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I watched a video on Instagram earlier this week. It featured an 8-year old kid in Colombia named Ángel. As one of four children, and with limited resources, Ángel’s mother was never able to have a birthday party for him. Ángel’s teacher found out, and decided to surprise him with a birthday party. He stood at the entrance of the classroom confused, then in disbelief, as the choir of classmates sang “Happy Birthday” to him against a backdrop with an arch of yellow, blue, red, and white balloons, along with a couple wrapped gifts. As the song progressed, he sought to contain the fountain of tears with his hands. His classmates embraced him with the same intensity as children hug plush toys, pets, and humans. Unconditional hugs.
My eyes also became a fountain of tears.
I wept not because I was moved by this child making a joyful core memory courtesy of his teacher and peers, but because my first thought was “we’ve failed him.” In my native Colombia, children are publicly revered, but often mistreated. They become roadkill for corrupt politicians who will happily feed them donkey and horse meat in schools while invoicing the federal government as if they were serving them wagyu beef.
The civil war in my country deprived tens of thousands of children their parents, their homes, and their lives. Guerrillas and paramilitary militias recruited children, often forcefully, into their ranks. Toy guns were replaced by AK-47s, a fugitive life in the jungle, and a hopeless future fighting a futile war. The ripples of violence created a malaise of insecurity, and insecurity makes for unstable economies–less opportunities. So children had to work too; out on the street selling bracelets not too different from those Taylor Swift fans wear, or dealing Trident gum and Malboros in exchange for enough pesos to keep themselves fed. My proximity to the Colombian conflict was akin to having ok-but-not-great seats at a concert. This is the one show where you don’t want to be close to the band. I was able to grow up as a relatively normal kid in these abnormal circumstances, while 50 miles away many children with the same hair, eyes, and name did not enjoy the same fate. Even as a child, I knew I had it good, and dwelled in the injustice that I couldn’t do anything for them.
Children being everything but children.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the children in Gaza. The children in Israel. The children stranded at the U.S southern border. The children floating in rackety boats on the postcard shores of European coasts. The children in Afghanistan we abandoned. The children in Syria we’ve forgotten. The children in my city who are now hungrier because the U.S government doesn’t have money for a can of beans, but always for ballistic missiles. And if the U.S government is a representative democracy, then my tax dollars are being burned for rocket fuel and explosives. I’m not naive enough to think the U.S can just disarm and then all the people who hate us will go “don’t worry, we won’t hurt you.” But I do wonder whether this vicious cycle can end. In the meantime, it’s always the children who get caught in the middle of these power games. We are a month into the latest eruption of the Israel/Palestine conflict and children remain kidnapped. Children have been displaced. Children have been obliterated. And I feel impotence.
As I was writing this, I realized that this feeling of helplessness was a sedative; if you can’t do much, then do nothing at all. If I can’t go into the depths of the mountainous emerald labyrinths in Colombia where child soldiers sleep on plastic tarps under a blanket of wetness, what’s the point of donating, or praying? Cynicism is very good at logically edging its way onto your heart and calling the shots from there. The only way I’ve been able to not be consumed by cynicism over the last month is by looking into my nephew’s eyes.
My nephew Enzo is at that age where he is speaking in tongues and making sounds that I think are syllables. He says “Oh, no!” a lot, and points forward as if he is leading an army of toddlers against the British Empire. I think a lot about the world he is going to grow up in. Will there be nation states? Will his own children be in harm’s way? Will he be able to enjoy all of earth’s terrains, or is he going to be part of the generation that sees it all melt away?
I think about what I need to teach him in every interaction–every moment counts. My Instagram now is a mix of soccer highlights, stand-up comedy bits, and parenting tips. My mind is building a parenting encyclopedia that I’m testing with him. Yet, I laugh at the idea of having a parenting encyclopedia with everything figured out, because I can hear the laughter from parents after they read “parenting encyclopedia.” Everyone thinks they prepared enough to parent until the first cry.
I want to be present as much as I can. I want to be patient and curious with him. To ease his suffering and teach him virtue. To give him moments of joy, and help him when life delivers painful lessons.
Because while that’s not all I can do for children, it is the first thing I must do.
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