December is Human Rights Month. It’s a time for us to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, and to do our part to reaffirm the dignity and worth of every human being by standing up for human rights.
Recent events have brought the importance of protecting human rights into clearer focus for me than ever before.
One of the events that got me thinking more about human rights was the death of Fidel Castro. I’m a Cuban American who was born in Castro’s Cuba. My son has been working on a school project about Cuba for his Spanish class. As part of his assignment, he has been interviewing people whose life was impacted by Castro’s rise to power. On Black Friday, he spent over an hour “Skyping” with my older brother, the only living member of my family that lived in pre-Castro Cuba. The next morning we woke to the news that Castro was dead.
The conversation with my brother was wide-ranging, and I learned things I didn’t know about the revolution and its impact on my family. What wasn’t new was the pervasive sense that my family left Cuba at some peril. Not only did my family leave everything that they had worked to build over many years behind, but in doing so, they entrusted their future to strangers. My parents’ greatest fear was that their children would be taken away and forced to work the sugar harvest and, in the process, brainwashed by the revolution.
Flight attendants carried me and my infant brother to family who had left before us and would take care of us until my parents were able to leave. A generous country – the United States – welcomed all of us and gave us hope and a future. We were fortunate to be born at a time when we were able to come to this country and be afforded great opportunities. And I am grateful for that every day.
It also makes watching the images of what is happening elsewhere in the world – places such as Syria, China, Russia, Kenya and Pakistan – stark reminders that the freedoms that we enjoy are not universal. Most importantly, it makes the tone of current conversations about immigration dissonant and difficult to reconcile with my own experiences.
Many of the children in the Portland Public Schools, Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, come to us fleeing oppression or worse. Regardless of where they come from – regions such as Central Africa or the Middle East or from former Russian republics – the themes in their stories are universal. They come to us hoping for the same opportunities my family enjoyed. They and their families want to be able to go to school, work hard, make their way and, in time, give back to this amazing country.
Last month, I visited the Casco Bay High School Senior Exhibition “Pop-up Museum” on Heroes of the Middle East. Our CBHS students researched the stories of scores of men and women who have fought for human rights in that region, often at a great price. Through their research, our students learned how the hope for human dignity lives on even in the most inhospitable settings. Walking through the exhibits, I was proud of the depth of understanding their work displayed. I was most proud of the affirmation and commitment to understanding those experiences that was evident in their work.
And, above all, I am proud to lead a school district where I am confident that our schools are, and will continue to be, welcoming and supportive places for those seeking the rights expressed by the United Nations resolution that we commemorate this month. I can only hope that our country will continue to be that kind of place as well.
Xavier Botana is superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.