“Experience has shown me, both with young and older people, that day to day mingling and personal involvement is what awakens minds, brings awareness, and spurs the desire to go further, to understand better, and to carry out a dialogue. This is why we must really live and work together on shared projects”
What I Believe, Tariq Ramadan
This week I munched my way to the end of Tariq Ramadan’s little gem of a book “What I Believe”. The timing couldn’t have been better, as I feel like it was a catalyst to the events and positive energy what has washed over me this week, and I would sincerely recommend it to anyone and everyone. The above quote is an example of the motivation and clarification that I benefited from, and if you give me the chance, I would like to explain why…
As you are probably aware, as a reader of this blog, I am currently living in Bogota, Colombia, working on a placement for the British Council. The events that led up to this position were, put simply, a year placement that I did working in a Haitian village in the Dominican Republic, and a subsequent degree in Spanish and Philosophy at the University of Leeds, having developed a taste for the language, and a thirst for reason. This is my compulsory year abroad, but I slipped out of the university system and managed to avoid the standard route of an Erasmus year in Spain, landing a position in one of the top private universities in Colombia. I have asked myself how I came to fall into this spot, being the private institution skeptic that I am, but I believe that everything is part of a bigger plan. I had similar thoughts when I was put on my gap year placement in a Pentecostal organization in the Dominican Republic, seeing as I am from a Muslim
household, but I have to admit, both experiences have opened my mind and my heart more than I could have possibly imagined.
When living in the Dominican Republic I worked as an English teacher in a Haitian settlement, as well as helping with a youth group conducted by the church. I had no qualms with working for a Christian organization, as they were the ones who had set up shop, and were working in the community, and I felt that if they were doing something positive, the religion shouldn’t turn me off. I later came to understand aspects of the system that made me feel uneasy, or that I wholeheartedly disagreed with, but I feel like the experience made me more understanding, and these concerns were things I witnessed first-hand, making them entrenched experiences that I could draw from in the future. The village was an image of poverty, no running water, an average of two hours electricity a day that was incredibly unpredictable, and a high mortality rate. My students bought knives to school and many of them had serious issues at home, as well as frustrations that caused disruptive and difficult behaviour. The characters I met however, will forever be etched in my mind as real people, with hopes, dreams and aspirations, annoying habits, endearing qualities, and most importantly, distinguishing features that made every person unique and special, separate from association with any stereotype that I might have had before living with them.
This year however, I have found myself in a completely different Latino dimension. I don’t know what plan has been made for me, or how I have managed to hurtle to the other end of the spectrum, but I am now teaching in one of the most esteemed universities in Colombia. The majority of my students have spent the summer, six months, or even a few years in Europe, Canada, the States and Australia, all paid for by their parents. They have iPods, iPads, MacBooks, cars and pocket money that is more than what most people in this country earn to support their families. Coming from Cambridge, I thought I knew about elitism. Turns out, I knew nothing.
It is sickly fascinating working in such an environment, where many of my friends at the university have two or more properties around the country, knowing that Colombia is a country with so many social issues affecting the bulk of the population. Colombia is the country with the second highest amount of displaced persons, after Sudan. The Amnesty International campaign “Everything Left Behind: Internal Displacement in Colombia” makes this statement:
“Each year, hundreds of thousands of people join the millions already internally displaced in Colombia. In the face of the continued violence and displacement, the Colombian government’s assertions that the impact of the internal armed conflict has abated ring very hollow. Amnesty International calls on all parties to the conflict to put an end to the abuses that force people to flee their homes and to support communities under fire in their struggle to live in peace and security and to protect their way of life.”
Outside my university building in the centre of Bogota the reality of this situation is visible, as you see countless homeless people searching through the rubbish for anything they can get their hands on to eat, begging, a number of times I have even witnessed the muggings. All the while I am sitting with people who are blissfully unaware, eyes fixed on the screen of their iPad/iPhone/Samsung IIIS/WhatHaveYou, making plans for whose country house they are going to have a party at over the weekend.
That said these students, like the Haitian friends I made in the Dominican Republic, are more than just the stereotype that they appear to conform to. They are friends with hopes, dreams and aspirations, who have defining qualities that makes them stand apart from one another, and more complicated than they appear on paper.
All of us are products of our environments and experiences. Therefore, we are always going to have parts of us that reflect that, and that will influence our feelings and decisions. However, what I feel like I have learnt is that it is important to try and be conscious of this, and for that reason actively try to expand our horizons and experiences so that we can have a greater understanding of those who live in completely different circumstances.
Since arriving here I have tried every day to do something productive, to push the boundaries, meet new people and at the same time protect myself from the dangers that I might unknowingly be exposing myself to. This has proved incredibly fulfilling, as I have met hundreds of people since my arrival, “mingling” (as Ramadan puts it) in different circles outside of my comfort zone, heard so many stories, and changed my mind enough times to lose solid judgement and opinion on subjects which I thought I was so sure of before.
As a philosophy student, that is part of how I have been learning to learn, and I have found a peacefulness in the fact that there are so many different angles and perspectives. I have met people who have told me that Pablo Escobar was a criminal beast who ruined the country and many others who saw him to be a modern day Robin Hood. I have met Colombians of all colours and descent, with African, Spanish and Native heritage, as well as all kinds of backgrounds. I was invited to an Iftar meal during Ramadan, at the home of a Turkish professor, where the top members of the Colombian churches were present. We shared a meal and prayers which was very special. I have had countless people introduce me to their mothers, and mothers introduce me to their sons and daughters. I have been fortunate enough to meet some of the most prestigious doctors and politicians in the country, and I have even been invited to accompany some new friends I made to their interviews at national television studios in Colombia. Every experience has added to my understanding of the way that this country works, as well as what kind of person I am in response to it all.
This week I was invited to accompany a very hard working human rights activist and charity worker in her work in the most deprived, dangerous barrio of Bogota. It was an enlightening visit, especially as the core of my work here is based in a private institution, where I am exposed to some of the most influential, powerful people in the country. I must admit I was quite surprised by the response among my friends at the university, when I told them of my plans for the weekend. Colombians themselves, they had never entered this barrio, and they couldn’t understand why a young, European girl of 21, with a cushty position in a comfortable job, would have any reason to go to “the other side”. What I could not understand however, is why anyone wouldn’t. Thankfully I didn’t encounter any problems during my visit, and I met a group of youth workers who had planned an event for the children in the barrio, promoting human rights. I got roped into face painting the little children, and they had music and young people performing hip-hop that they had written themselves. One day, I hope to invite some of my friends to come with me to see the barrio for themselves. I think it is really important that they come, and get to know individuals first hand, because these students at the university are those who are going to be running the Colombia of tomorrow. If anything is to change for the people living at the bottom, those at the top must feel some kind of connection, obligation or brotherhood with them, rather than seeing them simply through the eyes of the media, which distorts their image in such a negative way.
This is exactly what the Tariq Ramadan quote relates to. I feel like the “personal involvement” is crucial in developing a way of being that may have a positive effect in whatever one sets one’s mind to. It is all well and good reading about a subject, or becoming an expert on paper, but until you really put yourself in a situation, engage with the people and understand the intentions, pressures and circumstances surrounding decisions that people make, you cannot fully appreciate the reasoning behind them. And like he says in the quote, it really does fuel the desire for progression and understanding.
Sometimes it is very hard to be so open and accept things that seem to clash with one’s fundamental beliefs and interests. Yet it is important to recognize that parallel to working in circumstances outside of one’s comfort zone, it is possible to learn so much about yourself and question your own beliefs. In doing so, you can begin to disregard thoughts and beliefs that have no real foundation, or understand more fully the reasoning behind others. The effect is two-fold: a deeper understanding of others and a more coherent understanding of yourself.
Am am 21, and I am learning every day and there is so much I have yet to learn, but this is a lesson I wish to share along the way. I hope that you may find some peace or inspiration in it as I have.
Here are a few photos I thought I’d share…