Honoring Julia Campbell
I did not have the privilege of meeting Julia Campbell, the US Peace Corps volunteer who met a tragic death while taking a stroll at the Banaue rice terraces.
But like many other Filipinos, I am deeply saddened by the tragedy that befell her. It is extremely horrifying that something gruesome and senseless could happen to a foreigner in Batad, a place inhabited by Igorots who are known to be peace-loving people and therefore generally renowned to be safe. I know a number of hikers and backpackers who have traversed the same path that Julia took and they attest that the area has not been known to be dangerous.
So why did it happen to her? I guess no one can fathom the evil that lie in some people’s hearts. It is so sad that Julia was in the same place at the same time with someone with unspeakable evil in his heart.
What magnifies the impact of the tragedy, transforming it into an enormous cause for shame and embarrassment for us Filipinos, is the fact that it involved someone who was in the country for humanitarian reasons. As an American Peace Corps volunteer, Julia Campbell gave up a life of comfort and privilege in New York to be with the poorest of the poor in our country and actually made a difference in the communities where she served.
Julia’s death is personal to me on many levels. First, I have a personal connection with the Peace Corps movements in the country having worked with the US Peace Corps in the Philippines in the mid-’80s as a language and culture teacher. For a couple of years, I lived with American volunteers. My job involved helping them understand Filipinos and the many idiosyncrasies of our culture, and guiding many American volunteers in their heroic efforts to make a difference in a country that often took their benevolence and selflessness for granted. Along the way, I acquired lifetime friends many of whom I continue to correspond with today.
At that time, the myth about Peace Corps volunteers being spies of America’s Central Intelligence Agency was prevalent. Fortunately, the Peace Corps has overcome that nasty appellation.
Those among us with personal connections to the Peace Corps either as teachers, host families, colleagues, or even as friends, neighbors or simply citizens of the same community where a Peace Corps volunteer serves share this special bond with them. And this bond is one that transcends specific personalities and individuals.
Perhaps it is the nobility of the cause of the Peace Corps or the shared cross-culture experience that helps create lifelong instant affinities with any Peace Corps volunteer anywhere in the country.
This explains the outpouring of grief over Julia’s tragic death.
Second, I actually work in the building where the US Peace Corps has its headquarters and sharing an elevator or tables at the cafeteria with them is an everyday occurrence. Even my previous stint in the Peace Corps has not diminished the sense of wonder that I would feel every time I would converse with American volunteers in our native language. What makes Peace Corps volunteers endearing is the fact that they do try to learn our language and culture and immerse themselves in our ways.
Third, Julia was a blogger and I have visited her Web log (www.juliainthephilippines.blogspot.com) on several occasions courtesy of a link provided by another friend who remains active in the Peace Corps circuit. Julia blogged about the ups and downs and the joys and tribulations of being an American working in a strange land in her blog. Her first entry was made while she was still undergoing training and still living with a host family in Laguna. Succeeding posts narrate her many amusing brushes with Filipinos from Laguna, to Donsol where she was first assigned, and finally, to Legazpi City. Along the way, she set up a library, helped put up a community ecology center, taught English in some colleges, and did many other projects in the service of the communities where she lived.
The last post in her blog is dated Jan. 13, 2007, a piece ironically entitled “Buhay Pa Tayo” (Still alive). The piece recounts her efforts to cope with the aftermath of Typhoon Reming (her last assignment was in Legazpi City, which was hit hard by the super typhoon). That last entry strikes me as a fitting blog equivalent to an epitaph. Her memory, legacy and the sacrifice she made shall indeed continue to live.
I invite everyone to visit Julia’s blog. It’s a blog that deserves to be read by many because aside from the many insights that one can get about what Peace Corps volunteers go through while doing service to communities, it is also full of amusing and inspiring stories of hope and faith. It is a powerful testament to the spirit of volunteerism that is sadly going extinct in the world today.
Her blog has now become a memorial of sorts. Last I looked, there were more than 200 comments on her last post. The comments from all over the world, but mostly from Filipinos, express generally the same sentiments —gratitude and appreciation for her contributions to the country, sadness and grief over her untimely and tragic demise, and yes, apologies on behalf of the country.
It is heartwarming to note that many among us Filipinos are taking the time to reach out to the Julia’s family and friends and expressing not only our condolences but also our profound regret for the tragedy. This does not diminish the callousness of the Justice Secretary, but it does prove that Secretary Raul Gonzalez does not represent the Filipino people. No, we are not a country of jerks even if a heartless criminal and an insensitive Cabinet member are amongst us.
I know that this is a cliché, but when something quite nonsensical like Julia’s death happens, we can’t help but try to find comfort and solace in the belief that something good could come out of the tragedy. It won’t bring her back nor would it undo the evil deed of whoever it was that committed that dastardly act that snuffed Julia’s life.
But Julia’s death has put the spotlight on the nobility of the cause of the Peace Corps. It has highlighted the fact that there are still many people in the world like Julia who are imbued with the desire to do something good for humanity. Such efforts deserve our attention and support.
It is my hope then that American Peace Corps volunteers anywhere in the country shall now acquire a higher level of respect and that their efforts shall begin to be recognized. For truly, service to others, particularly those that come with immense personal sacrifice, deserve appreciation and recognition.
In death, Julia has touched more lives. She has shown us that our lives can be truly made more meaningful if spent in the service of others.
Goodnight, Julia. Sleep well. Thank you for touching our lives profoundly.