When you’re just one person who wants to make a change in a world of 6 billion, effecting that change can be a little daunting. But for some people, waiting around for something to happen is a whole lot more worrisome.
Colombia native Hector Sierra was studying film in the former Yugoslavia when the Kosovo War started. The decades-old conflict between the Albanians and Serbians was intensifying again, and Sierra found himself thinking.
“What I had to do as a citizen, as an artist, was to try to help the victims of war in some way,” he says. “After people have been fed, and have been healed or cured from whatever sickness, they have to be healed in their heart.
“After you watch your family die, or see your city destroyed, you try to stop feeling,” Sierra says. “It is an unconscious mechanism humans have to protect themselves from suffering.
“If you are in the middle of a war or a natural disaster, you cannot feel with the same intensity for a long time,” he says. “If you do, you would go crazy.
“So I started to put together an art program to help refugee children, to bring catharsis to their souls — purification. For me, catharsis is the most important function of art,” Sierra says. “People read a book, are moved, cry or laugh, and afterward they feel better.”
When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization started bombing the region in 1989, Sierra fled to Japan and began studying for his master’s degree. But the tragedy of the victims on both sides of the war was something he could not leave behind.
Knowing of the international independent medical organization “Doctors Without Borders,” Sierra found it logical to assume that a group called “Artists Without Borders” might exist as well. For months he scoured the Internet, searching for this organization to no avail, until a friend of his suggested that he start the program himself.
“At first I thought that was crazy,” Sierra says. “It was such a big project. But then people started helping, by making a logo or donating art supplies.”
Sierra raised enough funds to be able to go back to the city of Kosovska Mitrovica, armed with crayons and origami, where he set out to bring artistic therapy to Albanians, Serbs and Roma surrounded by daily trauma.
“Then I wanted to bring a concert, a band, clowns,” Sierra says. “So one year later I did that. I was back with nine Japanese clowns, doing performances in the streets, at refugee camps and orphanages with artists I met here in Japan. (They) would stop us in the streets and thank us for coming to Yugoslavia.”
Perhaps it was that moment when Sierra realized that not only can one person make a difference, but that one person can make thousands of differences across the globe.
“I realized I had many things to tell children,” he says. “So I became a writer of children’s literature.”
His first published book, “Ano Hi no Koto o Kakimashita,” came to fruition after he visited children who were affected by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. First he visited kids who belonged to two schools within 700 meters of the World Trade Center in New York, and then he went to meet with children in Afghanistan, where he tried to teach them about the cultural differences between the world’s nations. After a lesson, Sierra would bring out his weapons — crayons and sketch paper — and ask the kids to draw a picture of “My City.”
“Many children drew the sun dark, especially in Afghanistan,” Sierra says as he flips through the book of children’s drawings, every other page containing a drawing from an American child with the opposite page showing a picture from an Afghani one. “In New York, many children drew the twin towers dark.”
Each volunteer mission takes about two or three months and costs him about ¥500,000, most of which he pays for through his own money (he also teaches English, Spanish and salsa), fundraising events, sporadic donations and earnings from his book’s sales.
“If people want to help out, they can become members,” Sierra says. “The membership fee is cheap, and if they are artists, there are links to our activities. Or just read the 9/11 book, because those profits will help me continue to volunteer.”
For those who are interested in other types of volunteer work, perhaps Sierra’s story shows just how much one person can do to paint a little color into another’s life.
For more information about Artists Without Borders web site see www5a.biglobe.ne.jp/~artWB/e16.html