Marit Björnlund - Human Rights in Argentina
The Projects Abroad Human Rights project in Argentina seemed like the perfect way to start my gap year. I love South America and speaking Spanish and I’m interested in human rights and development. I also wanted a chance to travel, as well as the opportunity to immerse myself in a different culture and live in a new place semi-independently.
I arrived in Córdoba in late August 2013 not knowing what to expect. Exploring the city on my induction day, I searched for parallels to other places, but found it to be unique. There were no foreign tourists and no English, so I knew I’d be able to fully immerse myself in Argentina. I met my sweet host family, who were actually two 31-year-old best friends. They were eager to discuss previous travel experiences and recommend their favourite bars in the city.
My Human Rights Project
The next day, I was introduced to the Human Rights office and given my fieldwork placement, a prison for teenage girls who are violent offenders. After being briefed on the nature of my work, I was apprehensive. Before the trip I’d combed the Projects Abroad website and read all the work details sent to me, and I’d expected to be working in an office environment – not in the field every day.
To be immediately assigned regular fieldwork was a surprise, but also an exciting opportunity. It was a chance to do real work, see real things and maybe enact real change, even if only in the lives of a small number of vulnerable girls. I was going to be exposed directly to the part of Argentina that tourists don’t see. At the first Friday meeting, I was overwhelmed. I realised I’d be working far more than the four hours a day the Projects Abroad website told me. I’d have to adapt to new situations every day and the correctional facility was intimidating.
The girls were my age, but had experienced terrible things and committed horrible things as well. Sitting around the plastic table introducing myself, listening to their stories, sharing pastries and inhaling their second-hand smoke, I had to throw away my assumptions and apprehensions. I had to learn to understand their accents and to laugh when they made fun of mine. I also had to try to not be shocked at the personal questions they asked and to piece together their pasts without asking too much.
I wasn’t sure how much good I’d be able to do at the prison. The office gives volunteers a level of trust and responsibility that I didn’t know I was qualified for. But that challenge made the experience more rewarding in the end. I figured out boundaries quickly and built relationships, even friendships, with the girls. My partners and I organised different activities to get the inmates thinking about their future and to build their self-esteem, like writing CVs, practicing job interviews, working on a fundraiser to teach the value of hard work and even doing makeup and nails.
The Human Rights office is led by two incredible people, Victoria and Martín, who encourage their volunteers to participate in as many activities as possible. So in addition to the correctional, my days were filled with visits to other volunteers’ social work placements, advocacy and awareness projects with local NGOs, and educational opportunities on the history of Argentina. For example, I helped interview homeless people for an on-going collaboration to develop a systematic strategy for ending homelessness in Córdoba.
My favourite project was an outreach event for an organisation working to prevent human trafficking. One Sunday afternoon in a local park, we asked hundreds of picnickers to write their wishes for a better world on a balloon, and then displayed the striking array of balloons as we explained our anti-trafficking mission to passers-by.
I also attended provincial court every week to hear witness testimony on the 30,000 disappearances during the military dictatorship, and I visited the unbelievable memory site at the location of the largest dictatorship-era concentration camp in Córdoba. I was so impressed not only with Victoria and Martín but also with the other Human Rights volunteers, who all were earnestly working together to enact small but significant changes in the communities we served.
Challenges and rewards
The most challenging part of all my work was the need to reconcile the similarities between me and the girls at the prison, how the luck of my birth allowed me to be travelling solo across the world at 17 while they are recovering from abuse and serving jail time at the same age. They taught me more than I could ever teach them – that friends can be found in the most unlikely places, that really we’re all striving for the same things, that we all make mistakes, that I can never take what I have for granted.
I accomplished and grew so much while living in Argentina. I learnt how to live and function independently, to self-advocate when I needed to. I enjoyed experiencing the youthful, vibrant city of Córdoba, from museums to plazas, and made close friends with Projects Abroad volunteers as well as Argentinean students.
I wouldn’t travel to Argentina for the vegetarian food, but my lovely hosts did their best to cook me vegetarian versions of traditional foods. My Spanish, already nearly fluent, improved or at least changed as, like it or not, I adopted a few elements of that distinctive, lyrical acento cordobés.
Travelling in Argentina
I was also fortunate to be able to travel during my placement. I squeezed long trips into weekends with overnight buses and a bit of creativity. I saw Salta and Jujuy, Buenos Aires, Iguazú Falls and Mendoza, each offering unique geography, culture and experiences. I also took advantage of the convenient minibus system to take day trips to other areas of Córdoba province.
Of course, I could’ve visited many more places in 10 weeks if work weren’t in the way, but there was so much value to being established in Córdoba, to feeling fully part of this Argentinean city, that I didn’t mind at all!
My two and a half months in Argentina certainly changed me, and I hope that I made a small impact on human rights for the people I served. My experience was tough at times, but it was also incredible and unforgettable and I’ll always cherish my memories, my new friends and the lessons I learnt.