When her kids grew up, the vision of a leisurely retirement had no appeal for Selene Aitken of Ashland.
In fact, going to the world's trouble spots to teach nonviolent communication and healing doesn't sound much like retirement to most people.
"It gives meaning to my life," explains Aitken, who recently returned from conducting "restorative communication circles" among Colombian villagers traumatized by years of paramilitary violence, most of whom were missing family members and trying to put their lives back together.
Aitken, a Stanford-educated former Peace House director — and trained in the first meeting of Medford's Mediation Works in 1992 — says the Middle East was worse than Colombia. She taught nonviolent communication skills to social workers who were trying to assist a million Iraqi refugees who lost everything, who had landed in Syria and Jordan and were prohibited from working.
"They're displaced, with lives shattered. They don't have jobs or resources," says Aitken. "They're traumatized and depressed, especially the men.
"I helped the people who helped them, teaching them empathy skills — just to be fully present and listening in terms of feelings, values — not pity, avoiding or fixing behavior."
Raised in Argentina by American parents, Aitken got her bachelor's degree in languages from Georgetown University and speaks fluent Spanish, usually not revealing she's American. Once, a translator slipped and introduced Aitken as American, resulting in an Iraqi woman's enraged outburst, she says.
"If there's any opportunity to help in the Middle East, it's a drop in the bucket, and you don't expect to change much in the lives of refugees to whom the U.S. owes such a debt," says Aitken. "But I feel I've made some contribution to assuage my conscience (for the Iraq War). The hope is that the children will be able to end the cycle."
Sometimes the reward for her work comes in small, but sweet moments, such as when Iraqi teens invited her to join their line dance and their mothers took pictures of her with their cell phones.
Performing restorative justice work is a touchy and controversial area, says Aitken, because men who have confessed to hundreds of machete murders are put on the right road with land and schooling while poor villagers struggle to remake lives after being refugees for a decade.
Psychological trauma is overwhelming in the village of 1,200 near the port from which Bolivia, the largest exporter of cocaine, sends the drug to its largest consumer nation, the U.S., she says. Women numb the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder by working all waking hours, taking no time for fun or friends. Aitken's team, part of Mediators Beyond Borders, did a daylong workshop with male villagers, their feelings and tears pouring out as they talked about lost family members, she notes.
Terming herself a "citizen ambassador," Aitken taught mediation in Argentina in 2009, nonviolent communication for judges, social workers and psychologists in San Salvador and El Salvador in 2008 and similar topics in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2007.
She regularly gives presentations at Ashland Community Center. She retired from Southern Oregon University in 2007 to do her international peacemaking work and to have a local mediation and coaching practice. She interprets for farm workers getting services at La Clinica.
Aitken came to Ashland in 1983, wanting to learn peaceful protest skills from activist Dot Fisher-Smith, then fell in love with the town and relocated there with her two sons. It hasn't been easy, centering her life around peace, then using conflict-resolution skills in the least peaceful areas of the world.
"It gives meaning to my life. It's my art," says Aitken. "When I was at Peace House, the press and people would ask, 'How do I think this is going to help anything?' And all I can say is it's my way of expressing my love of life and caring about people.
"There's always going to be war and violence — and there's always going to be peacemakers. I feel more hopeful working with people and making more peace. I don't fall into despair and hopelessness then. Hope is a very important value. When I cultivate it, I put one more drop of it in the ocean."