Two dozen boys and girls gathered with family members in IJM’s office in Guatemala on August 12. They had come on foot and by bus from all across the city and its surrounding neighborhoods, most dressed in clothes they usually reserve for church on Sunday.
The little ones waited quietly, knowing an important event was about to begin. Some fidgeted. Some looked with interest at the small group of American visitors— including IJM President Gary Haugen and Vice President of Government Relations Holly Burkhalter—who had come to witness the momentous “Hero Ceremony.”
Honoring Brave Survivors Who Chose to Speak Up
The 24 children were there to receive pins that say “soy un heroe” (“I am a hero”). Each one is a survivor of sexual violence, and has testified in court in recent months. They have boldly shared the truth about sexual assault they suffered from neighbors, step-fathers and other men who abused relationships of trust and authority.
Two of the little girls are just 7 years old, one raped by her mother’s boyfriend, the other by her step-father. One 12-year-old girl met the IJM team earlier this year and recently gave birth to a baby, born as a result of abuse. She was raped by multiple men, and IJM lawyers are still working to identify the father of her child.
During the ceremony to honor these girls and boys, IJM President Gary Haugen—in the country this week with a group of U.S. staff and supporters—addressed the brave survivors: “We came to Guatemala to have many very important meetings, but there’s one meeting that’s most important of all the meetings and that we’ve looked forward to most. And that is this meeting today when we get to meet you.”
Gary went on to explain the significance of the pin each child would receive. “At the bottom of your pin it says ‘I am a hero,’ and you are heroes to us for two reasons. One: You are brave, and you are capable of doing very brave things. Though you’ve experienced fear and difficulties, you are able to do the right thing. Two: We would like to be more like you. People look at super-heroes and they see power and courage, and when I look at you, I see superheroes.”
One by one, the children came to the front of the group to receive their small pin, commending their choice to testify and honoring their bravery. Some were bashful, others boisterous. One 6-year old boy had everyone laughing as he strolled to the front of the room, his beaming smile outshining the shy fingers in his mouth. A 4-year old girl spontaneously opened her arms wide to hug the U.S. visitor at the front before she even presented the little girl with her pin.
Life and Joy
The IJM Guatemala team created the “Hero Ceremony” as a formal way to commemorate the bravery that children show throughout their trials. They hold similar ceremonies periodically throughout the year to make sure each boy and girl is honored.
Most of these children’s trials are ongoing; each one continues to receive trauma-focused therapy from IJM social workers and psychologists. “I was struck by the life and joy in the eyes of the children,” reflected Gary after the ceremony. “They have come from places of darkness and humility, but look us in the eyes with such life and joy.”
“In addition to their life and joy, I was struck by their absence of fear,” said Holly, adding, “It is a miracle that every one of these children was able to give testimony in a court of law that has established a system that wants to listen to these children in a safe manner and protect them.”
For the children that attended the “Hero Ceremony,” it was a Tuesday they won’t soon forget. The ceremony focused on their bravery, but also allowed them a chance to simply be a kid.