By: Mrs. Maria Lucia Uribe, Director Arigatou International Geneva and Secretary General, Interfaith Council on Ethics Education for Children
Many years ago I visited Medellin, Colombia to research peace initiatives in the country. I went to Comuna 13, in Medellin, which used to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world, and a pivotal place for grooming paramilitary, guerrilla and criminal gang groups. As I was waiting outside a bakery to be picked up by some of my contacts from the local government, I couldn’t help but noticing that there were a few young people wandering around and walking back and forth.
I was a bit nervous as I was told to keep a low profile and not to bring any valuables with me as this might arise curiosity from the members of the gang groups. As I waited for almost 15 minutes for my contact to arrive, I believe I was already making some of those youth curious, so it was only a matter of minutes until a young boy approached me and asked me if I could buy a bread and a soda for him. I looked at him and said: “what’s your name?” And he responded: “Diego”. I said: “Alright Diego, I buy bread and a soda for both of us but you keep me company for a while.” We sat together in a street corner, next to each other, and with not much in common but a deep interest to know who the other was, we kept silent for a minute or so while eating a sweet piece of bread. Diego, who was only 14, looked a bit puzzled but at the same time confident as he initiated a conversation. “What are you doing here?” he snappily said without looking at me; to what I replied: “I am waiting for a friend”, and without giving him time to ask another question, I quickly asked: “what about you, what are you doing here?” He looked at me and said: “I live here!” with a marked accent from the region. I imagined he was implying with his answer that I had no business in there, as he knew I was not from the area. I said: “There is a lot of movement today and many young people around. Don’t you have to be in school now?” He said: “I don’t study, I help my mother.” “What do you do to help her?” I replied. He said: “I just work.” I continued the conversation, pretending to be unaware of the dynamics in the area where many young people are part of criminal gangs and some work as “carritos”: informers or carriers – watching the movement in the areas from the windows of their houses, or other key places, and informing when new people arrive, as well as carrying drugs, arms, or killing to prove themselves worthy of being part of the gang.
Diego opened up to me much more than I expected. Answering my question about where he works, he told me that his mother had to work really hard for his other two siblings and him, and that he needs to help her. Staying in school was not an option for him. He said: “You know, we moved recently to this neighborhood, because I couldn’t stay where we previously lived. They (the criminal gangs) wanted to kill me”. Here I have to join them and work, otherwise I can’t stay.” I said: “so what do you do? He replied: “I help doing small things but also big ones.” “ What exactly?” I said with a soft tone, avoiding to sound too naïve or pushy. He said: “I do favors to people in exchange for money and I get well paid. I get paid more in one day than what my mom does in an entire month.” I continued the conversation trying to empathize with his mother, and sharing my views on how difficult life can be, how unjust the economic systems are, and how sorry I felt for mothers that had to work double shifts to make ends meet. He immediately said: “This is the reason I also do big favors, even though I wish I don’t have to do them.” “What have you done that you wish you hadn’t?” I replied. He looked to the horizon and pointed with the index finger to his mouth and made the sound of a gun being fired. I was quiet for a few seconds, pausing and taking the time to put my thoughts together. A kid, a 14 year old, an innocent youth, just starting to live, has already committed a crime bigger than him, and has, without being aware, violated the sacredness of his own life and of others. I put my hand softly on his knee, and said: “that’s hard”. He tried to show no remorse, and said: “that’s nothing.”
Our conversation went on for another 10 minutes or so, until I was called to the mobile and asked to go somewhere else. I told him I needed to leave but it was nice of him to keep me company. He just smiled and said: “What’s your name?” As I inclined to give him a hug, I said: “Continue studying, there is always a way out”, and I waved my hand and said: “Maria Lucia”. I left thinking how empty my words were for someone like Diego.
Diego is one of the many youth who have been induced into gang and criminal groups. Youth who feel hopeless, isolated and in search of meaning. Youth who are in fear and feel uncertain about themselves, the world around them, and their future. Unfortunately this is the reality for many youth around the world. Imagine how it is to grow in fear, to know how limited your chances are, and how unfavorable to you the present is and the future looks like. Imagine how it is to know that because of who you are or where you were born, you are conditioned, and that the only alternatives you have are the same ones that will deprive you of being fully part of a society.
I also met during this trip many other young people who were part of youth groups to promote peace and coexistence in their neighborhoods and beyond. Youth who have been given an opportunity to be part of a community, that felt embraced by others, and were given the chance to develop their skills and thrive. Youth who have become leaders despite adversity, who are now role models for other youth, and feel protected and empowered.
There are no magic formulas to prevent youth from getting into violent groups, and there are no single ways to tackle the issue, as interventions would require multi-sectoral collaborations and approaches; yet, there are certainly key conditions that need to be created for youth to thrive and develop themselves. I would like to highlight three of them:
- Strengthen education systems and curricula to include social and emotional learning that can help nurturing in children their resilience, empathy, and self-worth that can help them strengthen their identities, and relate better with others, guided by values that foster a common humanity. These spaces are more often than not, absent in schools.
- Support families, parents and caregivers, through religious communities, schools and work spaces, to learn and practice alternatives to violence in the upbringing of children, and to reflect on the importance of being role models for their children through actions and behaviors that are congruent with the ethical values they would like their children to uphold.
- Invest and create opportunities and spaces in the community for young people to participate, connect with others and feel supported, indifferently of their socio-economic, cultural or religious background. These spaces should be meaningful, inclusive and supported by the community to foster their sense of belonging.
As I recall Diego today, and think of what led him to become part of a criminal group, I deeply hope that he had found a way out, a community platform to be part of, and opportunities to develop free from violence. I deeply hope that as we carry on with our lives, as individuals, we take time to reflect on the many youth victims of violence, and commit to engage with youth in our communities, to listen to their needs, and be there for them, present and available, whenever they need it.