June 2008 Reflection

It seems like only a few days ago that I embarked on my journey to Ireland. Having never lived abroad, I boarded the plane to Ireland with great anticipation. Now that the year is drawing to a close, I find myself reflecting on how much this year has changed me.

I leave this year with a great academic experience, gleaming wisdom from experiences and perspectives unique to Ireland. Listening to generals in the Irish military demonstrated how Ireland’s own struggle has come to influence their own commitment to peacekeeping and humanitarian development.

Outside the classroom, the landscape of Ireland retains traces of its troubled history. Walking through neighborhoods in Belfast, the infancy of the peace process is still painted on the walls. Culinary lessons in Dingle highlighted the resourcefulness of the Irish who are only recently enjoying economic prosperity.

I take from Ireland a plethora of invaluable stories from which we in America could learn. From stories of humanity during conflict, difficulties in emerging peace, devotion to aiding those suffering elsewhere, to conversations about America’s future, all filled with gratitude, admiration, and disappointment. This year transformed my aspirations for a career responding to conflict, to one that prevents the common enemies of humanity—conflict, poverty, greed, disease and hatred.

The many stories of people in Ireland who were sustained by aid from relatives in America reveal how humans are inextricably bound together and that to overcome affliction, we must struggle together. I depart more firmly believing that each generation across the globe is summoned to give testimony to those rights upon which the dignity of humankind depends. Movements like STAND demonstrate that many among my generation are rising to the challenge. But, as President Kennedy suggested, if the free world cannot help those who are suffering the worst forms of oppression, it cannot hope to save the dignity of the few who are free and protected.

I left for Ireland hoping to gleam some insight into the transition from conflict to post conflict that might be used to transform the suffering in Sudan that I witnessed over three years ago in Eastern Chad. On my last days in Ireland, I remember my last days in Chad. Our translator, Soliman, walked up to me, lowered his head, and very quietly asked me if there was anything else that he could do to help our documentary. Then he broke down, with tears streaming down his face, he desperately offered to give us more evidence—pictures of the atrocities that tore apart his region. We hugged our final goodbye and I remember the unrelenting courage of those who shared their tragedies with us.

I avoided Soliman after that, as my journey was winding down. I was ashamed to have to tell him that our documentary might not change his situation. I think he was also avoiding me, terrified because he knew what I would say. For nearly two weeks, he had been our window into the violence that tore apart his country and his family. Believing he would face violent repercussions for his efforts, he nevertheless became our witness.

There is a part of the story that I do not usually tell. It came in the last few days of our journey in the back of a UN van, where Soliman begged us to get him out. He said that it was not safe for him to stay and he asked us not to forget him. The region where he was seeking refuge has now been engulfed in violence, and I have lost communication.

Until that moment, Soliman had been a hero in my eyes, a person who disregarded his own safety to translate the human catastrophe that engulfed his family. In my own mind heroes were not supposed to be that vulnerable. I felt completely helpless to save him.

While I certainly did not find a quick solution or ready-made model to end conflict and build economic prosperity, I came to understand that in its darkest hour, humanity is sustained by the connections between us. While a solution may be beyond one individual, the courage we show can inspire others. While it can seem insurmountable, a conflict created by humans can be solved by humans. And while there are no quick solutions, as the saying goes it is better to light one small candle than curse the darkness.

Without a doubt, what I will remember most from this year are the friendships—from the staff of the US – Ireland Alliance who provided endless and personal support, to my fellow Mitchells whose example has inspired and challenged me, to classmates who became lifelong friends.

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