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Leo, honouring a volunteer’s support of human rights defenders

By Diane Lemieux

For eight years, Leo Mosselman, shared his expertise in burnout prevention with Shelter City’s human rights defenders. Now, at the age of 77, he is retiring from this volunteer position. In this article, Leo shares his understanding of the importance of wellness, and what he himself gained from his volunteer activities.

Through his career in international development, Leo spent five years in Zambia and another five in Surinam running community support and aid projects. Once he’d returned to live in the Netherlands, he continued to travel around the world, evaluating projects, finding ways to improve them, and identifying financing solutions. Like the work done by human rights defenders, his goal was to help others.

‘We work from our passion. It isn’t just a job. You don’t think, oh it’s five pm, I’ll just stop now because I’ve finished for the day. You can’t stop because you know that people’s lives are affected by what you do.’

This inability to set limits for himself – not even knowing that he might need such limits – cost him three burnouts. The third time, he found himself lying on the couch and advised not to return to work. He had to find something else to do.

‘In the end, I was completely detached from my own body, from my emotions.

‘I thought my body was a sort of vessel designed to carry around my head so I could do my work.’

The lesson of self-care

That’s when Leo did a five-year programme to become a bodywork coach and a Tai Chi instructor. Bodywork is designed to identify the emotional blockages in your body in order to improve wellbeing: Tai Chi is a gentle martial art that uses breathing and physical movement to promote body awareness and wellness. Through his years of study, Leo came to understand that ignoring mental stress and the body’s physical responses to it can lead to burnout. He became much more flexible and fit in his body, and mentally stronger, more resilient than ever before.

One day, a former colleague and student of Leo’s Tai Chi retreats introduced him to Shelter City. He was impressed with the goals of the programme and the support they provide human rights defenders from around the world. And so he applied to replace the yoga instructor who was retiring, suggesting he teach Tai Chi lessons with the specific aim of imparting wellness techniques to the human rights defenders.

He quickly recognised their difficulty in practising self-care. To many of them, the idea of spending time on one’s own well-being seems selfish. But it’s like in an airplane when they tell you to put on your mask before helping others with theirs. You cannot help others when you’re passed out from lack of oxygen. People generally find ways to cope, to survive, but the sense never doing enough is exhausting.

‘If you see how human rights defenders in their own countries fear for their lives, face actions by their governments or the police or the military to sabotage their work, and you see how they survive and they pick up the ball again and again… that’s a totally different level of stress than what we face here in the Netherlands.’

Passing techniques forward

To Leo, being part of the support programme for human rights defenders was an opportunity to once again help others with the knowledge he’d gain from personal experience. It was also a chance to connect with people from around the world.

‘Everywhere in the world there are people who don’t accept injustice: child labour, violations of human rights, parents who work themselves to the bone to provide a better life for their children… I have enormous respect for those people,’ says Leo. ‘They risk their own lives to work towards creating a better world.’

Contributing to Shelter City in a volunteer capacity he hoped to make a difference, no matter how small.

‘Sometimes you need to get out of your head and into your body to check how you’re doing.’ There are many techniques, activities that can be incorporated into one daily routine, that can have a significant impact on health. For example, creating a routine at the end of the day that allows you to literally shake out stress so that you don’t take it home with you. He shared many relaxation techniques to help people deal with aggression in their daily lives.

Still more than just a job

Leo’s participation in Shelter City didn’t stop at the courses he gave. He also played Saint Nicholas for Sinterklaas. Sharing this Dutch tradition and exchanging gifts always ended in a wider sharing of each other’s cultures, traditions and songs.

After eight years, Leo, a bright-eyed and agile 77-year-old, is retiring from his work with Shelter City. Not surprisingly given the passion with which he has always worked, he finds it hard to stop. ‘It wasn’t enough,’ he said.

‘You can’t really have a big impact on people’s lives with a few hours of training. I would have needed much more time to really help them learn how to build in de-stressing rituals into their daily lives. But I’m glad I was able to contribute something.’

‘It’s the most wonderful thing that can happen between people, I think, the ability to connect on a deeper, human level so that all the superficial differences disappear.’

Do you have skills or experiences that you’d like to share with human rights defenders? Become a Shelter City volunteer!

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