This week’s guest blogger is humanitarian workerBruna Kadletz. Bruna Kadletz is a sacred activist, public speaker, and writer. She is passionate about caring for the soul of the world and the soul of humanity by bringing together spiritual awareness and humanitarian work. Bruna designed and co-founded Circles of Hospitality, an organisation which develops social, cultural and educational initiatives for refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable immigrants in Florianópolis, Brazil. Bruna Kadletz is an Associate Fellow of St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace.
Cultivating hope in suffocating atmospheres, I remember the first time I entered a favela in Brazil. Unpaved narrow streets lift the veil to a parallel dimension where sewage runs openly, litter accumulates in piles next to wooden shacks and children play half-naked in the dirt. Most of the favelas are inhabitable and unsanitary, yet they’re the only dimension people come to know. I observed the scene with mixed feelings. In Brazil, we grow up learning that favelas are dangerous places with dangerous brown and black people. We are indoctrinated to conform and believe this is the way society is – us versus them. Thus, we segregate ourselves to protect ‘us’ from ‘them’ and turn away from social issues, as if a new way of being and relating to them wasn’t possible. We grow to believe that brown and black bodies are not only a threat but also disposable. Until the day one wakes up to face inner conditionings, question structural racism, and challenge institutionalised social injustices forced onto the other.
Many years later, I visited shantytowns in South Africa and then the refugee camps in the Middle East and on the edges of Europe. The settlements resembled the favelas in my hometown. People living in shantytowns and camps were also abandoned, excluded and yet had much to offer and teach. The feelings were similar to my visits to favelas as well – they carried a suffocating atmosphere.
I have come to understand that the smell of open sewage blended with injustice is suffocating. In my work, I have encountered many suffocating circumstances. Living in a remote area in one of the poorest states in Brazil and visiting an informal refugee camp in a transit zone in Serbia without sanitary conditions, witnessing a fourteen-year-old Syrian girl getting engaged to a much older man against her will and coordinating an operation to support regularly over a thousand refugees and migrants adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In navigating such places, I’m always left with a few questions – why do we close our eyes to parallel dimensions where people live in places of poverty amplified by social and political forgetfulness? Why are people seeking protection and new beginnings met with hostile politics? Why do societies still consider the presence of refugees and migrants as threats and their bodies disposable? Why do we reduce the sacredness of human life to disposable bodies?
Hostile politics and the disposability mentality are situated in historical contexts in which certain groups of people are systematically dispossessed and deemed less than others. Skin colour, class and national identity, among other factors, play a crucial role in this complex hierarchical structure of human value. One cannot look at the complexities and nuances of global humanitarian crises and racial injustices within our societies without challenging the dehumanising narratives building collective perceptions of the other.
A report published in 2018 by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) – New Walled Order, stressed how barriers to access essential services imposed onto refugee populations around the world increase humanitarian crises and criminalise the very existence of refugees and vulnerable migrants. These political and legal barriers are based upon the narrative that refugees and vulnerable migrants are threats to national security, social order and cultural heritage. Hostile politics implement legal tools and technologies to not only prevent the movement of certain groups of people but also deliberately make their lives miserable. We cannot build dignified refugee policies without tackling the root of the problem – how political leaders, policymakers and societies perceive the other. Do they perceive refugees as problems and threats or as human beings entitled of rights and with the great capacity to learn, teach and contribute?
As ways to counter these narratives, I created a small project called Humanise Refugees, intending not to humanise refugees, as they’re already humans, but rather to offer humanising narratives, and promote stories in which we celebrate the resilience, potential and talents within refugee communities. Humanise Refugees’ ethos recognises the intrinsic worth and sacredness of refugees’ lives.
One of the project’s activities includes the screening of the filmic meditation, My Land Lives in Me, directed by Alan Gilsenan and produced by Yellow Asylum Productions in association with the Tony Ryan Trust. The film takes the viewer from the edge of displacement in the Amazon basin to the alleys of refugee camps in Lebanon and Palestine, and to the heart of how we care for others and our quest to find home in a changing world. Through the screening of My Land Lives in Me and online gatherings, we encourage people to witness the living realities of the other, of displaced communities, reflect upon inner and outer responses, and act from a place of care and compassion.
In some of these sessions, participants share the film and stories move them, but at the same time feel a sense of sadness, hopelessness and grief because the wheel of human suffering and humanitarian crises seem endless and unbreakable. Instead of relating to crises and acting, they end up turning away. Since I’ve done the same, I understand how they feel. These feelings can be suffocating as well, as they take the air away from us, placing us in a cycle of anger, frustration, sadness and hopelessness. Many ask where I find hope to engage in humanitarian and social projects, and what is the point in acting when people in power continue to prioritise economic and political interests in detriment of human (and non-human) lives and, therefore, nothing changes.
I understand there might be an inclination to feel uncomfortable, discouraged and hopeless when we sit to watch the news or documentaries which portray famine, social and ecological injustices, war refugees, and human rights violations. It is like fighting a losing battle, no matter what we do, the issue grows beyond our capacity to respond. It feels like confronting an unseen sticky monster who sucks our life energy and leaves us burnt-out.
On the other hand, in my experience, hope is born in the heart and not in outer events. Yes, many stories spark hope or hopelessness in us, but the fuel to sustain hope must come from within. Mysterious alchemy takes place when we hold a space in the heart for witnessing and allow ourselves to grieve for humanity and the state of our world; when we connect with simple human values, such as care and love for others and the planet. Then, it’s not about changing the world in our terms; it’s about trust, surrender and sowing seeds regardless of results.
There’s an ancient Greek proverb which reflects this lesson, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” The Native American nation’s Seventh Generation Principle echoes this same wisdom. The philosophy says, “Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.”
Cultivating hope in suffocating times goes beyond passive wishful thinking. Cultivating hope is a mature and humble practice that elevates our vision of the world to consider the welfare of the whole people and include future generations. In sowing now, we’re planting the seeds of a future we might never be able to witness, taste and enjoy. It’s a practice of offering our service to the whole, to the unknown, to the unborn children of the Earth.
And how do we integrate this wisdom and practice in our work? I have learned that when I feel suffocated, it’s time to pause and inhale deeper, to witness my inner responses as I watch and interact with the suffering in and around me. In as much as we must challenge and disrupt narratives that produce and sustain humanitarian crises, hostile responses, social injustices and suffocating atmospheres, we must also create space for inner alchemy and infuse our actions and attitudes with care and love. I have come to recognise the power of kneeling to the inner voice whispering in my ears – keep sowing seeds of care and love, regardless of anything.