Becoming a Human Rights Warrior

Happy New Year!  It’s been one year since I started my Human Rights Warrior blog.  Here is a post I wrote recently for Open Salon on The New Year’s Resolution I Kept.  It pretty much sums up the way I feel about my first year of blogging.  Now, onwards into 2012!

It all began, as so many things do, with a misunderstanding. I was putting my son Simon to bed one night when he said,

“Mommy … What’s it like to be a human rights warrior?”

“But sweetie, I’m not a human rights warrior. I’m a human rights lawyer.”

He waited a couple of seconds – this kid has an uncanny sense of comedic timing – before wrinkling up his little nose and saying skeptically,

“What’s a LAWYER?”

I’ll never know what kind of weapons he thought I was secretly carrying in my briefcase because my description of my actual job put him right to sleep. But this bedtime exchange got me thinking.  For more than 15 years, I’ve worked with survivors of human rights abuses.  My job is to document and bring to light stories of unbearable loss from every corner of the world.  I have observed the absolute worst aspects of human nature, the dark side in each of us that we would rather not acknowledge.

You might think that this would make me pessimistic about the world in general and Homo sapiens in particular, but the impact has been quite the opposite.  It has been my privilege to bear witness to the very best characteristics of humanity – our capacity to overcome adversity, to hope, to forgive.  I’ve heard inspiring acts of courage; seen the precious gift of faith.

While I have many stories from my experiences in human rights work, I realized – after this one comment from a very small person – that most of them had never been shared with anybody. Stories of human rights abuses don’t exactly lend themselves to pleasant cocktail party conversation.  How do you convey the complex political and social conditions that lead to human rights abuses, honor the victims, and avoid grossing people out with the horrible details – all in a two-minute elevator speech? And how do you even stop talking about injustice once you start?

So how was I going to figure out a way to talk about it with my kids?

That “Human Rights Warrior” discussion took place more than five years ago.  This is my son Simon today.

What did I do about my conundrum for four long years?  Exactly nothing. But I didn’t stop thinking about it.   As a parent, I am challenged to distill my experiences into something that Simon – along with his older brother and his younger sister – can understand and profit from. I kept turning it around in my head like it was my mental Rubic’s cube, impossible to put down but incredibly hard to solve.

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions.  If something is important enough to do, you should make the promise to yourself to do it whether it is May Day or Halloween or January 1.  But with my long history of  inertia on this topic, I needed more motivation.  In 2011, I resolved, I will think more intentionally about what I’ve learned from my work in human rights and I will take action t0 pass these lessons along to my kids.

A  friend had suggested writing about my experiences as a way of processing them. So on New Year’s Day 2011, I started writing my thoughts down.  Randomly at first, in one of my kids’ old wide-rule spiral notebooks, which I had misplaced by January 3. I moved to writing on my laptop and jotting notes on my iPhone.  When I reached the point where I felt I had some stuff that was good enough to share, I started a blog.  My sweet husband gave me a domain name for my birthday: Human Rights Warrior.

I don’t consider myself much of a blogger, much less a writer.  I write only at the outermost corners of my life, on the UB313 of my solar system.  Often I find myself writing in odd places, like the hockey rink when one of my boys has practice.

It doesn’t really matter, though, because now I’m thinking about it all the time.  Writing down my thoughts has forced me to focus on making the connections between the experiences I’ve had in human rights and things in their lives.  My neurons are firing like a toddler with DHA omega-3 enriched milk in her sippy cup. Putting it in words crystallizes both the good and the bad, making it easier for me to talk about them with my kids.

It has also brought back so many memories.  I didn’t realize how many people I still hold in my heart. Ma Fatu, who lost her own family in the Liberian conflict but made a new family with orphaned young people in Buduburam Refugee Settlement.  My former asylum client, bravely recounting her gang-rape by Kenyan police as her husband sat beside her in agonized silence.  A couple in Peru, who after being released from more than 10 years of unlawful detention, recounted their story while holding their newborn infant daughter, who never left their arms.   These are people who will never be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, but I feel that I am honoring them for their strength and courage when I tell my my children about them.

Are  my kids listening?  Not really.  Maybe.  Who knows?  Like the healthy lunches I send with them to school, my job is just to pack the lunchbox not to force it down their throats.

Last week, though, as he was going to bed, Simon said to me, “Mom, can you tell me some stories about your work?”  I could. So I did.

I kept my New Year’s resolution in 2011.  I am a Human Rights Warrior.


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