A Letter to My Sons, Part 3: Uncommon Friends

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

Sorry I couldn’t write sooner, fatigue got the better of me last night. We’ve just completed the second day of our three-day workshop evaluating human rights education activities undertaken by the participants. Today we spent most of the day listening to the main points of each activity. There were participants from Sri Lanka, George, Aruna and Lucille, who told us of a workshop that brought together people from four different religions – Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islam – in order for them to understand more about human rights and how they relate to their religions. We also heard from Bernat and Maria from India, who work with teachers to develop school clubs where they discuss human rights.

Next up was Khan from Afghanistan. He told us about a workshop he held on how to write reports to the United Nations; these reports describe the current situation of human rights in the country. Before we took a break for lunch, Saru and Medan from Nepal shared with us the story of their workshop, where they taught young men and women on something that’s called “domestic violence against women.” That one’s a bit harder to explain. Not every family is one where everybody is happy. There are times when husbands and boyfriends hurt their wives and girlfriends, sometimes with words, sometimes with their hands, and it’s a problem that happens in a lot of places but people find it hard to talk about. A lot of women who get hurt find it hard to talk about it. So Saru and Medan wanted to tell young people about this problem so they could help stop it.

After lunch, Banasree and Lal showed us the journey they took to a village to meet with community leaders and people who work for organizations called NGOs; they helped to educate them more on their rights. And finally, Samson and Hameed from Pakistan told us about their workshop where they trained people from organizations like NGOs on being better at what they do.

So you see, Alexandre and Sam, despite some bad things that are happening around the world, there are some people like my friends here who are doing good things; they are trying to help people. In many ways, that’s the greatest gift you can give to others, whether they be friends, family, or even strangers. People help each other out because it’s just right to do so. I really believe it’s ingrained in our hearts.

You’ll notice that I called these people my friends. It’s true that they are “participants” in this meeting, but the reality is that once you get to know someone, to understand who they are and what their motivations are for doing this kind of human rights work, you can’t help but share a connection with them. It’s a connection, a bond that lasts once the meeting is finished and once we’ve returned to our respective homes. It’s the type of friendship that can easily skip a few years then be rekindled by an email or a phone call. As I said to my friend and colleague Bing tonight, “They’re a good group,” to which she quickly nodded. You’d like them too. I’m pretty sure you’d get the biggest kick out of Lal. He makes everyone laugh instantly, sometimes by his laugh alone. Tonight he bought an umbrella – I have honestly never seen anyone as happy as Lal at the purchase of such a thing, he was beyond ecstatic. If someone can get that excited over buying an umbrella, think of how much fun he has teaching others about their rights.

I’m off to sleep now. Je t’aime, Alexandre, je t’aime Sam, bonsoir.



A Letter to My Sons

November 20, flying somewhere over Greenland


Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,


Today is international Children’s Day. Sorry to celebrate by leaving you at 5 o’clock in the morning. November 20 was chosen as Children’s Day because, as best I can recall, it’s the date the Convention on the Rights of the Child came into effect back in 1989 at the United Nations in New York. Basically, the Convention is a document – a statement, a list of things ordinary people and governments should do – to make sure that children around the world live lives that are filled with love and everything they need to make them safe and happy. There are other days throughout the year that are meant to celebrate things or to make people aware of what the world is like. For example, yesterday was World Toilet Day, which sounds rather funny until you realize that 2.6 billion people – more than a third of all people on the planet – do not have access to the kinds of toilets we have.


I left you this morning with a heavy heart. Most of the time I go on these trips, your mother drives me to the airport with you in the backseat, you jump out of the car once we’re parked and hug me with an intensity that will last for the two weeks I will be away, then I’m off. This time it was harder to say goodbye as you lay in bed, you Alex, still half asleep, and you Sam, who’d been patiently waiting to hug me. Your whispers of I love you betrayed a sadness that I felt as much as you.


I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve had to say goodbye. I think it’s just over 50 in the past nine years. Both of you have only known a father who travels to far off places to do stuff which is always hard for me to explain to you. Maybe now’s the time to try.


We live in a world where your mother and I, like just about any parent, want to protect you from what’s really out there. We did what we could to prevent you from hearing the f-word and the s-word, and while you may have said it yourselves once or twice, you know it’s wrong to do so. Thankfully, you still think that moron, idiot, and hate are bad words, and when it comes down to it, you’re right. You’re each at a point in your lives when you’ve been bullied by unkind, unloved children, and your mother and I are trying to teach you to stand up for yourselves. Otherwise your gentle natures make you easy targets to be pushed around.


The world as I know it is a lot nastier than seen through your eyes, and believe me when I say that I want it to stay that way. I want you to grow up in a better world than the one we live in now. I want you to live in a world where your children will not be bullied in the schoolyard for no reason. I want you to live in a world where your children’s friends won’t be hurt or insulted because they’re of a different colour, or a different religion, or because they’re a different anything, because “different” isn’t wrong. I want you to live in a world where you don’t see people living on the street, as you did Sam when we walked downtown together a few months ago. I want you to live in a world where the news on TV and the internet is about people helping each other, not fighting against each other.


There are a lot of bad things happening in the world today, Alex and Sam, and when I travel to places I’d never heard about when I was your age it’s because I am working with people in these countries who want to make the world a better place. Some of the people I see teach children your age that they have these things called “rights.”


Everyone has rights, or at least everyone is supposed to have rights. Everyone should have the right to go to school, to have an education. There are millions of children your age around the world who have never attended school, nor will they ever go. When I lived in Africa, I saw a lot of children like that, spending their days doing nothing, or helping with chores around the house, or walking for hours to fetch a bucket of dirty water. They could go to school, but their parents cannot afford it, or maybe there are no schools, or maybe the parents don’t realize how important an education really is.


There are lots of other rights. People have the right to be as healthy as possible, and that means having enough doctors and nurses take care of you when you are sick, and to make sure there is enough medicine to get better. Remember when you broke your arm, Alex? We had to wait at the hospital for a long, long time but we had a lot of people take care of you and you got better in no time. And Sam, remember when I was in Nepal and you were with Mommy and Alex and you went into a seizure? The fire fighters came to our house their truck in minutes and they made sure you were OK. A lot of people don’t have the assurance that someone will help them when they need help the most.


So the people I see when I am on my trips help people to understand that they have these rights and so many other kinds of rights, like the right to have a job, the right to marry, the right to say what you want. And yes, there is even the right to rest (but that does not mean you rest all the time. Sometimes you do have to clean your rooms and do your homework). When I work with these people in different countries, we talk about the ways in which we can make sure people have these rights. That means we talk about our values – the ways of living that help define us. We – everybody on the planet – have some common values, even though it may not look that way. I think deep down we all want to be good to each other, we all want to live in peace, we all want to respect each other, we all want to cherish life. These are all things that the people I work with believe in.


The truth of the matter is, there are not enough people in this world who are willing to change it for the better. The people I will meet in Sri Lanka are some of those people who are making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate than us. So it’s important to encourage them in the work they do and to help them as much as possible. That’s what I try to do with my work. I’m what you would call a “facilitator,” which means I help bring these people together to talk about their work and to find ways to make their work better. They make my work better as well, because I learn from them. And it’s not just my friends in Sri Lanka, but it’s from others like them all over the world. Remember all the times I’ve been to Indonesia, or to places like Jordan, or Iraq, or Lebanon, or all those places in Africa? Everywhere I go, there are people I meet who work hard to make sure the people around them have their rights.


I’m not saying all this as an excuse for my absence from your lives over the years. I’ve been away far too often from you, living in hotels and guest houses, from really fancy ones to the kind where I wage war against cockroaches every night. Last time I counted, the number of days I’ve been away from you with this job added up to more than one year. I’m saying all this to you in the hopes that you’ll understand what I do a little more, and that you’ll be thankful for the wonderful lives you have, and somehow do your part to make this world a better place for everyone.


Je t’aime, Alexandre, je t’aime Sam, bonsoir.

I Believe

A few years ago I got up in front of a group of human rights educators and belted out a rant on why I did what I did. I’d typed up my words in bullet points a couple of hours before speaking but only had a hard copy of what I said. The paper stayed in my pocket that night, I brought it home and had lost sight of it for all these years until today. Digging through boxes of old papers, I found it. Here is my rant:

  • I believe in human rights for all.
  • I believe that everyone, no matter who they are, has the right to human dignity.
  • I believe that I can educate people not only about their rights, but also how to ensure that their rights are fulfilled.
  • I believe in peace, not war.
  • I refuse to believe that women should be treated as second-class citizens on this planet.
  • I refuse to believe that millions of people should die of hunger and starvation every year on this planet.
  • I am disgusted by the fact that thousands of children are forced to fight wars created by their parents.
  • I am disgusted by corrupt governments which fail to redress gross human rights violations and who perpetrate these violations on the very people they are supposed to protect.
  • I am horrified at ethnic cleansing and genocide that has shattered the lives of millions of people.
  • I am disgusted at the fact that children lose their limbs because they step on land mines from wars that have passed.
  • I am disgusted at a president who can justify the use of military action to invade a country all in the name of freedom.
  • I am horrified at the deaths of innocent civilians.
  • I believe in a better world for my two children.
  • I believe I can empower those who do not have the ability to defend themselves.
  • I believe I can make a change for the better in the lives of the people I love and those who are oppressed.
  • I believe in all these things because I am a human rights educator.
  • I will educate people about their rights, I will advocate for their rights, I will get up and stand up for my rights and the rights of others because I can and I have the responsibility to do so.
  • I will draw upon the inspiration of leaders like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. to keep my spirits high in the face of despair.
  • I do all these things because I know I can make a change for the better in other people’s lives.
  • I know I can do all these things because I am a human rights educator, because I am Canadian.