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Messages of Solidarity and Hope Shine a Light in the Darkness for Guatemalan Human Rights Defender

    Wednesday, February 21, 2018 - 13:50
    J. J. Bowlen Catholic Junior High School
    Photo Credit: 
    J. J. Bowlen Catholic Junior High School

    Rafael Maldonado is a passionate advocate for justice, Indigenous rights and a healthy environment. He defends people who are attacked or criminalized for trying to protect their lands and waters from unwanted mining, hydro, or agricultural projects. In Santa Rosa, a rich agricultural region of south-eastern Guatemala, he defends the rights of people who worry that a Canadian silver mine is polluting and drying up their water sources. Several people in the communities surrounding the mine have been killed, shot, attacked, threatened and thrown in jail on false charges. 

    Because of his work at the Centre for Social, Environmental and Legal Action, to defend their rights and support their cause, he has been threatened, his colleagues shot, robbed or killed, and has had shots fired into a car outside his house. Amnesty International is very concerned about his safety. 

    This winter, a group of students from JJ Bowlen Catholic Junior High School in Edmonton, Alberta, learned about his case and decided to take action. In January, I was absolutely delighted to receive a large manila envelope stuffed with dozens of beautiful and colourful cards and messages of support for Rafael, including messages like; 

    “Stay Strong!” 

    “You have my support, but also take care of yourself for obvious reasons”

    “I think what you do is right for the community and wildlife”

    “I hope this letter made you happy”

    The cards are covered with hearts, trees, rainbows and smiling, encouraging faces, as well as messages, like the ones below:  

    Messages of solidarity such as these are a ray of light for defenders like Rafael who daily live in fear for their lives.

    For the last 22 years, Principal Don Andrews has encouraged his students to learn about human rights defenders around the world. Every year around International Human Rights Day, he shares stories of courageous human rights defenders like Rafael Maldonado with his students and encourages them to write letters of solidarity. He told Amnesty, “I begin by asking students about what rights each human should have, show a YouTube clip on human rights and the history of the UN Declaration on Human Rights. I also tell them about the work of Amnesty International.” He says that some of the most difficult conversations occur when a student is from one of the countries being discussed, “Sometimes they are thrilled their country is being discussed but then saddened when they realize the reason.  I remind the students, as I tell the story of Peter Benenson hearing about the students in Portugal, that each country has some human rights issues including Canada.  I often give an example of a Canadian issue.” He asks his students to make a card which includes a simple message, such as “we heard your story” or ‘we believe in you”. This year, J.J. Bowlen Catholic Junior High School sent 345 cards to Guatemala, Cambodia an Azerbaijan.  

    The threats, intimidation, and fear that human rights defenders endure daily are simply exhausting. Rafael told me that he is very grateful to receive these cards and messages at this particular time.

    Other recipients of cards from JJ Bowlen students included Mehman Huseynov from Azerbaijan and Tep Vanny from Cambodia.  

     

    Tep Vanny, Cambodia.                         

    Mehman Huseynov, Azerbaijan.

    If you are a student, you might be interested in our Lifesaver actions. Lifesavers are free, monthly actions for ages 9 and up. To request them, email urgentaction@amnesty.ca

    Lifesavers are simply-written actions that are based on a current Amnesty International letter-writing case. They serve as a call-to-action for an individual or group whose human rights are in jeopardy.

    They are used by children in Canada, by their parents and teachers, by adults in literacy programs and by students in English-as-a-second language classes. We send participants updates every time new information arrives.

    Human rights defenders working to protect territory, land and environment from the negative impacts of industrial development have told me how wonderful it is to come home and find a package of cheerful, encouraging cards and drawings from Canadian school children waiting for them. Rafael says he is grateful to receive these cards at a very difficult time.

    Thanks, JJ Bowlen students and Principal Don Andrews, for your solidarity and compassion for defenders at risk like Rafael Maldonado! Keep up the great work! 

    How else could our school get involved in supporting human rights defenders at risk? 

    If you are a student, you might be interested in our Lifesaver actions. Lifesavers are free, monthly actions for ages 9 and up. To request them, email urgentaction@amnesty.ca. You can also find the most recent Lifesavers on our website. Lifesavers are simply-written actions that are based on a current Amnesty International letter-writing case. They serve as a call-to-action for an individual or group whose human rights are in jeopardy. They are used by children in Canada, by their parents and teachers, by adults in literacy programs and by students in English-as-a-second language classes. We send participants updates every time new information arrives.

    Add your voice! 

    Take action in support of Rafael Maldonado.

    Learn more about the situation facing territory, land and environmental rights defenders in Guatemala.

    For further action ideas, please print our petition on human rights defenders in Guatemala.