This story is about the particular moment when I personally understood that peacebuilding may start with things as simple as helping one young boy that needs to be reassured that he is safe and no harm will come to him. More importantly – this story shows that everyone can find a moment like this, connect to it, and eventually – become a peacebuilder.
When I was 19, driven by deep curiosity, I wanted to explore the planet. Having just volunteered and travelled in Asia, specifically through Nepal, India and China, I wanted to see what the other side of the globe was like. Accordingly, I decided to take a second year to travel and do some voluntary work in Colombia, South America. Little did I know that this year would contribute greatly to my desire in becoming a peacebuilder, which eventually influenced my choice to work in the field of Human Rights.
The memorable experience that I would like to tell you about occurred in Colombia, where I was volunteering for the local NGO, Manos Amigas, a Colombian organization based in Ibagues, a city in the mid-west of the country. At Manos Amigas we provided free meals and an afternoon programme of education and recreation for underprivileged children from the poorest areas of Ibagues. Most of these children have spent their lives on the street, surrounded by violence and instability, as there were no resources to provide them with any kind of structured existence. Apparently, many of their parents were addicted to some local drug, and it put us in a difficult position when trying to ensure the emotional or educational needs of the children.
However, at Manos Amigas, a relaxed, inviting and calm atmosphere was kept in place by the efforts of the volunteers, employees, and the children themselves. The situation was so well handled that I found it easy to forget the home situation the children came from – and were returning to every day. At Manos Amigas, everyone was always smiling and happy. During lunch the children would queue up to receive home – made juice and a full meal, often consisting of rice, vegetables and meat – necessities that were too often impossible to get in their households. In the afternoons the children would learn English, Spanish, mathematics, or just play games that were guided by the volunteers. I remember that a popular favourite game was “Pato Pato Rojo” (Duck Duck Red Duck) in which the children would sit around in a circle, whilst one of them walked around tapping the others on the head, calling them either a duck or a red duck. If the child called another a red duck, the red duck would have to chase the first child and catch him before the first child had taken the place of the child designated as the red duck to win the game.
In Ibagues I started to learn more about the actual lives these children were experiencing as time went on. During my initial work as a volunteer I was only able to see the idyllic time the children had at the Manos Amigas Centre. But slowly a couple of eye-opening stories started to emerge. Though all the children were loving and friendly, their circumstance had definitely affected their behaviors and perspectives, as well as their lives in general.
One of the most memorable situations happened during one of the usual, normal afternoon session. The children had all settled down for an afternoon nap, and were lying sprawled out across the downstairs room. They looked like a load of seals on the beach, each having claimed some little spot of their own and having moved into a position most comfortable for them. An hour or so had passed and the children were starting to wake up. There was nothing unusual in this of course, and I wasn’t even really paying attention, just thinking about my own stuff, and my time there. I barely even registered that someone seemed to be crying uncontrollably. Suddenly I realized that one of the kids – lets call him Jon – who was an outgoing, amusing and charming boy, was howling with sadness, lying on the floor, seemingly refusing to wake up. Whilst, all the other children were just standing around, not paying any noticeable attention, basically just slowly and drowsily waking up. I instinctively moved over to him and touched him on the shoulder, trying to figure out what was going on, and trying to let him know that everything was ok. I quickly realized that this was not what Jon wanted, as he batted my arm away and carried on howling. I was at a loss. I could think of no explanation why this little kid was expressing such raw emotion and grief for no apparent reason. I looked round at the other volunteers and realized that they were patiently and empathetically letting the situation unfold. That was when I figured out that there was something more going than met the eye.
After Jon had left to go home, I asked Anne, one of the other volunteers who had been there longer, what on earth had just happened. Anne explained that in the community Jon was from, sexual education was practically absent. Apparently, Jon had been subjected to sexual activity by an older boy, and this quite probably was causing him psychological and emotional difficulty. His mother had found out about it, and had notified the staff at Manos Amigas. I felt really sorry for Jon, especially when I found out that another of his friends had had the same problem. Again, this was a lovely boy, who would constantly make funny whistling bird noises and had really contributed to a good atmosphere in the classroom. Finally, I felt sorry for the older boy. Though he was the perpetrator, one could imagine a society in which, if better educated and supported, he could have found a constructive outlet for his human desires, rather than very damaging ones. By damaging others, he had contributed to a less stable world, one that he was nevertheless obliged to participate in.
I think that this event was one of the defining moments of my experience as a volunteer. It was really eye-opening moment, as it blew away the façade of the comfort and shelter Manos Amigas was providing. It also cast a new perspective on my own life, as I was so grateful for being able to exit Jon’s world after my volunteer period was over. But I was also proud of myself for having exposed myself to tough realities and being inquisitive and brave enough to attempt to learn about them, challenge them, and try and change them for the better. A fuller range of human experience was open to me now, the joy that the NGOs could bring to the children, and the toughness of the situation they needed relief from.
How this moment brought me to peacebuilding?
First of all, the act of volunteering creates an empathy that creates conditions for peace. By being exposed to the situation of the street children, it was difficult to maintain a distance from the reality of the children, which at times – was very difficult. Once I was closely involved in it, I had no choice but to acknowledge it, and could not distance myself from it emotionally or intellectually. It became a part of my reality and motivated me to change the world, through an understanding of what the world actually was, rather than just what I had experienced up to that point. Furthermore, it increased my knowledge and understanding of the world, equipping me with an additional experience, qualifying me to be comfortable and able to function in other environments. It also provided me with some sort of a quiet confidence, one that enables one to be more peaceful naturally. Through greater empathy, one understands others and one is not so easily disturbed by their actions, which means one is not emotionally reactive, and less likely to initiate behaviours that can be deemed “unpeaceful” or that would create potential violence – the opposite of peacebuilding. Furthermore, empathy means one is more easily moved by the condition of others, and more likely to be motivated to create better circumstances for them, or to take the role of a peacebuilder to ensure the improvement of their particular situation. Finally, one becomes aware of the specific situation of a certain group of people that one may not have known about before. This leads to a greater understanding of the world and its inhabitants, and one further learns how the world functions and how it fits together. Greater knowledge means one is able to shape the world and its events, due to greater understanding, and one that has seen the suffering of others is more motivated to contribute to peacebuilding.
Second of all, that moment in Colombia, there was a peacebuilding effort taken especially for Jon. Through the existence of the NGO and the participation of volunteers, in that moment, he could be who he was, without risking judgement or reprisal. No one needed to change anything in his moment of grief, and neither did Jon. He was just allowed to be who he was, with his positive and negative experiences, surrounded by understanding and empathic individuals. His situation was understood and widely accepted. Jon did not need to be anything other than himself in that moment, even though his situation was difficult and potentially could result in a lifelong struggle. To me, that is a huge part of peace, a situation where we can be ourselves unconditionally, no matter what we have experienced, surrounded by concerned individuals who allow us to be who we are, and even try to improve our circumstances, in a calm, considered and empathetic way.
In short, through my volunteer work I was able to create the conditions for peaceful environment, by opening my eyes to the need for peacebuilding and improving the situations of others. At the same time – being part of an organization that provided help for a group of people in a desperate need of peacebuilding, simply by providing them with a space to be themselves. This influenced me to work in the field of Human Rights, in which I am active up till today – and there is a big chance that it will not change.
Story: Syd Boyd
Artist: Sylvia Frain