There were activities organized throughout the week, starting on Tuesday, June 23, and all the way to Sunday, June 28. The major event was the 24-hour vigil on Saturday, starting at 7 a.m. and ending the next day at 7 a.m. There was also a time to meet representatives from the Congress and panel discussions during the week. Since I arrived late to the Survivor Week, I was only able to attend the panel discussions that were held on Friday and the vigil on Saturday. Sunday was a resting day where we ended up mingling, talking, discussing and reflecting about the week, and just hanging out.
I ask myself why I want to write this reflection. Well, something special happened that week, something major that stirred me up inside. Needless to say, whatever it was that I experienced has pushed me to put my thoughts now into writing because I want to remember them.
From the moment I arrived that Thursday night, I knew I entered something that was somewhat familiar. Not only that, it also felt friendly, warm, and safe. I felt welcomed from the moment I arrived in the dorm where I supposed to stay with other members and friends of TASSC. The dorm belongs to the Catholic University. It was a very simple dorm, somewhat neglected I thought by the university. The conditions were too simplistic in certain rooms. The weirdest part, however, is that I didn’t hear anyone complaining about the poor condition of the dorm.
Some of the torture survivors greeted me right away, asked me the most common question, which was what my name is, and the second most common question, where do I come from. I particularly appreciate the latter question because my ethnic background was not assumed. On the contrary, I have had so many people who I met in the past or strangers I saw on the street who would normally assume my nationality or where I came from rather than ask me the question.
I remember one teenage girl said hello to me. She was sitting in the hallway and I was entering the hallway with my suitcase. She right away entered into a conversation with me, asking me some questions. I got to like her right away. She is only 14 years old and was there to accompany her mother, who is a torture survivor. She continued with her chatter, telling me about herself, her country, and so on. I was taken aback a little bit at first, fascinating by her frankness and directness. I appreciated it, of course, but at the same time I remember thinking that I haven’t encountered something like this in any other group settings in a long time. We clicked right away at that moment. I was and still am fascinated by this fact because I don’t think I have ever thought of considering a person so young to be my friend. But she presented me with an alternative view of a teenage girl. I thought she was really more mature than her age, more than any other American kids of the same age. Perhaps it has something to do with her background and what she and her family have been through that makes her so mature for her age.
I know it was going to be a unique experience for the whole weekend when they couldn’t get me my room for my first night. Long story, but needless to say, I kind of kicked out the Director of TASSC from his own room in order for me to lay my tired body down that night on a hard mattress. Of course, I was not literally kicking him out. More like him pushing me to use the room because he couldn’t find the people who were in charge of holding the key to my room and moving his stuff to another room for the night, and me, of course, left feeling guilty. Mind you, it was a tremendous amount of guilt; fortunately, it didn’t last long. I quickly enjoyed the night alone after an exhausting trip. Not bad, actually. I needed the sleep for a few exciting days ahead of me.
On Friday, the 25th, we had a series of four panel discussions. The day started with a breakfast where I met more new people. Again, everyone was very nice, open and welcoming. I felt at ease again right away. Many of them asked me again the two most common questions and other additional questions, but those questions for some reason did not seem inquisitive. It was more out of genuine care and wanting to get to know me better.
The panel discussions were intense. I heard many personal accounts of torture from the torture survivors directly. Some told the stories of torture, kidnapping, and disappearances of people close to them or their loved ones. All of them are heart-breaking stories. I was repulsed by the knowledge of so many ugliness and evil things done to people by other human beings. I felt enraged, infuriated and sad at the same time sitting there and listening to the stories, but I also knew that I was witnessing to something important. I knew that I was needed by the community to stay there because they need witnesses of people like me; witnesses that can continue to support the community in their fight for justice and to spread their stories of suffering and healing and the message of torture abolishment. I could feel my shoulders hardening as the day progressed. After all, those are not stories everyday stories that people normally share to each other during dinner. But is it not? Perhaps not by the majority of people, but perhaps there are some who would talk about these stories during dinner time, lunch time, or any other type of gathering.
The next day, Saturday the 26th, was the day of the 24-hour vigil. We all woke up early, some earlier than others, to get to the Lafayette Park by 7 a.m. Lafayette Park is located right in front of the White House, and we took the metro train to get there. The plan was to be there by 7 a.m., but the majority of us couldn’t get there until 8 a.m. due to a minor inconvenience with the metro schedule. The 24-hour vigil started with a prayer, then a candle ceremony where we presented a candle for each country where the practice of torture is still happening. The rest of the day was filled with more stories, personal account of torture by survivors and their families, singing, speeches from various human rights organizations, faith based organizations, church representatives, and individuals who are friends of TASSC. We also marched to the front of the White House, chanting slogans and carrying signs with the message of ending torture. A peaceful demonstration was also planned ahead of time; some of the friends of TASSC have volunteered in advance to be arrested in front of the White House to send a clear and strong message to the government and the public about TASSC and its fight for justice. I participated in the march and watched the arrest from the side, capturing the moment as much as I could with my camera/video recording. It was excited, exhilarating. Everything was so new to me, and I drank every single drop of the experience.
I was so touched by the whole new experience that I needed time to process everything; and in a way, I’m still processing it until now. I started writing this reflection the day I got back to Chicago, but never finished it. Seems like I left it open for a reason, because I’m still continuing it until now. Here I am exactly two months later and I’m still reflecting.
We have since had two more meetings of the TASSC chapter in Chicago, and our last one was just two days ago where I had a chance to process it again with other TASSC members. I think I know why I’m still processing it. In addition to being touched by the whole experience, I also came out of it changed. See, what happens is that I have been influenced by the TASSC members and friends. They didn’t influence me deliberately, at least that is how I perceive it, but it’s done through their generosity, humility, humanity, a sense of social justice, persistency and resiliency. I’m still processing June 26th because I keep asking myself until now how have I been changed by it and what can I continue to do from my end. A part of me knew that I can never go back to my old self again. This is what knowledge can do to a person; it changes him or her and what comes afterwards is responsibility.