Saulo Padilla keynote speaker student seminar
Doug Hostetter

Saulo Padilla leads the students in a discussion on the historical context and root causes of migration in Central America

“Who in this room has ever felt lost?” asked Kati Garrison, MCC United Nations Office Program and Advocacy Associate, during the opening devotion of MCC UN’s 2017 Student Seminar. Garrison acknowledged how easy it is to get overwhelmed amid political turmoil and the pursuit of peace. She both admitted and assured the students that even experienced advocates feel lost at times, but also spoke to the benefits of multi-faceted issues and stories that don’t resolve as cleanly as expected.

“It is in the act of getting lost that we make the greatest discoveries about ourselves, about our abilities and strengths, and about how we can use these to bring about positive change in the world around us,” she said. Garrison’s devotion helped set a tone for the seminar, encouraging students to let themselves get a little confused and to seek answers from others.

The seminar ran from October 26–28 and was titled “Migration, Faith, and Action: An Exploration of the Central American Experience.” Keynote speaker Saulo Padilla, the MCC US Immigration Education Coordinator, provided a uniquely valuable presence at the event. Padilla led students through the complexities of Central American migration movements, weaving in personal experience and stories from loved ones. On Friday, Padilla gave the students a general political and cultural context of Central America, and on Saturday he presented the humanitarian aspects of migration in two sessions aptly titled, “The Migrant Experience.” Padilla welcomed questions from the students and offered his input on topics ranging from the far-reaching impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the details of his own migration from Guatemala to Canada and eventually the United States.

The MCC UN Office was also honored to invite Dr. Eva Sandis and Mary Bingham-Johnsen to discuss the UN’s Global Compact for Migration. Both women are leading members of the NGO Committee on Migration and its Subcommittee on the Global Compact for Migration. The Global Compact, which is expected to be adopted in 2018, is the UN’s effort to establish a cooperative framework that promotes and regulates “safe, orderly, and regular” migration. The NGO subcommittee—which includes the MCC UN Office—is actively involving itself in the Compact adoption process. Civil society advocacy on behalf on the Compact incorporates mission visits, in which NGO representatives visit country missions to keep representatives of UN member states aware of the gaps in current migration policy and frequently overlooked areas.

To consolidate their messages and define their goals, the Committee on Migration has developed an agenda titled “Now and How.” This plan presents ten acts intended to follow the Compact through its adoption and implementation. The document demands the UN to create a Compact that will “directly benefit migrants, refugees and societies, save lives, respond to needs, be rights-based, gender and age-sensitive, and oriented to human dignity and human development for all, regardless of migration status.”

Sandis and Bingham-Johnsen distributed copies of the “Now and How” document to seminar attendees to help them better understand the language and methodology that is used in NGO advocacy.

The MCC UN staff spoke about advocacy processes that MCC conducts in addition to serving with groups like the NGO Committee on Migration. Director Doug Hostetter offered a brief introduction to MCC and invited Han Hen-gil from the Korean Art Forum (KAF) to speak about an art installment collaboration between KAF and MCC. Kati Garrison led interactive sessions about migration trends in Central America, and what civil society is doing to advocate with and on behalf of migrants. IVEP participant Thien Phuoc helped elevate the voice of an MCC program involved directly in migration aid by reading a letter from his friend, Quinn Brenneke, who is serving with MCC in Chiapas, Mexico. Attendees also heard from Jason Storbakken, pastor at Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship, who shared his own story of crossing borders.

The seminar concluded with MCC staff leading a discussion about how advocacy efforts can play out across different platforms. Bekah Sears, Policy Analyst at MCC Ottawa, joined the students via Skype. Following this conversation, each university gathered in groups to brainstorm future actions. Students’ ideas ranged from sharing new knowledge with family members and peers to starting clubs and working toward raising scholarship funds for refugee students.

Throughout the three days, focus stretched both broad and narrow. Students took in information that—whether new or not—was emotionally heavy and sometimes deeply personal. Although speakers were addressing global movements and populations in the millions, they consistently returned to the importance of an individual story.

During the discussion on the Global Compact, Dr. Sandis shared that her drive for migration reform was steeped in her own experience as a migrant from Austria. Padilla’s sessions echoed this idea, that our passion is born from our stories. This was not lost on the majority of attendees who had never migrated, however. Rather it emphasized the importance of listening to stories like Padilla’s, and hearing personal accounts in all of their complexity and depth. Advocacy is vague and daunting at times, with layers of institutionalism obscuring what seems like the only path to a solution, but at its heart is based simply on humanity and equality. The MCC UN Office hopes that our seminar attendees left with a firmer grasp on this balance between getting lost and taking action, and took with them a strengthened desire to learn from and walk alongside migrants.


Abby Hershberger is the Program Assistant at Mennonite Central Committee’s UN Office. Before starting this two-year service worker position in early October, Abby studied History and Gender Studies at Eastern Mennonite University. After graduating, she joined the MCC Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program and spent a year in Hanoi as a manuscript editor for Vietnam’s foreign language publishing company.