Youth Leadership Gathering

Joven41     What an amazing experience!  We achieved our stated purpose of giving hope, opportunity to grow, and pockets full of good memories to young people who live life in the midst of war. Jaque, Darien, Panama is the last town on the border of Jurado, Colombia, site of numerous massacres that prompted mass exodus over the “imaginary” line.
    Hosting camp on warring borders is a challenge indeed. We were constrained by inflexible regulations and security concerns. We were unable to take the group outside the town because many of the Colombian refugees do not have their official papers that entitle them to move around somewhat more freely.
    Bridges Across Borders’ U.S.A. Director, Carol Mosley, and Ana Maria Vasquez, Darien Projects Coordinator, facilitated the gathering. We were accompanied by Compañero, Kenneth “Kenito” Weeks, who photographed and served in numerous other ways. We also found a new friend in Stephen Hodges, Botanist, who we first met at Miami International Airport and diverted for a few days on his way to Costa Rica. He led a workshop on Botany and befriended the communities of Jaque and Biro Quera, the Waunan village up the river from Jaque. Jaque itself is an Afro/Embera/Waunaan community. We were distressed to find that, in addition to the usual military base at Jaque, a base has been located within the indigenous community of Biro Quera and we were horrified to learn that landmines have now been planted in the mountains there. Posters7f
    As “Divine Synchronicity” would have it on this trip, the Human Rights attorneys from Panama City were on their way to interview refugees in Jaque, who had recently been informed that they must return to Colombia or be repatriated. The lawyers did a workshop on Panamanian Constitution and Derechos Humanos (Human Rights). They then headed for a gathering of Indigenous leaders in Yaviza, another endangered border town.
    We arrived to an already planned talent show as a kick off of the Youth Gathering. What fun. And what talent! As a pre-gathering activity, Rosie Yablonsky conducted an extensive workshop on videography, to be an ongoing part of documentary reporting of life on the border. The video camera has already proven to be a very important tool there.
    Using conflict resolution materials and mediation techniques, the students learned tools for effective communication. We also did workshops on Healthy Relationships and recognizing “What is Abuse?” We had some very lively discussion on women’s rights and male machismo. We examined the benefits of cooperation rather than competition, and of seeking win-win rather than win-lose outcomes. And we played cooperative games, where the winning is in the collaboration that results in the achievement of the collective goal.  
Drumz23     We discussed endangered species and extinction, and examined the human responsibility to ensure preservation. One of our ongoing projects is Sea Turtle Preservation, and in fact three new turtle nests were buried while we were there. We talked about how mobile phones endanger the Mountain Gorillas in Africa and how our choices have an overall effect on everything else. We heard of one of our group witnessing his father shoot a Harpy Eagle, just because it was such an incredible find.
    We visited an organic farm (most farming is organic, but the push to modernize with pesticides is strongly growing) and we talked about DDT and dioxin in the environment. With no means of disposal, plastic is frequently burned, releasing toxins into the air. The “jovenes” (youth) made posters expressing what they learned.
    The youth wrote letters to our friends at the Lasky school in Cambodia. They were concerned how we would manage to get their letters translated from Spanish into Khmer. They are also anxious to connect with students in the U.S., so invite us to your school or youth group to make the connection for a cultural interchange.
    A goal of the gathering was to develop appreciation for the wisdom and skills of the town’s elders. Each morning before school, five Encuent34 dedicated young men learned to make drums from Don Pininin Domingo, the drum maker and wood crafter. They cut their balsa logs and, using machetes, hollowed them out. They attached the skins of the wild jungle pigs, used as food in the indigenous communities. They will continue with Pininin so that they will be expert enough to teach others. Don Pininin was beaming as he shared with us his joy to finally have apprentices to carry on. The next session will include some interested young ladies who also want to preserve the knowledge for future generations. (We have a few of the drums for sale to help support our projects in Darien.)
     Each evening we shared a meal together and shared expressions of our lives in a sacred circle. We talked about how the circle has no beginning nor end, lack of heirarchical structure and that all perspectives are equally valid, how we can see each one’s face, and how the energy can travel around it. We explained that only the person in the center with the “talking stick” should speak and all others are listeners and how the particulars expressed there should not leave the group. Trust does not come easy on warring borders, where rumor of sympathy or displeasure with one group of armed actors or another could get your name on someone’s “list.”
Joven61     A common concern of the youth of Jaque is that there is no school from grades 9-12. Those who can, send their children to Panama City, hopefully to stay with a friend or family member. Or the family leaves Jaque and moves to a poor section of the big city. Most, especially those who are Colombian refugees, find themselves without option for continuing school. Some refugees have lost years of schooling already because of the conflicts in their home country. No matter which way it goes, this is a loss of great potential creativity for the Darien region being lost for lack of opportunity. This is a critical issue, and we are now investigating possibilities for addressing this problem. We believe a certified private (international?) school with a charter focus on (especially Rainforest) Ecology, Peace Studies, and Language Arts may be the way
. These themes can be the framework for all other studies of Science, Math, Economics, Sociology, Ethics, Arts and Music…
    The inter-generational nature of our projects is so crucial. In addition to the new relationship between our Jovenes and Don Pininin, we had a visit from Eusebia to tell us about Jaque Unidos, the cooperative that was formed when she was a young woman in the town. They were in their teens and twenties, and they worked together to get the clinic built and to see to the needs of their elders. The youth were inspired to know that such collaboration had once gone on in their town. It was a testament to the power of human creativity. While on this trip we have come to identify twenty seniors (and about an equal number of children) who are in severe lack of essential nutrients, to say nothing about other physical needs. We share the dream of nurse Maritza Gonzalez of eventually building a House for Elders where those in most need would get care in their end time. For now, we hope to find senior to senior sponsorship for a “meals on heels” home delivery of a nutritious meal five days a week. Thanks to the generosity of our Historian Frank Schiavone, we now have 22 elders in the program.
        We intend to initiate a community service program where our youth can earn rewards for exhibiting their leadership qualities in bettering their community. This will serve to enhance the sharing of intergenerational knowledge. For example, our elders can visit the preschools and our youth can serve the meals on heels.
    At the end of the Gathering we issued certificates and T-shirts to the youth participants. They must wash them each night to wear again the next day, because we would see them walking in newly bonded friendship groups, proud of their leadership development. They pleaded to do it again (but not wait a whole year). In the future we would like to bring a few youth from other countries to share in cultural exchanges, but that is only a whisper of a thought being thrown to the wind at this time. We will see what wants to manifest itself for the future.
    The need for connecting youth in an international realm was in honor of Angela “Kiki” Meslans, who wanted to go to the Middle East to work with Palestinian and Israeli women working together for peace. We know it is “people to people” that our concepts of an enemy can be shattered.
    We are grateful to the Wallack Foundation, Florida Coalition for Peace & Justice, and the individuals whose funding made this event possible.