A Male’s Brave Journey to Becoming a Survivor

Meet Nathaniel.

A rounded glasses kind of guy wearing a baggy sports t-shirt, he sits in a cozy chair reading a book, sipping on a Starbucks drink he blended into the mall atmosphere. To many he looks like the average guy. There is something more to Nate, however. He has a special story to tell.

Nate’s personal journey is beyond average. His story begins with a childhood of violence, but because he allowed hope to be an important aspect of his story he has chosen to become a survivor of violence. Nate’s story is one not of despair, but of hope and courage. It’s a story of healing that will make anyone weep, but also smile because of Nate’s strength to pick himself back up. His story is one that should be shared broadly to other survivors.

Nate is also on this path to heal others because of his own experience with childhood abuse. As Nate bravely opened up about his story of physical, verbal and mental abuse along with being trafficked as a child, he realized he dissociated himself for years to protect himself growing up. The memories continued to stay in his body and mind. Over twenty years later he is coming to terms with his violent childhood experiences. He struggles to face the violent memories, but he is no longer willing to let it control his life. He is a fighter, a searcher and on his journey of discovering what it feels to be a survivor.

Two of Nate close friends have committed suicide because they were no longer able to deal with the memories of their violence. They no longer had hope. It scared him almost to death. Nate had a choice: He could choose to live or he could also choose not to. Nate made the choice to live and help others live too.

He remembers what it felt like to be at his friends’ funerals. He knew death wasn’t the answer for him, but in order to fully understand this he had to dig deeper into his trauma. That meant not covering it up with alcohol, like he did in the past. Rather, he had to put the pieces together in a way that he knew would allow him take back control of his life.

Every day is a battle, but Nate won’t give up. He has hope. He understands his violence does not define him as a person. He is smart, funny and can connect with people on a deeper and very personal level because of his experience. Nate is the definition of a survivor. And survivors everywhere honor and support him as he continues his journey.

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The Bathroom Stall Door: An Empowering Tool for Survivors

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At Reclaiming Lost Voice’s we believe that every survivor has the ability to create solutions to end violence. We believe that the traumatized have the potential to heal and find  empowerment to serve as leaders and teachers within their communities. We believe that survivors who allow themselves the time to heal can change the world.

Since November 2013 an important conversation has been unfolding on a bathroom stall door. And the conversation still has not stopped. It’s time we begin a discuss on healing from college rape. It can end in our lifetime and there’s a community out there ready to embrace you on the journey. Ready?  Take a pen and join the conversation of hope, healing and empowering survivors to reclaim their voice! 

 


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DSCN0260  Want to share your story? Send it to story@reclaiminglostvoices.org to become part of the movement to empower survivors to become part of the solution. 

FSU College Rape Survivor Poses One Question

Over the last few weeks a written conversation was started on a bathroom stall door in the Bellamy building on FSU’s campus. The question posed from an anonymous survivor, “How do I get over being raped?” Not knowing where to turn she took a marker out and wrote “the question” on the back of bathroom stall.   And women didn’t hesitate to respond.

fsusurvivorThe “estimated” statistic is that 1 in 4 college women will become a survivor of rape. But because 60% of college rapes are not reported, it’s hard to tell what the real number is. Which means at a university that has over 40,000 students an estimated 10,000 of them will survive violence and less than 4,000 will actually be documented. Maybe as more women reach out to one another they can also encourage each other to report their crime to allow for documentation and evidence that this crime is happening every day.

The good news is that the conversation on college rape is starting to happen more and more. Not  because more services are being offered, but because women are seeking a community of people that empower them to see themselves as a survivor. They are learning ways to prevent a future assault, report their own case the authorities, and they are also owning their healing and recovery journey. These women are all seeking a way to move on with their lives, continue their studies, and not allow their rape to stop them from pursing their dreams. And as more survivors speak out they become part  of the movement to restore justice back into their lives.

One woman responded to the original question with, “I have been raped too….just know you are not alone.” On this one bathroom stall 2 survivors chose to reach out and become heard. It has been incredible to watch a community unfold. And in order to move rape survivors in their healing, as a community we need to become more transparent about this huge issue. And we also need to create an environment and culture in which survivors begin to feel empowered to report their violence and not stigmatized

From practical self defense skills, to attending counseling, to seeking out other forms of healing college women are coming together and recognizing they do not have to heal alone. And these conversations might be the most important thing to allow survivors to understand that the recovery process of rape is filled with questions: and it’s okay to ask one another.

To the woman who posed the question on the bathroom stall thank you for reclaiming your voice. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said,

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

Are you a survivor looking for empowerment? Contact Reclaiming Lost Voices are our team will help guide you in your recovery process: story@reclaiminglostvoices.org.

Sarah’s Story: Connecting Youth Activist Together To End Gun Violence

Sarah Clements from Newtown, Connecticut is a 17-year-old activist, daughter, friend, student. But she’s more than just ordinary girl-she has become an inspiration for hundreds and maybe thousands of youth. Educating and speaking out on sarah-clgun violence. And providing hope that the community of Newtown can move forward after violence.

Sarah didn’t dream of becoming of activist until it became a reality for her on December 14th, 2012. The day Sandy Hook Elementary School was devastated by gun violence. The second deadliest mass shooting by a single person in American history

And this past weekend was the Southeast Peace Jam slam conference. Hundreds of youth, leaders and teachers came together to unite for peace and social change. They talked about the tough issues. From war and poverty to women and children’s rights, rape and gun violence. But for one entire day I was surrounded around a group of ambitious youth ready to tackle the social issues many faced on a daily basis. Their positive words and spirit filled the room. And I came to the realization that the people who are capable of finding solutions for social justice problems are in fact our youth.

During Sarah’s keynote speech she made a statement that impacted me as storyteller for survivors of violence. As she was struggling to release her voice about a year ago she didn’t understand what difference it would make. But then someone told her this,

“Don’t let anyone tell you that your story doesn’t matter. Indeed it is the most important thing.”images

And this resonated with me greatly. Because Sarah has not only become an inspiration for me, but for what I am sure is thousands of youth. Each one of our stories is unique and raw. As we share them we become united with humanity and understand we are not alone.

6b7d3fc026e842f4a220c5168cba441fSarah’s story started with a simple word document. She opened up her computer and just started typing. Slowly releasing her angry and frustration into active words that could be used to create change in her grieving community of Newtown. Sarah reflects on the day she opened up that word document. She remembers the overwhelmed feeling of releasing her voice as she typed. But she points out that a tragic event does not have to define a person or a community. It’s only part of  the story and you can choose to see your story differently after violence.

And Sarah chose to keep writing to become part of the change. guns22n-1-webShe never thought gun violence would be part of her story. But she still remembers the day the shots were fired in her community. And now her mother who is a teacher has to go teach a class of 15 students, instead of 20 students. And Sarah understood her mother’s pain along with other countless teachers, students and community members. She had to do something to translate pain into positive action. She wanted to break sterotypes of those affected by gun violence and bring people together. And most importantly she wanted to show the strength people have to move forward.

heart2041From the children of Sandy Hook Elementary to the inner city schools Sarah believes that youth are the catalyst for social change. By coming together and understanding the emotional and physical pain they all experience, healing can occur. And they all have an opportunity to make peace within themselves and move forward in their community.

Newtown-Action-Alliance-logo-courtesy-courantblogs.com_Sarah joined Newton Gun Alliance and started sharing her story.  The importance of our stories is it can provide hope. It allows us to develop kind hearts and clear minds.  But beyond sharing our stories, we must become advocates for justice. And Sarah emphasized that young people should not be afraid of politics and politicians. Because youth have a huge voice as future voters and one day the youth will run our country. All of our voices count.

And then Sarah mentioned an important party to her story and to many activists. Dealing with push back and negativity. You’re going to have critics and you’re going to have people challenge you. It doesn’t mean you are wrong. What it means is you need to focus on building strength and optimism as you continue to speak out.And you need to surround people around you that will push you forward. When you become passionate about an issue you become unafraid. You are ready to fight with words and peaceful actions. But some people are going to be afraid of change. And you need to use their negativity to motivate you-because your voice can change the world.

And we must all remember that to create sustainable change is not a sprint, but a marathon we all need to run together. And allow bravery to become your biggest activist tool. For everyone is filled with the potential to create positive change. We must allow our conversation to turn into actions.

Hope-for-Newtown-Origami-OwlAnd maybe most importantly Sarah proved we must not be afraid to share our own story. Sarah’s is only one affected by gun violence and now she shares it around the country. She is providing hope that violence does not have to exist. We can all be part of the movement to provide solutions and hope. And it starts with the youth raising their voices.

Human Healing

Photo on 9-25-13 at 6.25 PM #6I have been absent the past two months from providing weekly content for the RLV blog. And I must share I have felt extremely guilty. But I feel now is the time to share where “I” am in my healing: 8 transforming months later. 

RLV was a journey that began with releasing my voice as a survivor. And it has beautifully evolved into listening to other lost voices and sharing their story with the world. With the hope that-together-we can be part of history and begin healing for an empowered future. And while RLV began with my story of violence I wanted to share with readers the stage I am at in my healing journey.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have been thinking about this idea of “identity” the last few weeks. We all want to feel connected with a person, a group, a cause. But what happens when we only allow ourselves to “identify” with a particular group or a cause? For instance I identify as a survivor, but I also identify as a woman, healer, athlete, writer and a vegan. I’m a survivor, but that’s only one group that I “identify” with.

For many years I “identified” myself as a victim. I questioned people’s intentions and fell asleep to millions of frustrated and confused thoughts. I would be awoken from my vivid nightmares on a daily basis. I not only feared my past, I feared understanding how to live not as a victim. Because I allowed myself to only be seen as a victim, I lived my life that way too.

Tree of Half LifeBut now that I “identify” as a survivor my life has completely changed. Not only do I not fear the world around me, my life has been filled with optimism and positivity. And I am slowly discovering what peace feels like. I never realized that until I took the opportunity to slow down and reflect myself that I could move forward. But first I had to break down the walls of shame and guilt to understand the world around me. And I had to learn to not allow my life to become consumed by feeling the need to “identify.”

I’ve also had to learn new ways to cope emotionally. And now I face new questions. Who exactly is survivor Ruth?  But maybe, most importantly, I started to ask myself, “Who is Ruth?” Our experiences will continue to change and transform us as human beings, but it doesn’t have to define us. Now I choose to “identify” first as human being before my name, before I call myself a survivor.  busy-bees-on-sunflower-cindi-ressler

And that is why I took a leave of absence from the blog. I needed to fully understand where I was at in my healing so I could empower others to move forward in their healing. It was not easy, but it had to happen. Sometimes we lose ourselves in the process of helping others, but we must remember that we must never forget to love ourselves. We are all living our own journey, but we must take time to be content on our own first.

4-up on 10-10-13 at 9.25 PM (compiled)But I have also not been on this journey alone. Although I have taken a non-medication and non-traditional therapy approach to my healing I’ve had countless friends and mentors walk with me during this “identifying” time. I’ve healed through laughter, nourishing my body with healthy food and constant positive self-reflection. Because I have allowed myself  the time to understand what my body and mind need to move forward I feel not only rejuvenated, but liberated too. And I understand my healing process will be a lifelong commitment.

1379843_10202851489187344_962540904_nAnd thus I have approached it in a way that it holds true to myself. And allows my life to move forward without the fear of a relapse. I’m not perfect and I have accepted all I can do is give my best. And allow myself the acceptance to take a seat back when needed.

We can never trick our minds or body from what it really needs. First we must nourish ourselves with the basics. And allow the mystery of love to guide us as we heal through our pain.

And remember that we are human, we are unique. And we should approach life in a way that allows us to self-identify to what we desire to be. We all have a story to share and we are all the authors of our story. Don’t be afraid to take the time to  cross out and write a new chapter. Make the commitment to discover your potential today. And most importantly-take time to be human.

Peter van Pels, 1941-1942From the words of survivor Anne Frank,

“Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”

The Dreamers of Thomasville

0000092670-civilh004-004Today mark’s the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a march filled with thousands of people who raised their voices to become part of a dream.

Perhaps the iconic figure-and dreamer- during this time was Martin Luther King Jr. But sometimes we forget about the local leadership and support that took place in the southern states that worked to achieve the same goals, such as the small southern town in Thomasville, Georgia. MLK’s vision would not have been successful if it was not for these local heroes.

march_on_washington United_Civil_Rights_Committee_LAIt took communities of all sizes and people of types to come together to understand MLK’s vision. The civil rights era was a period in the U.S. that was filled with violence, hatred and racism, but more importantly dreams and hope-prevailed through courageous voices on the national and local levels.

African American’s needed a prominent and hopeful leader to guide them forward and to reiterate the importanceof combating violence with non-violence. It wasn’t easy. Many were tempted to raise their hands in fists and pick up their guns. These leaders had to be mindful of every word, every action as their survival in this world depended on it.

And while MLK risked his life to speak up for injustice, many others did too. Ordinary people in the north and south played their part in the pursuit for their own freedom, their family’s freedom, and freedom for their neighbors. They knew they had to work together to fight for freedom and so they formed alliances of blacks and whites, males and females—everyone could play a role in the movement. Young Women at Civil Rights Rally

African Americans knew they were worthy of being judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. They were human too weren’t they? Weren’t their rights as human “inalieable”? And thousands fought for this dream of dignity. With the vision that one day they would be seen for their strength and courage and as individual human beings with names, stories and dreams of their own.

We tend to forget about all of the individuals that made this movement possible. Whether they were whites in the north who fought for freedoms or blacks in the south who pressed their communities to move forward in the peaceful fight for equality, thousands risked their own lives to dream.

229592471_3d9c37e724_oWhile attending a 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington this past Sunday, we symbolically “marched” on Thomasville from the courthouse to the First Missionary Baptist church, an African American church that played a central role in desegregating this region of southern Georgia and securing the basic rights of its citizens. We came together not as black and white, men and women, adults and children, but as human beings, who for one day remembered the struggle of for basic civil rights denied to previous generations and still dreamed of a better world.

Many of these dreamers today spoke of the times violence was an every day reality in their lives. One woman recalled having the dream to be a doctor. Others said it wasn’t possible, that she should dream of being a teacher instead. She didn’t let other people’s doubts stop her from pursuing her dreams. She never feared pursuing her destiny even when others told her   she was wrong.

angela_davis_wearing her natural hairThe first time she applied to medical school she did not get in, but she kept moving forward despite the setback.  And eventually she was accepted in medical school and became the first female African American physician in Thomasville, Georgia. She had a vision just like MLK and even though many tried to repress her personal ambitions her dreams are what kept her alive. And gave her a purpose to push forward. She knew one day she and her other fellow African Americans would have the rights they needed to become full participating citizens.

martin-luther-kingAndrew Young reflects on his experience living in Georgia during the Civil Rights era. He believes he could never have been introduced as Congressman Andrew Young if it weren’t for many local leaders and communities coming together for a united dream. “Georgia was the headquarters of lynching, and blacks knew they had to turn to politics to survive. And it was a life . . . voting was understood very early in Georgia as a life and death issue.” Politics may have been a way for the elite to earn an income, but, for the voiceless, politics was more about survival and securing their freedoms to enable them to live a happy, prosperous life with secured rights.

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Thousands of voices for civil rights will be forever remembered in Thomasville, Georgia because of celebrations like the ones organized by churches and leaders such as those at the First Missionary Baptist Church. I was surrounded by hundreds of people who came together for one day to remember the struggle, and, perhaps most importantly, to celebrate the dream on August 28th, 1963 articulated during the greatest demonstration for freedom ever spoken on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

mlk_43 Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS_6 040212-national-this-day-black-history-martin-luther-king-jrWe will forever remember the words of MLK, and the courage of the every day individuals who stood up for justice, because they knew one day would be possible. And on August 25th, 2013 we joined together with people of all races and walks of life on the steps of the Thomasville, Georgia courthouse to honor the voice of MLK and to listen to the stories of individuals whose dreams of freedom kept them moving forward.

Malala Yousafzai: A Voice for Peace

793-18Ibhl.AuSt.91Malala Yousafzai, the young girl who was shot by the Taliban as she was returning home from school, has become a symbol of hope, courage and peace for the children and women of Afghanistan and the world. She recently made a speech at the U.N. which may go down as a legacy.  It was filled with truth and love, and ended with a much deserved, and honored, standing ovation.

In 2009 Malala began to write a blog when she was just 11 to 12 years of age detailing what her life under Taliban and promoting girls education. A documentary was made the following year and Malala began to rise in public stature, giving interviews, and becoming the youthful voice that many in Pakistan appeared to be waiting for. She is the winner of Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize.

In her speech to the U.N., made on her 16th birthday, Malala began by addressing love, not violence. How it was from the love that others showed her, from her home country of Pakistan to others around to the world, that allowed her to recover from her gunshot wounds and live a life not based on fear, but peace and the reason she continues to use her voice for the people.

g9530_malala.inddThe Taliban thought their bullets would bring silence to Malala’s voice, but she survived. They were unable to kill her spirit. Rather, they empowered her to take the opportunity to speak up for those without a voice. For the millions who had no way to be heard, Malala became their voice. This courageous young woman did not all allow weakness, fear, or hopelessness to fill her mind. Rather she raises her voice and says that   courage that was born inside. The U.N. crowd cheers.  This has been the very moment that Malala has dreamt of.

Malala says she speaks for education for everyone, not just on behalf of women. In order for peace to be a reality, we must all understand that we can empower ourselves through education. As Malala says during her speech, “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” Empower children with pens and books to fill the minds with knowledge and peace. Do not give guns to fill the minds with thoughts of hatred and war. We are often unaware of the way extremists prey on vulnerable, uneducated victims. The extremists are afraid of books and pens, more than guns and bombs. But what they fear most is both educated and uneducated women reclaiming their voice: acknowledging their rights as a human being.

Malala also emphasized the importance of preventing these terrorists from redefining Islam. Terrorists are mis-using the peaceful religion of Islam for their own personal benefits.  The extremists are creating wars and death out of  ignorance. Malala recognizes that guns have become a tool of violence, not protection. Malala states even she will never pick up a gun for self-defense. She understands that a world where people feel the need to live with guns for protection is a world of fear and she no longer lives in fear. “Even if there is a gun in front of me I will not shoot, because of what Muhammad teaches me, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha.”

A young girl who has lived around the violence of guns and bombs understands that the solution is not more guns, more violence, but rather awareness and education to rebuild a nation based on peace and unity. Malala lives by the legacy of change inherited from global leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela as well as  the philosophy of non-violence lived by Gandhi and Mother Theresa. But she also recognizes that we must be able forgive in a world of hatred. It’s not just pens and books that can save the children, but love of fellow human beings.

A world in which true justice lives is one in which people must have the freedom to use their voice in a way that brings peace and active change to the lives around us. Both women and men must feel safe to stand up and use their voice. And Malala recognizes that now is the time to speak up for women’s and children’s right.

“We call upon our sisters of the world to be brave and to realize their full potential. Continue the journey to the destination of peace and education. Bring change to our voice. Believe in the power and the strength of our voice.” 

As one young Pakistani man reflects on Malala’s speech, having watched it over 20 times, he sees the possibility of peace for the people of Pakistan through the courageous words and actions of Malala. It gives him hope and courage to empower Malala in her work to spread education. He too is inspired to join her army of peace to promote education to the world.

“In Pakistan there’s a group of people who are standing right next to Malala and loving her more as she continues to speak out. And people in Pakistan aren’t going to stop supporting her. They can’t be silenced anyone, and you can show them through your deeds, work of peaceful activism, and that is what Malala is doing. She is the pride of the nation and I am proud of her more than anything else in Pakistan.”

It seems Malala is one voice that the world needs to hear. Her strength will carry us through the darkness in hopes that one day guns will not be the weapon of choice. In the place of guns will be pens and a book of paper, allowing all of us to become mindful of our capability to live in a world of peace. The time to be brave and pick up a pen is not tomorrow: it’s now.  मलाला

Tribute to Michael: A Military Story

The pioneering documentary The Invisible War has directed a spotlight to the problem of rape in the U.S. military. One voice in particular stuck out to me, a man named Michael who joined the service right out of college. Michael was brutally gang raped by fellow servicemen. And Michael’s rape is shockingly common. The reality is anyone, and everyone is vulnerable to becoming a sexual violence target.

But the issue of male rape, which happens to over 30,000 men in the military, made less than 5 minutes of the documentary. Why? Stigma. Men especially are likely to be silenced by the crime. Russell Strand, a Chief Family Advocate in the Law Enforcement Training Division of the U.S. Army, observes in the film: “Masculinity cannot be victimized, because if you’re a leader, if you’re a masculine person and you’re victimized then you are weak.”

But, Michael’s story shows both the tragedy of male rape and a glimmer of hope for survivors.

Meet Michael, 42, and his wife Geri.
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Michael joined the service in 1972, right out of high school, and he loved it. He was attracted to being able to travel and get educated through his time in the service. He felt like he was living the dream. But one day his entire world was turned upside down.

When he was 19, he went to the chow hall alone. All the sudden he found himself being raped as other service men pulled down his pants. He was frightened and humiliated and, perhaps worst of all, silenced. He was told to shut up or he might die. And that’s exactly what he did. For over 30 years he remained silent about  the crime.

After his rape, Michael felt like he had lost his identity as a “man.” It was absolutely devastating. He couldn’t protect himself and he was scared to death to even report the rape to his commander.  That single act destroyed essential parts of his life. Unable to cope with the emotional consequences of the rape, his past marriages suffered. He continued to blame himself for the rape and choose not to expose his pain of the trauma to anyone In fact, Michael just recently told Geri, his current wife of over 20 years, about the crime. He was afraid she would leave him and it was one of the scariest moments of his life when he told her. This would be the first time he would tell anyone-ever-of his rape. Geri was horrified, saddened and angry for Michael, and committed to supporting him as he speaks out. After 30 years of remaining silent, Michael felt he had to speak up about their sexual violence in order to move on with his healing.

Michael remembers what it felt like to release such painful and humiliating memories. Michael shared how he held back tears, “We sat together and sobbed. It felt like this great weight had been lifted off of me.” It wasn’t medication that cured him; it was the simple act of sharing his testimony with someone he loved and someone who cared about him that saved him.

After he exposed the truth to Geri, Michael was able to move forward in his healing. He now has become a living example of what happens to men when they are raped, and how it’s possible move forward. Michael understood that what happened to him was in fact a crime, and it was something he no longer had to be ashamed of. Sometimes these stories don’t end with a happy ending, but luckily Michael’s decision to share his story has allowed him to become a role model for other survivors. And fortunately, Geri continues to support Michael in his healing process, one that has been painful and agonizing. Now Michael knows he is not alone, that Geri will be there to help him recover from the shame he had placed on himself for 30 years.

Michael’s powerful testimony of male rape violence, of which some male survivors have describe as the “stripping of their manhood,” turns into a story of forgiveness, peace, hope and most importantly love. The sad thing is, anyone-almost everyone-can be a victim, or a survivor, of rape. And because of the way we view masculinity in society, male rape survivors find it harder and more shameful to speak up because they will be viewed as “weak”. Since men are assigned the role of “protector,” rape assaults a fundamental sense of personal identity and sense of place. Despite the inherently violent nature of the crime, male survivors view society as unsympathetic, or, worse, told to “man up.”

Men are held to a different standard than women, a standard that can be harder to voice and continues to hold them silent in their trauma. They are not just ashamed of their rape, they are expected to know how to protect themselves. If they can’t, too many commanders blame the men by dismissing them as not being “man enough.”

As a society, we need to be more outspoken about male rape to allow male survivors to heal. We need to hear their voice so we can better understand what they need to move forward. Michael found peace in reclaiming his voice and I hope it serves as an inspiration for the thousands of other men to begin their own personal journey of recovery. I know Michael’s story is not unique, but he had the courage to share it with the world. The first step of healing is becoming aware.

MichaelMatthews

Peace, Chai and Koli

From the humble words of the Dali Lama, “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.” To heal from violence takes a lifelong commitment. It is a journey that involves many components from a sense of spirituality, to personal motivation, to a shift in the mindset of how we view the complexity of violence. I learned importance of  strength, and the necessity of peace, when I was living in Dharamshala, India two summers ago. During my stay I connected with survivors of violence who had been through horrific acts of violence, but refused to give up hope. It was their religious spirituality, their desire of human affection, and sense of compassion, that gave them the strength to move past the terror and reclaim their human dignity.

I was living around thousands Buddhist monks and refugees who had all fled the violence of Tibet-completely by foot-an almost 2,000 mile journey. As I sat in coffee shops, took treks in the Himalayans mountains, or simply sat peacefully and watched the prayer flags and “Free Tibet” banners fly with a sense of purpose, I found inspiration in their 50 year plus fight for freedom. As I listened to story, after story, none ever ended in the disbelief that freedom could not become a reality.

They now lived in India to be with the Dali Lama, a man known among the people as the Ocean of Wisdom. The Dali Lama is one of the greatest living spiritual leaders to the Buddhist religion. The Dali Lama was exiled from Tibet in 1959, and he fled the violence to India, still currently his place of residence. And thousands of Buddhists continue to make the trek through the Himalayans to fight for their nation’s freedom, and to be with their guru. The Dali Lama is not just a religious figure to this people, he is a healer, a storyteller of wisdom, and a body of hope for the people Tibet. The hope that one day their country will be free, and they will be reunited with their families.

Hidden in the mountains, was the quaint town of Dharmshala. The body and soul of the Tibetan refuge community. I grew close to one particular monk named Koli. He had fled the violence from Burma and had come to India to learn English. He stayed in Mumbai during the winter months, and came to Dharamshala during the summer months to cool off and learn English. Koli looked like your typical orange robe, bald, yoga shaped-monk. As I began to form a relationship with him, I became inspired by his personal story of seeking justice, truth and freedom in his every day life.

It was his kind smile and wisdom that kept me asking questions, wanting to learn and discover more. He had shared with me parts of his past that were painful to voice, but he knew I wanted to listen. Hearing the horror from Koli’s personal story made me realize how many issues were still hidden by today’s media. If even I was oblivious to this state of affairs in Burma, affecting millions, how many other people were simply unaware? I had to dig deeper.

I wanted to learn more and he wanted to teach me so as I continued to teach him English, he continued to tell me more about his country. At one point, I remember him holding back tears, and all I could think of was that this is the happiest man I had ever met. He left his family behind and moved forward in reclaiming his life as a monk, a teacher, and also a healer. He still had not given up hope that one day the war and violence would be over.  That one day he would be back in his family’s arms. (That is, if his family was still alive.)  It was through his sense of peace that be continued to push himself and ultimately the Tibetan people-in the fight for justice.

The life of a monk is one of peace and humbleness, but we must not forget they human. They still have memories and flashbacks of their terror, as they are not immune to the pain. Most importantly, through peace and compassion, they strive to become better people. They taught me peace in a way that was extremely important for my own personal healing, and I can truly say, Koli peacefully captured my heart, showing me what it meant to be human. He showed me that for some violence is apart of life, but we must never forget to move forward in our journey of living. It is how we choose to view our own struggles and lead a hand for others to move move forward. I hope in the near future I can share another moment with Koli. To laugh and cry, once again, over a cup of chai. And sit together, listening to the sounds of the silence of the mountains, and feel completely human.

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Jane

Meet Jane.

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A strong, hardworking, and humble woman that lives in a rural village outside of the capital of Uganda, Jane left her abusive husband because she was given a special opportunity: ownership of a cow.  A cow has a lot of worth in Ugandan culture, economically and socially. And because of this animal, Jane was given a chance to become an independent farmer and an empowered woman. She was given the economic power raise her family on her own without the constant, daily threat of domestic violence. Now that has land and animals to tend, she can decide what to do with the money she makes for her family.

Things continue to change for the status of women in Uganda as they are given opportunities to own animals and property, proving in their small community that they can become part of the workforce and become more than just a woman.  But it’s not only the women that benefit the boys, the future men of Uganda share in the empower. Jane sits down with her son and together they decided where the money should be spent each week. With the help of her son, and one other worker, they work all of the labor on the farm.

In a week she will make about $4 for her vegetables. With the help of a cow, even more money can be made. She relies on her son to take care of selling to the market, while she tends to the land and animals. In Ugandan culture women get married, birth children, and men sell in the produce in the market. Now that women are having the ability to prove themselves, however, this traditional social outlook is changing.

Victoria, who helped fund the cow, identified Jane as a hard working woman and saw a lot of potential in her to succeed. A lot of women who are stuck in abusive relationships turn to prostitution to support their children, as their home life becomes intolerable, forcing them to leave and seek income, even it it means selling their body. At the end of the day, they need to put food down on the table for their family.

Victoria is trying to un-do this harmful cycle. Not only are families like Jane’s at risk in this cycle, the local economy is at risk. Victoria realizes that if Jane and the other women of Uganda can produce money for their families in a more productive and healthful manner, their lives will change, their families will strengthen, and their communities will prosper. Thus, if a very practical way, Victoria understands the importance of more women being empowered to take over the finances of their family and the value a cow can bring.

Victoria is trying to help empower women in the local community using ideas that don’t require a lot of education. Many of these women have not had the opportunity to go to school, but she does not see it as a set-back, but information for identifying the most effective strategies. Jane may not have had the opportunity or resources to learn to read or write, but she had the ability and motivation to learn.

Running a business, even a small farm, requires knowing the basics of record keeping, math and basic reading and writing, and Victoria is willing to teach them. So, in order to get a cow, Jane had to prove she was ready by being trained in cropping. While education is part of the process to the path of empowerment, it’s only one component. Motivation and drive are also essential, and Victoria’s program combines them all to empower women and strengthen local economies.

Jane’s next big dream? Owning land. Her small plot will cost her about $17,000 and she realizes that saving money is the first step to buying land. She hopes one day she can be given the freedom from the government to purchase land in her name.

Victoria believed in Jane and her potential, and there are countless other women whose lives can be empowered through the simple, but honorable, gift of a cow.  Jane is not just an inspiration, she is a prime example that violence does not have to occur when given the tools to become entrepreneurs. And without Victoria’s belief in her to succeed, Jane would still be in her abusive relationship. The time is now to be known more than just a woman.

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