Celebrating the difference that individuals make

Today, I wanted to take a few moments to celebrate the impact of individuals who approach peacekeeping, peacebuilding, or developmental projects as human beings, first and foremost. These individuals, and the relationships they create, help to build peace sustainably, and I want to salute them for what they do – even if they may never know the full impact of their work.

Let me tell you a story, to illustrate this point. It is about a Canadian who went to Sudan several years ago to serve as a UN military observer. Like many of us who do this work, he came back home not sure if his work had been as meaningful as he had hoped when he went. He had stories of the things that did not work – the kind of problems that occur every time you try to bring together people from many countries in a dangerous and high pressure situation, in another culture and language, with a difficult task to carry out.

Anyone who has ever done international development work, or worked locally on such a project, has such stories that highlight the gulf between what we hoped we could do, and what we were able to do. Sometimes these stories overwhelm the other stories – about the friends we made, the things we learned, and the small things we were able to do. That is because, unless we are lucky enough to have something tangible to point to that we did individually, it is hard to know if we made any difference at all.

My friend Jim was based in a UN base near a small village. He got a bicycle and would ride around the countryside, chatting with people as he went. At the base, he would go over and talk to the children who gathered at the fence that surrounded the base. He would give them small things people sent him – a pencil, a piece of gum – and then, after he learned that they could sell empty pop bottles in the local market, he would collect pop bottles in the base and give them to the children in the morning. He built a network of relationships; he saw people as individuals, with names and stories and needs and wishes.

Another Canadian soldier at his base had taken on the task of helping a local village build a school. He had raised money from family and friends, and the school had been built. I suspected that Jim, while celebrating his friend’s achievement, may have wondered about his own achievements. (Or maybe I am imagining that he felt this, because it is certainly what I have felt a number of times after such projects or missions – did I make a difference?)

Jim had been back home for about a month or so when I had lunch with Tom, a friend who has many contacts in the Canadian military through his past peacekeeping experience. He also teaches and writes books. One of his contacts was in Sudan and had just written a story about the importance of peacekeeping, and Tom shared it with me.

It was a story written by a Canadian soldier who had joined the UN peacekeeping force and been based at the same place. He talked about how he got up early on his first morning, planning to enjoy the sunrise in peace and quiet. But as he looked towards the sun rising from behind the mountains, he saw a group of children clustered by the fence. Initially, he was a bit irritated; he had hoped for a quiet start to his day.

Then, as he walked to the office, an Indian colleague said to him, I guess you are wondering why those children are there. They are waiting for Jim. Jim was kind to them – he gave them small things, including the used bottles, and if he had nothing else to give them, he gave them a smile. They still gather there because they hope to see him again.

That story made a huge impact on this man. He found himself wanting to be like Jim – to make a difference in the lives of these children. He came to recognize that in relating person to person, he gave them the gift of recognition as fellow human beings – ones as valuable and loved as his own children. He also gave them the hope of peace and the hope of a better life coming. For him, Jim came to stand for a person-to-person approach to peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and development.

Shivers had been running up my spine as I read. I wondered if this was my friend Jim. So I asked if I could have permission to share this story with him, and ask him if by any chance this was a story about him. I learned later that Jim broke into tears when he read the story. Here was irrefutable proof of his contribution – he had made a difference, to those children and their families, and to the Canadian who came after him and learned from his example.

In this post, I want to celebrate and thank all those men and women who, like Jim, bring the gift of humanity to the places where they go. I want them to know that, even if they are not blessed with the grace of reading a story about their impact, they have indeed made a tremendous difference by choosing to be human beings relating to other human beings.

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