Monday, January 19, 2009

Peace Building Goes to School

As we pass shacks perched on stilts, no windowpanes or doors, I try to imagine a student climbing the rough-hewn stairs after a day at the nearby high school.

The road heaves our van left and right as we slowly negotiate the uneven road surface. We are heading to a school in the hills outside of Quibdo, in the department of Choco, Colombia to visit a unique peace-building program called CyberBridges.

I’m accompanied on this visit by Jim Stipe, CRS staff photographer, Matthew Bristow, translator and Rigoberto Patiño from the CRS Colombia office in Bogotá.

Choco has the second highest illiteracy rate in Colombia. This school was started in 2002 with funding from USAID to answer a desperate need.

The school educates about 1,000 children between the ages of 14-18,
98% of whom are Afro-Colombian displaced persons or desplazados.*

As we clear the top of the ridge, several large cinder block buildings can be seen scattered across a sun drenched, hilly campus connected by covered concrete pathways. The buildings are designed with open fretwork walls to take advantage of any breeze.

Groups of children are milling about, while others can be seen in their classrooms. As we climb out of the van, curious children and young adults surround us. They smile, but are shy and maintain a polite distance.

Rigoberto greets them in Spanish saying a magic word—CyberBridges. A young woman launches into a welcome speech delivered in English with great pride. She then asks us to follow her on a tour of the CyberBridges classroom.

We cross the campus, now buzzing with the news of visiting strangers. I hear voices exclaiming ¿de dónde son?”. They wonder from where we have come.

Our guide leads us across the campus to a building with locked classrooms. We peer inside and see a dismaying sight—computers piled on top of each other, some gutted, hard-drives, fans and logic boards hanging by loose wires. Is this the CyberBridges classroom?

As if reading my mind, our tour-guide explains, “This is the computer repair workshop, students take classes here on how to fix PCs, next we’ll see the CyberBridges classroom”.

She beams as the door is unlocked, students file in, computers whir to life, and monitors flicker. These kids, from a town nestled in the South America jungle, have made a jump into the 21st century; this looks like a modern classroom. They are surfing the web, making contact with a group of students in New Haven, Connecticut. The program is in partnership with the diocese of Hartford, and is part of an effort to connect youth from very different cultures.

The value here is the connection and understanding this instant communication brings. Pictures are exchanged, e-mails answered, discussions begun and completed across thousands of miles and a continent away.

How do the students feel about this program? “It’s special because only a select group is chosen; we have to work hard to get into this program” says one young girl, “Plus, the people we meet online are becoming our friends.”

As we are leaving, the principal of the school introduces himself and tells us the program has meant a great deal to the students. He is proud the school can offer CyberBridges in its curriculum. “The students in this program are leaders in our school,” he says as he shakes our hands.

I manage to say, “gracias, con mucho gusto, adiós”, (thanks, with much pleasure, goodbye) not anywhere near the words I am thinking or feeling.

We walk to the van and are accompanied by a large group of good-natured kids. They willingly go along with some requests for final photos and videotape shots, they shout over and over again in English, “We love CyberBridges!”

*Desplazados is Spanish for displaced persons, refugees of armed conflicts involving left-wing guerillas, right-wing paramilitaries, drug cartels and the state that have wracked Colombia for the past 40 years.

© Copyright 2009 Guy Arceneaux All rights reserved

No comments: