It seems like every other week at IBJ we have a "gathering"—our CEO Karen's word for an office lunch—to welcome someone new into the office. At our most recent gathering, we were introduced to a man named Charles, from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He first started working with IBJ as a JusticeMaker Fellow. JusticeMakers are individuals who pitch to IBJ their innovative solutions to change a particular problem in their home countries, and IBJ selects a handful of them to serve as fellows with grants to implement their projects.
Charles was selected as a JusticeMaker several years ago, and it is easy to tell why. He is gentle and quiet, but he speaks up when he has something important to say. He has a humble air about him despite the fact that he has moved mountains in the DRC. His work there led to IBJ opening multiple country offices. Charles came to our office this week because he is leaving IBJ to work in a different country.
Charles addressed us in French, so some of my coworkers translated his words for the rest of us. He started off by asking us each to answer one question: What is something significant from your previous life that connects to your work for IBJ? He answered the question for us first.
Growing up in war-torn DRC, as he called it, he recounted seeing death and destruction everywhere, stepping over dead bodies to get to school in the morning. He explained how he has seen his country struggle but also change throughout his lifetime. The problems the DRC faces are not abstract to him—they are daily realities. Yet, when he spoke about his country, he was not jaded or cynical or hopeless. Charles spoke with honesty about his country, but it was clear he was overflowing with love for it. In fact, he has dedicated his life to improving its criminal justice system.
Listening to Charles speak, it was apparent that his worries about leaving the DRC weighed heavily upon his heart. He couldn't go more than a minute talking about his own personal and professional journey before interrupting himself to bring up a problem he wanted to be sure IBJ was aware of before he left. He was in the middle of a thought when he launched into one such story about a woman, whom IBJ has helped in the past, who is now traveling regularly to the women's prison and bargaining with prison officials to sell young female prisoners for sex in exchange for more rations for them and for money for herself. Charles was, rightfully, conflicted about how to address this problem, and worry flashed clearly across his face as he described it. He couldn't leave IBJ without making sure someone from the organization was invested in its resolution.
Charles told a second story that clearly troubled him. (A brief warning about this story: It involves violence.) He explained that there was a man in prison who was supposed to be released, but the prison officials refused to issue the order allowing him to leave freely. The man waited and waited, but still, he was kept in prison despite the fact that he was supposed to be released. Finally, unable to wait any longer, the man seized an opportunity when the prison gates were open to leave without an order from the prison. He ran out of the gates, and the guards seized this as an opportunity to shoot him repeatedly, starting at his feet and working their way up his body until it was riddled with bullets. The man died. Charles asked us: Is this murder or is this torture?
Hearing this story, I was reminded of the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, when Tom Robinson, upon hearing that he had been wrongfully convicted of rape and giving up hope that he could be freed on appeal, decides to escape from prison and the guards shoot him repeatedly as he runs toward the fence. The story Charles told us was not fictional.
I wondered: How could Charles continue to do this work when it is so tragic and so blatantly unfair? He showed me his answer in the way he told these stories and in how fervently he wanted something to be done about them—the way he loved his country despite its flaws. Charles taught me that when you love something, you can never abandon it. He taught me through his stories that if you love something, it might not always love you back, but that doesn't mean you can give up on it. Charles's love of country motivated him to stick with the DRC even when it was difficult to do so. I will never forget Charles or the lessons I learned from him.