I remember when I first read about Milosevic’s foray into Kosovo. I had graduated from law school less than a year earlier and was clerking for a judge here in Minnesota. “Not again,” I thought to myself. That was about as much thought as I gave Kosovo for a long time. While I would periodically read an article or watch a TV news segment about what was happening in Kosovo, I kept my interest to a minimum. After all, it was so far away and it wasn’t my problem. I had other things to think about, like getting a job after my clerkship ended, in particular, a job as a public defender.
Defending people’s Constitutional rights had been something I had wanted to do ever since taking an undergraduate Criminal Procedure class. Despite my efforts and much to my chagrin, I did not get a job as a public defender. With my clerkship at an end and no job in sight, I relented and began working at a medium-size litigation defense firm in downtown Minneapolis. This firm was new and progressive and did not have that pretentious and hierarchical feel that is all too common in so many law firms. Nonetheless, it was still a private defense firm and the Constitutional rights defender in me yearned for something more rewarding, more meaningful. I soon began volunteering to fulfill that yearning. I worked with at-risk high school students and homeless youth for about a year. Then, in January 2000, I found myself teaching human rights to sixth graders one morning a month through a program at Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights called Partners in Human Rights Education (PIHRE). During each lesson the kids and I learned together as we examined the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It was a fascinating experience and my first real introduction into the world of international human rights. I was particularly intrigued to learn that the U.S. Constitution was one of the documents that heavily influenced the UDHR.
A friend of mine was also teaching in the PIHRE program during the same time. Less than a year later he accepted a job in Kosovo as Director of an American NGO. Upon hearing this, I decided to explore the idea of international human rights by studying the Kosovo conflict in light of my new human rights knowledge. I learned about Kosovo’s history and the escalation of the conflict leading to the 1999 bombing campaign. I read in detail about the “ethnic cleansing”—killings, rapes, people being driven from their homes and their homeland. In short, I studied the horrific and systematic human rights violations. Soon my desire to defend the Constitutional rights of Americans had grown into a desire to defend the basic human rights of people everywhere. I had opened my eyes to the rest of the world and was inspired to do something to help people thousands of miles away whom I had never met and had before never really thought about before.
By early 2001 I had applied for and received a Fellowship through the Minnesota Human Rights Center’s Upper Midwest Fellowship Program to work for an international NGO in Prishtina, Kosova. The NGO I worked for is Partners for Democratic Change (Partners). Partners opened a conflict management center in Prishtina in May, 2001. I quit my law firm job and moved to Kosovo the first week of May and spent the next three months helping Partners to establish Partners-Kosovo, a mediation center in Prishtina.
During my fellowship at Partners-Kosova, I did everything from make travel arrangements to strategize about how best to implement mediation trainings and other special programs. I also organized and participated in mediation trainings and planning and design meetings with other NGOs regarding ways the two organizations could collaborate on existing and future programs. One of the most educational projects I worked on was preparing for and participating in a five-day training seminar at the Partners center in Sophia, Bulgaria. There, two Partners-Kosova staff members and I learned a great deal about the inner workings of a mediation center and discussed various methods to incorporate what we had learned into the day to day workings of Partners-Kosova.
The most rewarding aspect of my fellowship was making lasting friendships with the Kosovars who managed and ran the mediation center. My new friends were the same nameless people I had read about nearly three years earlier; people who had seen their loved ones murdered, people who had been forced from their homes, people whose lives had been shattered. And they taught me, simply by offering their friendship and accepting mine in return, that my initial belief that problems like those in Kosovo and those that cripple other nations and regions are not my problems is false. It made me feel better to believe that it was true; to disown any responsibility for people I could not see or hear. But it was a lie.
I learned that if I can help solve a problem by giving even a little of my energy to it, even just the smallest thought or act, it is my problem too. And if I can affect a problem with my energy, no matter how slight, then I know also that even problems of people thousands and thousands of miles away affect me, affect all of us. It touches all of us when a woman in Burma is raped or a woman in Moldova is sold into sexual slavery, or a young boy in Sudan is kidnapped and forced to kill in a hideous war, or when a man is put to death by the United States government. We are all affected; we all suffer an injury. To defend the human rights of others is to defend our own rights. The sooner we understand this, the sooner we will all have the rights that we deserve.