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bruce harris picinterview with bruce harris

Bruce Harris is the Executive Director of Covenant House Central America, and the leading advocate for street children in the region

Q Can you give me a sense of what you hope this event achieves?
BH To have so many human rights defenders together is a catalystic process. We want to bring about change to the world. This is a forum where hopefully we can get more people involved in bringing about fundamental changes. We need to look at it simply. We shouldn't be willing to accept any level of human rights different from how we want our own children to live. Do we want our children to suffer? To be hungry? Of course not. So why are we willing to latantly accept that, even if we're talking about children on the other side of the world?

Q America is nominally in a time of prosperity and peace. How do we reach out and touch Americans, and make them aware of what you see everyday?
BH It's very comfortable not to see what is going on the other side of the world. It's too easy to think that it's so far away you can't do anything about it, when in fact the world is so interconnected. We don't have to go outside America to look for poverty of children either. Twenty-five percent of children in the United States live in poverty. So if everyone says, "Charity begins at home," I have no problem with that. Let's begin with poor children in America. But America also needs to understand that a country cannot survive in isolation anymore. And no matter how tall you build the walls around the border, and how big a dike you build between here and Mexico, if there's not more equity, more social justice in the world, people will come. And people from Latin America, for example, don't come to the United States because they want to come to the United States. They are looking in desperation for a means of survival.

Q How did you meet Kerry Kennedy Cuomo?
BH I met Kerry in Guatemala at the beginning of the 1990s when the first real struggles to protect children's rights in Guatemala started. It started around the killing of thirteen-year-old Nahaman, a street boy in Guatemala City who was literally kicked to death by four uniformed policemen. It affected me greatly. I'd never seen a dead child before, and there was an incredible indifference of society towards the death of this child. When we started raising our voices, the police chief in Guatemala City said, "You are making too much fuss about just one child." I figured something was not right. We took a road that, had we known then the problems we were going to encounter on the way, we may well have decided that there's not a lot we can do. But when you're faced with a particular situation, you have to react. I never set out to be a human right's defender. It's not a career path that people take. It's just something that happens along the way. You're faced with situations and you're forced into dealing with them. If we're talking about heroes, we should be talking about Nahaman.

Q Tell us a little about the young man who accompanied you on this trip.
BH Jonathan is fifteen years old, a great kid. He's overwhelmed about coming to America. He's only seen America on the big movie screen. It's such a contrast. He's come from the bottom of the pile in Guatemala. He was living on the street. He was affected by the exploitation, the abuse. He was sniffing glue as a way to suppress his feelings of cold, of loneliness. But he's shown a tremendous resilience to bounce back. And while there is a lot of tragedy on the streets of Latin America, there is also a lot of hope. Jonathan, like all the kids, reflect that hope—that desire to be connected, to belong to a family, to a support group. He now has the luxury to dream and to go to school.

Q When you told him you were going to make this trip, what was his reaction?
BH Oh, he was really excited. It's like letting a child loose in a candy store. He asked twice to see if it was true.

Q He thought you were joking?
BH He felt we were joking.

Q Does he have one wish, a request to see anything or do anything specific?
BH Last night we went to the White House, and we were standing outside in the dark looking through the fence. He couldn't believe that this was the White House. He had heard about the White House and it was neat just to step back and watch him watch. Like any child of fifteen, he dreams, and he looks and he learns. Street kids are no different than our own children. As people we should not be willing to accept anything less for any child, than we would be willing to accept for our own kids.

Q You mentioned that you went to the White House last night and you will have an opportunity to meet the President. What would you want to convey, even in that short moment, to the President of the United States?
BH I don't think any leader should tolerate so many people, especially children, who are suffering. Any leader should use all the power that is available to him or her to stop that suffering.


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