10 Lessons for World Humanitarian Day

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In honour of World Humanitarian Day, I’m sharing ten lessons that I have learnt from my Latin American colleagues, some of the best humanitarians I know.


1. Listen with your entire body.  This includes things like greetings, expressing appreciation, and dressing well. I remind myself that I am an invited guest and my task is to respectfully get to know my hosts and only act under their direct invitation.  I still hate ice breaker games, but I am slowly understanding how they help break down boundaries to allow for listening. In Cruzton, Chiapas, we gathered in a backyard as a mix of nationalities, genders, ages, and languages. We were invited to pair off with each other and share something about ourselves, inclusive of language differences. And of course, the event ended with a massage circle. It was awkward, but it was also a reminder that each person present has something of value to share. Listening well means not only listening to everyone, but also creating a space where everyone can share.


2. Keep a historical perspective. Before every single meeting in Latin America, there is a context analysis session that usually takes longer than the meeting itself. The organizations I work with view themselves as actors in the midst of a complicated scenario of history and current events.  As a Canadian working in Latin America, this is also a reminder to pay attention to power dynamics, both present and historical, and the way those dynamics impact our current relationships. Part of our job is working to undo oppression and that means being aware of situations of power. I am also challenged to do my part in active research and reading to educate myself to ask better questions and also understand how my own history relates to my current home.


3. Look for connections and contradictions. Part of listening is paying attention to how our lives are connected. Where does the food I eat or the clothes I wear come from? Do my spending habits support or contradict the movements I accompany? Beyond daily life, I am also challenged to see the possibilities for bridge building, such as bringing farmers from across the region together in Haiti.


4. Don’t downplay the role of religion, your own or that of others. I hated going to church in Mampujan because it was long, hot and a lot of clapping. After a day filled with meetings and reparations stress, Juana asked me if I wanted to go to church with her that evening. I looked at her and asked why, on top of all of the exhaustion of the day. She told me it was the only space in the entire community where she could put her phone on silent, close her eyes and not answer questions, and just be for a few hours in a place of grounding. From a simple act of self-care to the motivation for seeking social justice (or voting down the peace accord), people’s beliefs matter and must be taken seriously.


5. It’s okay to cry. The common image of a humanitarian is a tough and cynical do-gooder, yet my most meaningful encounters have been in spaces where we share how we are feeling. We have cried in Justapaz team meetings and let our tears fall on each other’s shoulders as we hugged in migrant shelters. This recognition of a shared and sacred humanity is what also allows us to share our joys together. I am also learning, however, that expressing emotion doesn’t provide the right to capitalize on people’s pain. Part of a shared humanity is respecting each person’s dignity, privacy and their own story.


6. The future could be anything. When Rigoberta Menchu fled Guatemala’s civil war to seek refugee in Mexico City until it was safe to return home, she probably had no idea that the house she stayed in would be used as a shelter for young men fleeing violence in Central America today. She also didn’t know that she would win the Nobel Peace Prize for her role in seeking justice and reconciliation for Indigenous victims of the civil war, yet she continued to organize and work from exile in Mexico. I have no idea what the future holds for the young men in what is today Casa Tochan, but I want my actions and language to reflect the possibility that they could one day also powerfully shape the world. Not only that, I want to pay attention to how they are already doing so, learning new skills in order to make money to send to their families back home. 


7.  Be generous, in spirit and with your things. This one is hard for me, but but little by little I am learning to share. When I see how people in my office care for each other when someone is sick or babysit each other’s children, or they way community members donate hundreds of kilos of tortillas a month to migrant shelters, I am reminded that I can give more. Generosity also means being curious instead of judgmental. 


8. Everyone has clay feet. The people I work with are hardworking, generous, passionate and flawed. So am I. This recognition allows us to work together.

9. Expect boredom. For every trip and beautiful photo on instragram, there are reports, emails and meetings. I spend a lot of time staring a screen wishing that someone would bring me a snack. Team meetings can last forever with no conclusions and not great snacks. Sometimes your bus gets stopped by a blockade for hours and you end up sobbing over the dubbed version of Marley and Me, shown at top volume while you wait.


10. Pay attention to the beautiful things. In the community of Huixtan, Chiapas, people don’t ask either how they are when they greet each other in the local Tzotzil language. Instead, according to Elena Gomez of partner Voces Mesoamericanas Acción con Pueblos Migrantes, people ask about each other’s hearts. If they are doing well, they respond by saying that “my heart is flowering.” Art, music, language, good food, laughter: paying attention to all of these beautiful aspects of life makes my heart flower and provides the space to move forward, together.


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