Connecting local responses around the world
Preface: I traveled to Rwanda with Global Youth Connect (www.globalyouthconnect.org) as part of a cross-cultural human rights delegation in January 2011. The following is a personal reflection on that experience and does not represent the views of Global Youth Connect, Georgetown University, or anyone but the author herself.
The name "Learning and Action Community" is the choice description for the program that I completed in Rwanda—in sum, a group of Rwandan and North American youth was learning how to be effective human rights advocates and activists by actually participating in the process together.
But this essay is not about activism. It is about transformation and connection. I remember being eight years old when the genocide happened in 1994, and collecting coins for "the children of Rwanda" with our religion class at my elementary school. I can still hear Sister Theresa saying the aforementioned phrase, reminding us to turn in our pennies for "the children of Rwanda." Today I cringe when I hear such generalized or romanticized epithets, which so often contribute to negative stereotypes and images of Africa, but as a child its simplicity was easily comprehended, and made for a powerful lesson in empathy.
And then, here I was, almost 17 years later, a 25-year-old graduate student, sitting side by side with those children-survivors—now grown human rights activists, students, and professionals, too. These colleagues, all accomplished, admirable, and driven youth, became close friends as we worked and traveled together over three weeks. Most of them bravely accompanied us to numerous genocide memorials. Those monuments to memory, powerful as they would be for any human being at any time, were exponentially more real and personal as we walked through them arm in arm with our Rwandan friends who had lost their own family members and friends in 1994, when we were all between five and ten years old on different continents...when we here were giving nickels to UNICEF and the U.N. was failing our Rwandan friends by every account.
I will carry this with me as a professional, a human rights activist, and a person, for my whole life. It is a powerful reminder of the human consequences of equivocation and inaction, and the failure to respond because “we” (i.e., the West, the U.N., et al.) are caught up in an economic cost-benefit analysis, weighing the potential consequences against our reputations, our pocketbooks, our thorny domestic politics. My Rwandan friends also serve as a personal reminder to be transformed on a daily basis from that never-too-remote sense of defeat—(“Am I really doing something worthwhile at Georgetown?”)—to trust that this humble work will come back to someone, someday, in this astonishingly circular cycle of life.