial adviser attached to the Spanish Embassy in Johannesburg. From there she went to the European Commission, where she was director of international relations for the EUâ??s @LIS programme, which fosters e-learning and other information technology links between Europe and Latin America. Having already lived or worked in Europe, Asia and Africa, the experience introduced her to another continent, where she spent a year co-ordinating meetings and events.

With the @LIS programme bedded down, Ms Maagdalia returned to the Spanish capital, and to the Madrid Chamber of Commerce, where she worked with the foreign trade team on a series of rolling short-term contracts.

She was awaiting a further renewal in January 2005 when she received a call to go to Indonesia. Her three-month mission completed, she was back in Madrid when the Spanish Red Cross â?? or Cruz Roja â?? convinced her to return to Aceh for another stint. That tour, too, was meant to last three months, but Jamila ended up staying more than a year, helping to co-ordinate reconstruction, health and economic recovery projects. With a vocation for, and expertise in, international co-operation, she returned to Madrid determined to enrol for a complementary masters degree. However, after looking at various options, she opted for an EMBA at the IE Business School in Madrid.

â??Among the many things I had to do in Indonesia, there were administrative jobs such as opening offices, hiring staff, and keeping accounts,â? says Jamila. â??Trying to carry out these functions made me aware of my lack of management skills.â? With no head for numbers, and not one dayâ??s experience in a private sector company, she found the one-year course â??four timesâ? more difficult than she had imagined, even after warnings from graduate friends and relatives. Her humanitarian vision of the world also set her apart from â?? and some times in conflict with â?? most of her classmates, the usual crop of hardened business executives. Jamila became known on campus as â??la cariñosâ?, a good-natured reference to her constant insistence that a strong bottom line does not preclude a little affection â?? â??cariñoâ? â?? in the business model.

â??In the first two months I thought maybe I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,â? she says. But she persevered, finding the environment nonetheless â??fantasticâ? and her co-students â??marvellousâ?, even when forced to defend the value of non-government organisations against their scepticism. In the end, she feels, everyone learnt to accept diverse viewpoints on company management.

Nor has Ms Maagdalia wasted time putting her newfound skills into practice. As business development director for south-east Asia at Excem, a family-owned company with diverse global interests, she has to combine her knowledge of the region and its customs with results-yielding business acumen. One of her current assignments also taps her passion for international co-operation and development.

This involves plans by Real Madrid, the Spanish football club, to open a football academy on the Indonesian island of Bali in the next 18 months. Jamila says the job of co-ordinating talks between the club and Balinese authorities was tailor-made for her.

â??Often in international business, people from different countries never get their projects off the ground simply because each side is seeing the same thing from a different perspective, or because the right words to express an idea cannot be found,â? she says.

â??I act as a sort of bridge because I can understand what the Spanish want and what the Indonesians want, or at least know how to communicate these ideas clearly. I feel like Iâ??ve got something to offer.â?