Tamar Honig - Human Rights in Argentina
The subject of human rights has always intrigued me. My desire to foster this interest led me to Córdoba, Argentina, where I spent two invaluable months volunteering for the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office.
My Human Rights project
The majority of my working time was spent at Soaje, a residential care facility for girls who have been taken away from families deemed by the court unfit to care for them. The work proved challenging and rewarding in many ways. I quickly learnt that the girls had their good days and their not-so-good days.
This fickleness could make planning activities difficult, as I never knew in what kind of mood I’d find the girls. Many of them come from unstable family structures lacking positive role models. Although cognisant of my limited ability to impact these girls during my two months with them, I aimed at the beginning of our time together to positively influence them on some level, to begin to fill the gap in attention and respect left by negligent caretakers.
The other volunteer with whom I worked and I organised a variety of workshops aiming to educate and empower the girls. We held one focused on discrimination, using excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to spark a discussion about the importance of not discriminating against people based on factors beyond their control.
We then gave the girls the opportunity to discuss times when they have been treated unjustly, to consider what can be done to correct the injustices they see around them, and to write their own “I Have a Dream” speeches about their personal life aspirations.
We conducted other workshops on topics ranging from healthy living to human rights. Between educational sessions, we sprinkled in a variety of fun activities for the girls, such as beauty days – complete with manicures and hair styling – and art classes. On these days, paper, lolly sticks, feathers, glue, and markers would litter the table as the girls got creative with their masterpieces.
Furthermore, we generally bought the girls pastries or other treats once a week and took them to a nearby plaza. As the girls are not allowed to leave the home except for school, these outings were an opportunity for the girls to enjoy some fresh air and a change of scenery, and chat freely about everything from favourite movies to dream holidays.
From emotional outbursts to unpredictable mood swings, working with the Soaje girls was at times a rollercoaster ride of unforeseeable ups and downs. But I genuinely enjoyed planning and organising activities with them, and I hope they learnt a thing or two that will prove helpful at some point in their futures.
Volunteering in Argentina
My work in Argentina also consisted of volunteering for Fundación Ganas, an organisation that aids Córdoba’s homeless population. Several nights per week, the homeless gather in a specified plaza to receive food and clothing, and volunteers interview them to find out their name, age, health condition, level of education, whether they have social security, whether they have children, whether their children are in school and have social security, what basic life necessities they need, and more. During my first few nights, I merely watched the process. But eventually, I was conducting the interviews myself, which allowed me to work on my Spanish and meet many interesting characters.
Interviewing for Fundación Ganas provided many eye-opening experiences as I met and interacted with people of backgrounds so vastly different from my own. One woman I interviewed was a pregnant, homeless prostitute living with HIV. When I inquired about whether she had any children, she broke down in tears, telling me that she is not permitted to see her only son. It is difficult to find the right words with which to console someone in such a painful situation.
We brought this woman’s case to the attention of the foundation’s director, but to our surprise, she refused his offer of a shelter at which she could stay, insisting that she only wanted money. My hope is that it was at least some relief to her to divulge her woes and to be assured that there are people willing to help.
There were many other characters I will not soon forget: a jittering man with seven children who was so addled by the effects of drugs that he could not remember his birthday; an elderly woman who had left home to avoid being a burden to her family; a pair of dreadlocked travellers making their way through Argentina, living on the streets and juggling in plazas for spare change.
My time in Argentina was further marked by weekly visits to federal court, where I observed the ongoing trials of government officials involved in crimes against humanity during the country’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. Attending these court sessions afforded me the feeling that I was witnessing first-hand the continuous unfolding of Argentinean history.
Admittedly, during my first visit, it was hard not to feel an instinctual stroke of pity for the elderly men seated behind Plexiglas in the courtroom’s section for the accused. With their wispy white hair and wrinkled faces, they could have passed for ordinary grandfathers. A conscious effort is required to remember that these people, fragile and harmless as they look now, were responsible for the kidnappings, tortures, and murders of so many innocent lives during Argentina’s Dirty War several decades ago.
Hearing the testimonies of victims and family members of victims provided enlightenment on this dark era of history that I do not think I could have attained from any textbook. After one witness’s story unravelled before the judges, he turned and faced the section of the accused. Speaking directly to them, he implored them, if they had any remaining scrap of humanity, to reveal information about the children – now adults – who were kidnapped from subversive parents and given to military families. Many of the grandparents of these children – the parents of disappeared subversives – are getting old, and would like to see their grandchildren at least once before they pass, the witness pronounced. I won’t soon forget this impassioned plea or the shivers it sent down my spine.
Additional valuable work experience presented itself in several sessions of a free counselling clinic in a slum neighbourhood called Blas Pascal. Here residents receive advice on issues pertaining to their community, such as how to improve safety and access to water and electricity. One of the major topics of discussion during the meetings was the purchase of a community alarm.
There were many other special events that stand out to me retrospectively. A trip to La Perla – Córdoba’s principal detention centre during the Dirty War dictatorship – brought new perspectives on the horror stories I had been hearing at the court trials. To see the site where thousands of individuals were detained and tortured was a harrowing experience. To see signs of the resilient hope of the survivors and the determination to keep the memory of the victims alive was moving.
One sweltering afternoon was spent going door-to-door through the neighbourhood surrounding the human rights office collecting donations for Fundación Ganas. The outpouring of food, clothing, and other support resulted in bags upon bags filled with aid for the homeless.
Another afternoon brought volunteers to a popular plaza to work with an anti-human trafficking organisation. We handed out brochures to the adults to raise awareness of the issue. To capture the children’s attention, we made our way through the crowds with brightly coloured balloons, asking each of them to share a dream of theirs and recording it on a balloon. There were all manner of wonderful responses, from “no more fighting” to “rights for animals” and “more love in the world.”
In between these activities, there was plenty of office work to be accomplished, such as sorting and cataloguing all the books in the human rights library and translating legal documents. These sorts of assignments contributed greatly to my growth as a Spanish speaker, listener, writer, and reader.
For my last week of work in Córdoba, I was tasked with leading a workshop for the other volunteers on terrorism. I learned a great deal myself through my research and preparations. During the workshop, we explored the questions of terrorism, and why a consensus definition of this concept has eluded the international community for so long.
The workshop included a simulation activity in which volunteers divided into two teams: one representing states that have been the target of international terrorism, and the other representing states that are known to have terrorist groups active within their territory. Each team was instructed to discuss and write a general definition of terrorism from the point of view of its assigned country. The volunteers struggled considerably to formulate clear definitions. Their difficulty allowed us to demonstrate how and why it has been so challenging for the international community to perform the same task. Fortunately the workshop kindled a great deal of interesting discussion and debate among the attendees.
My time at the human rights office in Córdoba provided innumerable learning opportunities. There were many unforgettable elements of the job. At our Friday meetings, the human rights volunteers and coordinators would pass around a maté – that ubiquitous herbal beverage so universally adored by Argentineans – while debriefing the week in between sips. Even the small act of partaking in this quintessentially Argentinean custom will forever be inextricably linked with my two wonderful months there.