As a human rights educator, thinking about the advances and the setbacks we’ve faced in respecting human rights leaves me filled with (almost) equal amounts of hope and despair – hope does win out, as it does, I suspect, for most people who call themselves human rights defenders. I think what keeps the spirits up for those defenders is that they can effect change within their immediate spheres of influence – their neighbours, their friends and families, their colleagues, and the people in their communities.
When I think of the work I’ve done over the past year, I’m most grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to facilitate workshops for human rights defenders who are making a difference in the lives of others around them. In other words, to use overly dramatic make-me-gag-sappy lingo you’d see on sites like CNN, they’re heroes. The first workshop I facilitated this year was in Jordan in February, and the group consisted of everyday phys ed teachers in Palestinian refugee camps and people working for NGOs. They came to the workshop to learn about children’s rights and how to use games to promote human rights values. The work they do as teachers or NGO workers is unrecognized hero-stuff. They teach others to respect each one another – in other words, they ascribe to my brother’s definition of human rights. Take Thawrat, for example: a kind man with a gentle face making sure Coptic orphans in Egypt live their lives to their fullest potential.
Every workshop I’ve been part of this year has had its share of Thawrats: from Vancouver to Winnipeg, from Jakarta (twice) to Colombo to Kathmandu, everyone trying their best to make a difference in the lives of others. And for me, now in my ninth year doing this type of work, I have asked myself the following question more often that usual: Am I really needed – do I really need to do this job? Don’t think this is a cheap attempt to elicit sympathy from readers, it’s not. It’s a question anyone in “international development” should ask. A related statement would be: I should work my way out of a job. On my last trip this year to steamy Jakarta, I got the answer. My last meeting was with a group of people who have been undertaking their own annual human rights training program for the last three years. Now getting ready for their fourth year, they are well-prepared, aware of the work they must do, conscious of their fundraising needs, and fully capable of having a successful fourth annual program. The group consists of people who are part of my organization’s alumni and who needed my help and the help of my colleagues for the first three years. My role was specifically in assisting the group on the curriculum content of the program. I sat through the meeting doing absolutely nothing other than listen. I had nothing to contribute. They had everything covered. I felt unneeded. I had found my answer – at least on that rooftop in Jakarta, and I couldn’t be happier.
More end of year posts coming in the next few days…
I visited Banda Aceh, an area horribly ruined by the 2004 tsunami, just over a year after it was destroyed. As I wrote in my journal back in March 2006 [the drawing, “sorrow,” was part of the entry], “The day left me hollow inside. I had begun to feel disdainful towards the international community’s efforts at reconstruction. My first exposure was an anti-malaria campaign, where I was handed a free cap and t-shirt seconds after jumping into the donor’s vehicle. Hotels in Aceh are fully booked, prices have increased tenfold. Rents gone up 400%. Prices for food gone up dramatically. INGOs [international NGOs] recruiting people who used to work for local NGOs, leaving them to suffer. Disorganization, mismanagement are words everyone is using concerning donor assistance.
All true, however, looking at the devastation, the area is being rebuilt, and that wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of the UNHCR and others.”