Youth Panel: How Will We Make Dignity a Reality?

Dec. 9th 2011, House of Lords

by Bogdan Pammer

Let me start with a story.

I was for the first time confronted with questions of human dignity, when I was 17 and got involved in work with refugees – first as a volunteer, then as a civil servant. Those refugees were 16-19 years old, predominantly from Afghanistan, West Africa and the Horn of Africa.

These young people were isolated, had almost no access to education or the labor market, and had almost no friends. I could see with my own eyes how the absence of fatherly and motherly figures deeply troubled them. I realized that it is within loving family relationships that we can experience dignity most deeply.

There was one experience that gave me an insight into how dignity works. How a young person, although being confronted with a challenging – humiliating – environment could regain the strength to believe in his own potential.

My friend who we may call Abbas was frequently involved in fights between the residents of our refugee house. He wasn’t really doing well in his German course… and a big burn in his face was a silent witness to stories Abdul didn’t want to tell.

But by joining him in his cleaning duties something changed. After a few weeks we moved on to tasks which went far beyond the level of simple cleaning duties, and we began to refurbish the house’s basement. I found myself having profound conversations with a once trouble maker. At the same time, Abbas’ German course attendance got better, he joined additional school classes, and was gaining new heights.

It was the simple fact that we were working and serving together that gave us new meaning and dignity. Abbas was no longer a workless poor stranger with no parents in a cold country and I was no longer a self-absorbed high-school graduate struggling with his meaning in life. We became brothers.

Why do I tell this story? Can we learn something that would help us to improve the state of our society?

I think so.

Our Grandparents’ Generation introduced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with the motivation to ensure that human dignity would never again be violated as it was before and during WWII.
When we look at the state of our world today we realize quickly that enforceable rights are necessary, but not sufficient to grant us a life in dignity. Also my experience with Abbas makes this very point.

As mentioned in the beginning it is the family environment which could and should be the most solid source of experienced dignity.

Looking beyond the family, I think we all acknowledge the value of education, and formal learning in supporting young people to live up to their full potential. We know education is key. But again formal and career-oriented education is necessary but not sufficient to ensure the employability of a young person and even less a life of dignity.

It’s always men who violate other men’s rights – often those responsible for the worst crimes are well educated. Statistics show, that there is no correlation found between domestic violence – one of the biggest threats to human dignity in europe – and social status or education. Therefore education is key but not the master key.

My experience indicates that true dignity can be found in acts of service for one another. There is nothing more precious and uplifting then if something that I want to offer and give can be whole heartedly accepted. I found my value in serving others. This is something that won’t fundamentally change with reaching different positions in society. For a politician it must be the highest fulfilment if he or she can serve his country by discussing and passing legislation and finally gets the confirmation that his/her work fundamentally improved his fellow citizens’ life. The same is true for a scientist who comes up with a groundbreaking invention that improves many people’s life.

What really matters – is the very same act of service on a different scale.

In serving him I could see value and divinity in “the other”. Sadly we often regard “the unknown” as a threat. Meaningful encounters in the context of serving each other or a common purpose can help us to overcome the fears that lead to racism, sexism and so on.

We experience how smart and successful we might be, that there is never a need to be self-absorbed, self-centred, arrogant. There is no need to put myself, my NGO, my party, my country, … first. It was Abbas who gave my time meaning and I am grateful to him up until this day.

The EU has acknowledged the point that professional education is essential but not sufficient. The European Commission invests 885 million Euros in non-formal education and projects addressing disadvantaged youth from 2007 to 2013.

Since the start of the initiative 569.359 young Europeans benefited from Youth In Action – through programs such as the European Voluntary Service or by supporting small youth driven initiatives. Also Abbas later could participate in an improvisation theatre project funded by this very programme.

Unfortunately there are plans to merge Youth In Action with programmes for formal education such as Erasmus. Many people working in and with the program are expressing their concerns that this change would only be able to cover “a fraction of the present activities and opportunities”. Youth Participation, volunteering and citizenship would have less space.

The present Youth In Action approach has proven to be very effective. It empowers youth with small grants to come up with their own ideas and make things happen.

At this very moment young advocates of an independent program for experimental learning are meeting with Jan TRUSZCZYŃSKI, Director-General for Education and Culture of the European Commission to make this point.

It would be a great shame, if such a decision would be made in the European Year of Volunteering. As UPF Youth Committee we want to strongly emphasize the value of service and the value of non-formal and character based education. We will be a young and conscientious voice to our political leaders.

We are living in a time where the need to redefine what we are as societies has become obvious. Europe would make a historical mistake if it thinks that we can secure human dignity by prioritising external, career-centred education over the education of character and heart.

As the UPF Youth committee we will work to connect young people from all around Europe and the world to foster a culture, where we uphold human dignity by developing our character and skills and contribute to wider society.

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