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Despite her own setbacks, Judith Mayotte ‘fuels and energizes’ those around her through refugee, climate change advocacy

May 11, 2019

During a 1993 clandestine fact-gathering mission in war-torn South Sudan, Judith Mayotte sneaked into the country as a refugee advocate to learn what the conditions were of the people living there.

She entered a rural village of grass huts and found a group of midwives. Their government had cut off their supplies because of the war, so the women had to use dirty razors to cut umbilical cords during the birthing process, Mayotte said.

“These are people who knew nothing but war,” she said. “They were always on guard because they never knew when the shelling was going to come.”

Months later, Mayotte stood in front of the U.S. Congress to report what she’d seen and to relay a message from the midwives: “They said they are tired of running. Running from bombardments and bombings and starvation.”

Mayotte, now 82, has lived a life of refugee aid. But over the past five years, she’s pivoted her work to climate change awareness because of how many people will be displaced by increasing extreme weather events.

“It was a natural move for me,” she said.

On Saturday, Mayotte will speak at the graduate student commencement at Gonzaga University, hoping to inspire students to use their professions or lifestyles to help the earth find its balance. Gonzaga will bestow on Mayotte an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

“We have the technological ability, the knowledge and the keen imaginations” to prevent climate change, she said. “We can choose to build better, more humane cities. We can feed 9 billion people without adding more farmland or diminishing our forests or wasting more water.”

Mayotte has seen her share of setbacks. She was born in Kansas and attended college in Oklahoma, where she contracted polio and had to relearn how to walk. She later became a nun and earned a doctorate in theology. After leaving her religious order, she married Jack Mayotte, who died three years later from cancer. Mayotte then went on to work as an award-winning television producer.

She eventually turned her sights on refugee work. She’s lived in Pakistan, Thailand, Cambodia and Sudan.

While in Sudan in 1993, Mayotte was struck by a 200-pound sack of grain that fell from a helicopter. The grain hit her leg, which doctors ultimately had to amputate. She now uses a wheelchair; the effects from polio earlier in life won’t allow her to use a prosthetic.

Even though she’s been through much tragedy in her life, she feels privileged compared with the refugees she’s worked with. Mayotte has seen children die from starvation and families unable to escape war zones – problems she’s never had to experience herself.

As part of her refugee work, Mayotte has served on multiple boards for refugee aid groups, including the Women’s Refugee Commission and the International Rescue Committee. She now lives in Seattle and works with Archbishop Desmond Tutu to prevent climate change.

Humanitarian worker Rudy Juanita Shaffer counts hers among the lives that Mayotte has touched and inspired. She met Mayotte during a 2010 educational voyage around the world called “Semester at Sea.”

Mayotte spurred Shaffer’s career toward humanitarian work because of her energy and dedication to helping refugees, Shaffer said, who recently returned from a Peace Corps mission in Benin. Shaffer, who views her as a mentor, is headed to Haiti to work with Catholic Relief Services, she said.

“She’s doing what I’ve done with my life in a way,” Mayotte said.

Shaffer added, Mayotte “fuels and energizes the people around her.”

“She’s going to inspire this whole new class of graduate students to take on so many challenges that are unfolding with climate change,” Shaffer said.

It’s that same spirit to listen to and inspire others that began years before.

After the loss of her leg in Sudan, word of Mayotte’s accident reached the midwives she had worked with and who had fled to Uganda. To show their appreciation, they wove a bark-cloth mat for Mayotte that depicted Africa with flowers, palm trees, children, women and grass huts. Via a social worker, the midwives delivered the mat to her.

“It was a mat of total life by people who only knew total war,” she said.

The midwives also relayed a message to Mayotte: “Somebody wanted to tell our story,” the midwives said. “Somebody wanted to listen to us.”

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