What about Us?: The Children We Need, the Children We’ve Ignored, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Oct

Puerto Rico

Those who have virtue always in their mouths, and neglect it in practice, are like a harp, which emits a sound pleasing to others, while itself is insensible of the music. Diogenes

When the human race neglects its weaker members, when the family neglects its weakest one – it’s the first blow in a suicidal movement. Maya Angelou

Last evening, I sat in a Harlem church, in a row filled with former members of my now-closed parish, and listened to the wonderful East Coast Inspirational Singers led by the equally remarkable (and former music director at my parish) John Stanley.

The music was both deafening and completely on key.   The audience was active and engaged, soaking in the music and the message, waving and shouting both their approval and their conviction that something continues to go terribly wrong in our world, something that they have at least a bit of resources and the will-power to help fix.

The “something” in this particular instance is the slow pace of response to the hurricane-related needs of the people of Puerto Rico (and other Caribbean communities).   This concert was meant to inspire donations to augment what many felt has been a pattern of government neglect, leaders taking credit for responses that have left most families still in the dark, children without schools to attend, health deficits made worse as residents consume contaminated water in the absence of any cleaner alternatives.

Some of these Harlem folks brought their children along, in some cases to fortify the impression that people still care about others down on their luck and that the plight of children living within and far beyond Harlem is deserving of more attention by others.  The concert raised almost $3000 out of pockets that I know in some cases to be mostly empty.  No one imagined that this gesture would be sufficient, would substitute for the oft-lacking determination by government agencies to fulfill their commitments to their own people.  But they had to do something.  And they did.

And they also painfully understood that if the message to the children brought to that concert was one of agency and concern, what message must the children of Puerto Rico take away from a crisis that has both profoundly disrupted their lives and possibly also confirmed their worst fears about how much (or little) they are valued by others?

Such questions gnawed at much of the UN all week as well. The “Third Committee” of the General Assembly heard from special rapporteurs about the often-heartbreaking circumstances endured by children in diverse global regions, especially the children displaced by violence, storms or drought, children on the move with or without their families, sometimes falling victim to traffickers eager to sell them off to sexual predators or even to harvest their organs.

At the same time, the rapporteurs also reminded states of their near-universal commitments to preserve the rights and dignity of children, to do everything in their power to ensure that next generations are capable and enabled to manage complex future challenges, including doing a better job of preventing the conflicts that continue to ravage prospects for future generations.

Beyond the 3rd Committee, the UN honored the International Day of the Girl Child with a quite upbeat Wednesday afternoon event featuring UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.    The theme of the event, “Empowering girls—before, during, and after crises,” was an important reminder of both the many skills of girls and the responsibilities of states. And yet, as with so many UN events, this one was also of no particular comfort to Caribbean children struggling with their families and communities to adjust to circumstances that they could not foresee and with no insurance agents standing ready to offer assistance like the ones they (when the power was still on) have seen on TV.  Nor is it of comfort to the girls who have reportedly been sold into marriage by Yemeni parents who see no other way to get their children away from the bombing and cholera to which they have daily been subjected.

The Security Council had its own engagements with the often-unsettling circumstances of the world’s children.   On Friday afternoon, the Council in an Arria Formula format welcomed back former SG Kofi Annan to discuss recommendations for addressing violence and discrimination against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority still to be found streaming into neighboring Bangladesh.   Calls by Council members to end violence committed by the Myanmar military, to address documentation and citizenship concerns of the Rohingya, and to conduct an official mission to Rakhine state (as suggested by Ukraine) were all most welcome, but again were surely of no comfort to the children fearfully separated from families, desperate for food and shelter, and struggling to shake off the horrific effects of the traumatic violence to which they have already been witness.

Earlier that day, with logistical and program support from Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch and others, the Council held still another Arria Formula event, this time focused on the grave (and seemingly growing) problem of attacks on schools by state and non-state military forces, including the forced dislodging of students and teachers such that schools might become “zones of occupation” for armed combatants.

The highlight of this event for many in the room was the address by Joy Bishara, one of the Chibok Girls who managed to leap to safety after Boko Haram attacked the school and herded girls on to a get-away truck.  Joy is now a student in Florida (thanks to the intervention of a US Congresswoman) and shared her story in a clear and determined manner, evoking some emotional responses from Council members who lauded her courage and pledged to do more to keep this from happening to others.  One concrete outcome from all this “pledging” (we hope) is for more Council members to formally endorse the Safe Schools Declaration to prevent armed violence from compromising educational facilities and impeding student access to those facilities.

This was my second time listening to Joy (with her Chibok friend Lydia) and, while her talks were meant to share a story rather than critique a process, I was struck by the trust deficits that permeated much of that story — at least between the lines.  Where were the school guards on the night of the attack?  Where was the government security sector as the girls were being carted away?  Where was the international community as the rest of Joy’s classmates remained in a dismal captivity month after month?  Joy spoke of running for help after jumping from the truck and then “not trusting” those who offered it.   I’m guessing that her deficits of trust will turn out to be more pervasive than those directed at a Nigerian boy with a motor scooter in the middle of that night.

Returning to Saturday’s Harlem concert, one highlight of the event was a Gospel selection familiar to me and others, the key line being “what about us?”  What about those promises, those commitments?  What about those international resolutions and treaties, those constitutional protections and national implementing agencies? What about those state services missing in action? What about all that?

There might be no determination quite like that displayed by people of modest means and solid values who know the consequences first hand of our collective failure to ensure safe and productive passage for children.  Many of the older folks at this concert had lived through the ravages of crack cocaine and broken down schools, of sub-standard health care options and a hands-off attitude by police and other public servants.  They had shielded children not their own from bullies and bullets, but mostly from the creeping fear that they might not be worthy of empowerment, of a chance to have a voice and make a difference, even of the possibility of trusting the public institutions that rhetorically purport to have their best interests at heart.

This damage to the physical and emotional well-being of children has the potential to undermine our common future every bit as much as “competing” existential threats, including those related to weapons and climate.   We can and must do more at community and policy levels to reverse the “slow suicidal movement” wherein we pass on our unresolved crises to a new generation, too many of whom have already had their hopes and dreams senselessly impaired.

What about us?

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