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The Mountain Song

16 Sep


More photos HERE

I’ve always believed, no matter how broken a community is, there is beauty. I just came back from the mountains of Chihuahua, specifically Turuachi, Chihuahua with Sara and Luis Gerado and it was quite an experience. I’m not sure how I should actually think or feel about it because my emotions are still so mixed up.

The thing about the mountains in that the people there have heart. They give without expecting anything in return, and just hosting you is an absolute pleasure, an honor. They care for you like a sister, and respect you like a teacher, and laugh with you like an old friend. The people in community and also the people hosting us went beyond “taking care” of us. I want to introduce you to a few characters:

Leo, Sara, Luis Gerado, Alma, Prof De La Rosa and Luz Elena

Leo, Sara, Luis Gerado, Me, Alma, Prof De La Rosa and Luz Elena (Left to right)

Profe De la rosa, he would shout “Dientes!” and run to the sink to brush his teeth after every meal. Maestra Elva from Durango who always had the wisest words of wisdom, a woman who was just interested in who you are. Maestra Luz Elena who would gather the group every night for a game of cards and always knew how to have fun. Maestra Alma from CONAFE was just a sweetheart, and who could forget Leo, the soft-spoken representative who drove us all the way from Chihuahua to Turuachi and back – the steadiest mountain driver ever. All of us, and Luis Gerado spent a good 10 hours together each way from the center of Chihuahua city to the small little Pueblo of Turuachi.

Not to mention the girls from Durango who were Nely, Nery y Reynalda who were such intelligent, thoughtful and generous young women. And each hug with them was a real hug, felt from the heart. Nery (Betzy) gave me a graph she had made from a wooden board and nails, something she had made for the tutoring session to investigate quadrants and coordinates in graphs. They gave without asking anything in return.

The girls from Durazno, Durango

The girls from Durazno, Durango

The graph board

The graph board

Background for what was happening in Chihuahua: I was at an “encuentro” or like an exchange program with students (Pre-school, Primary and Secondary), teachers, parents and administrators coming from two neighboring states, Chihuahua and Durango . It was hard, at first to understand what was going to happen, who was going to be there, but after talking to Profe De La Rosa and Maestra Elva, I realized that this was an event to unite communities, and help them go through time of struggle, time of change. The project was called Project of the Mountains, between 3 states: Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa, also known as the infamous “triangle.”  

I was at the purple region of chihuahua, where Sinaloa and Durango meet

The big question in the mountains, and especially this part of the mountains was of course the violence and the drug trafficking that was plaguing communities, families, homes, people. And I’d never thought I would feel the violence so close. It started off with learning about acts of injustice like Luis G’s son who was killed along the roadside 3 years ago, to learning about stories of the teachers, mainly women- one whose husband was burned to death, and the other whose husband was chopped into pieces 3 months ago. I still don’t understand why or who but I saw pain. I saw pain in the students who were living in communities that had almost no men left because of the violence, I saw pain in the women that had come as widows, I saw pain in the teachers that wanted to see change in their communities. And in this pain, I also saw the beauty of the students who really just wanted to learn, I saw the beauty of parents who took precious time off work to learn about relación tutora, I saw beauty in the leadership of the Project who wanted to motivate their teachers, students and families and really believed they could.

And I’m intrigued. Sometimes there would be a disconnect between what I was hearing and the “encuentro.” I knew that I believed that education could really change things, but how? The constant question at the back of my mind was “What is the role of what I was doing, the relación tutora in all this pain, all this suffering? Were we just doing it for ENALCE (national tests) scores? It can’t be. I threw this question at Luis Gerado and that’s when I understood more the power of relación tutora.

Luis Gerado said, “The thing about relación tutora is that is changes you as a person. It teaches people to respect, in places where there isn’t any. It’s a way of living.”

That’s it. This is why this concept of teaching is so much more than just academic learning, it’s teaching character and leadership at the same time. As a tutor, you learn what it means to learn, in all sense of the word. You learn academics, yes, but you also learn to be patient, you learn to respect, you learn to be humble, you learn to learn – and this way of learning, this way of living could save communities. And tutoring doesn’t have to be limited to math or spanish, it has been extended to history, to discussing issues of immigration to the US, to understanding what’s going on in the community and how to rise above it.  And maybe one tutoring session at a time, people regain their joy and trust and respect again, and that might be enough.

There’s still so much to be done in the sierra (the mountains) and issues of violence can’t be solved by one thing, but I do believe what we’re doing can instill some beauty back in broken communities. It can bring back a song where there’s no reason to sing. In Turuachi, I heard their voices – the voices of almost 4 generations of people from Chihuahua and Durango, singing again.

That’s The Mountain Song.


Primary school, Turuachi


Osire- The Strength Within

19 Dec

UNHCR Post at Osire, Namibia

When you think of a refugee camp, you think of people in need, people who carry ration cards, people who can barely depend on themselves, people in poverty, people who are dirty, people who don’t even have a home to call their own.

That’s not what I found when I was in Osire. I found poets, businessmen, musicians, thespians, activists, teachers, leaders.

Papa Mbikay showing me his work in his house at Osire, Namibia

I want you to meet Papa Mbikay, a writer whose deepest desire is to leave a footprint where he treads. A refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Papa Mbikay fled his country when he wrote about the regime in the Congo. He is an elder in the community, and won a grant this year to start a mushroom cultivation project to help with employment in the community. He already ingeniously and meticulously grew 3 batches of mushrooms in the past three years.


A philosopher, he knows that knowledge is power and wants to use that power in Osire.

I want you to meet Gabriel, a 17 year old, who worked as a translator with us, also from the DRC who dreams of being a pilot. Outspoken and inquisitive, Gabriel has a fierce spirit that wants to understand how to make his community better. I remember when we were sitting in a small bench during lunch and him asking tough questions about the role of men and women in the household, culture and how do we go from here to protect women’s rights in community.

Gabriel is also a singer. When he sings, he sings with a smile and closes his eyes so he can focus on the words. He plays the piano. We sing, “Come now is the time to worship, Come, now is the time to raise your heart.”

Gabriel, the musician from DRC playing the piano at Obama Hope Youth Center

He sings and this uplifts my soul. In the midst of losing his parents and waiting to hear about his refugee status from the Namibian government, he sings, and calls me to come, for now is the time to worship and raise our hearts.

I want you to meet Haki Zimana, the entrepreneur who has started his own business in Osire, and has made enough money to support his family of 4 and pay for his own education at the University of Namibia. He was born in exile in Rwanda in 1977 and fled the country with his elder brother, travelling from Rwanda to DRC to Angola and then to Namibia – while being chased by a rebel group the whole time. He is studying to become a nurse because he remembers being helpless running through jungle after jungle, watching death and disease consume his fellow refugees.

I want you to meet Mama Isabel, a woman I admire and love. She has lived in Osire for 10 years now, a role model and activist in behalf on her community, especially for women. She is exactly what this community needs and has already begun to live for that change.

A widow after the death of her husband at the hands of the government in the DRC, she fled to Namibia and is vice president of the Refugee Representative Committee in Namibia – the first woman to take office. In Osire, she has to defend being called a prostitute and accept looks from men who tell their wives not to talk to her for fear of them leaving the home. Confident and kind, she knows almost each family by name and fights on their behalf. She wears a “Forced Sex is Violence Against Women” tee-shirt and welcomes a discussion among the men on what forced sex is and what are the traditional men and women roles in the household. She took Gabriel’s questions seriously when the other men shot his questions down. She said, “We have to answer his questions, if not he’ll just grow up not knowing. We have to answer them now.”

Mama Isabel's smile

Mama Isabel believes in the power of the youth, and started a Youth Ambassador’s program to help the young in Osire uplift themselves through mentoring and sharing of mutual life experiences.

I want you to meet the Osire Youth Group. They are spunky, fun, daring and passionate. I was most privileged to sit in the audience of the Osire Youth Group performance yesterday. The group began with a powerful drama piece that addressed the issue of HIV in the community and the increasing teenage pregnancy that pains many community members. Teenage pregnancy (Girls between the ages of 14 to 18) is estimated to be as high as 65% in Osire.

They are real. Real with their own struggles, real with who they are and real with where they want to go in life. They believe they have power and I saw that yesterday. I saw the power of the young people yesterday and almost cried because they stood for everything I ever believed about what change is and what we need to do.

I didn’t get to listen to all their stories but I know for sure that each one will touch your heart. The way they sang, they rose above the pain of being a refugee and for a moment, believed that “To show power is to love.” The Osire Youth Group wrote the play themselves, planned it, acted it, and practiced it so that what we saw was perfect. But they almost never have the chance to perform it, maybe once a year on Refugee Day on June 20, 2010. They want to be heard, they want to be seen. Maybe it is for that one day in the whole year that they can show the world- not even, show the town, who they are, their struggles being young refugees, young refugees who are so passionate and excited about change.

Osire Youth Group at the Obama Hope Youth Center

I’m struggling a lot with this as a young person myself. What is our role in this? How can we as young people support each other? I still have so many questions unanswered.

My friends, this is Osire, the refugee camp.

This is Osire, the place where people have ran for fear of losing their life.

This is Osire, where there is great wisdom but little opportunity to share it.

This is Osire, where there is great strength and potential within but lack of opportunity.

This is our world. There is so much strength within it. Maybe we just need to find that same strength within ourselves to be part of that change in whatever way we can.

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Fishing with Mama Isabel

18 Dec

Mama Isabel's beautiful smile

I met Mama Isabel two days ago at Osire Refugee Settlement in Namibia. Dressed in an elegant white long skirt and top, she draped a pastel green scarf over both shoulders. Mama Isabel had a little magic about her. Maybe it was the way she walked, or her soft smile, or the way she looked at you with those hazel eyes.

Mama Isabel showing us around the Food Distribution Point at Osire, Namibia

She led Fabiano and me around Osire, and we spent the whole day talking to families in the settlement. We talked to businessmen, writers, farmers, students and other community leaders. Everyone knew her.

Mama Isabel is from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and, a refugee herself, she is the voice of the community in Osire to other government officials and stakeholders. At lunch, I sat with her just outside the UNHCR office.

I told her how much I was struggling with journalism and how I saw the power of journalism to bring the voices out to the world, especially for people who don’t otherwise have the chance to share their story, their fears and dreams. Yet, I wanted to bring their voices, not just to the world but to the discussion table as well.

Mama Isabel outside the UNHCR camp

She nodded and said, “That’s why local leadership is so important. You can represent the people. If UNHCR wants to do anything, they come and talk to me first. You gather and help them have access to the whole community.”

Mama Isabel was elected for the second time vice-president of the Refugee Committee at Osire. She was the first woman elected to the local leadership in 2005 and re-ran for the position in 2008.

As we continued walking around, she told us, “One of the stereotypes of refugees is that people think we are dirty, we are useless, but we are not. There are so many talents here that we can use to bring ourselves up. If people teach us to fish, we can fish for ourselves.”

Fabiano, Mama Isabel and I- a great team

Empowerment to create self-reliance, that’s what she said is needed in Osire. In the midst of monthly food distribution of beans and maize, where people are seen as helpless and in need of assistance, Mama Isabel just wants to teach people how to fish.

She told us of opportunities to submit projects for seed capital, and brought us to meet a carpenter, an agricultural specialist, a youth group so passionate about reaching the youth in community and the lifestyle ambassadors group – a mentoring program for the young people; she told us of people being creative, active and trying to be independent.

That day with Mama Isabel, we went fishing at Osire.