© JENS HONORÉ
As World War 1 raged in Europe, a German medical doctor in Nicaragua invited his nephew to escape the fighting by coming to stay. The nephew, a chemist, met and married a Nicaraguan girl. In 1919 they had a daughter: Rosa Isabel Kollerbohm. She would go on to become my beloved grandmother, and the “Rose” in Blue Rose Compass.
Rosa’s childhood was not an easy one. Her father died of throat cancer and, with her mother struggling to manage their finances, at just 16 she reluctantly agreed to marry a man twice her age. Though their marriage was anything but harmonious, Rosa was determined to give her children a better future. She managed to emigrate to San Francisco, where she worked 12-hour factory shifts to send money home.
Eventually she learned English, started a business, became a US citizen, and brought her kids over. My uncles graduated from Berkley and Stanford. My mother would have liked to study law, but instead agreed to work to help put her brothers through school. In time she met my father, and together they created a successful business in Nicaragua – and an idyllic childhood for myself, my two brothers and my younger sister.
I was nine years old when that idyll was shattered. Civil war broke out in Nicaragua and I found myself abruptly bundled onto an airplane to San Francisco. Struggling to adapt, and anxiously wondering if my father was still alive – he joined us a year later – I did not feel lucky; but, of course, I was. Many of my friends, despite their parents’ desperate attempts, could not leave. To this day, I do not know if some survived.
With the infinite love and support of my parents and my Grandmother Rosa, my best friend and confidant, I eventually came to see the United States as my home and will always be thankful for what it has given me. Yet I also longed to get to know the country I came from. I waited 15 long years before it finally became safe to visit; happily, my parents have now moved back and I visit them often.
A century after my great-grandfather fled World War 1, tens of millions of people are displaced by conflict that tends to be intra-state rather than inter-state. The roots of civil unrest often lie in the corruption and greed that perpetuate poverty in resource-rich countries, a dynamic I saw up close in the 12 years I covered Africa and Latin America for Institutional Investor. But I also met inspiring leaders who swim with the sharks, try their hardest to do the right thing, and appreciate the importance of education in building more peaceful and prosperous societies.
Many of today’s displaced are teenagers who long, as I did, to return to the land they once called home; without a Grandmother Rosa to offer them shelter in a new country, they are trapped in the limbo of the refugee camp. Young women, like my mother and grandmother, find themselves either married off too young or behind their brothers in the queue for what limited opportunities exist.
These young girls – and boys – deserve the chance I had to control their destiny and paint their own canvas. I set up Blue Rose Compass to give them that opportunity, in the hope that they will help their families and one day play their part in rebuilding peace in the countries from which they were forced to flee.
My Grandmother Rosa owed her existence to her father fleeing a war zone; I owe everything to her support after my family did the same. I am humbled by the thought that Blue Rose Compass could, in a small way, embody in the lives of some outstanding young refugees the spirit of my Grandmother Rosa’s role in mine.
The story behind the name
People often ask me about the story behind the name Blue Rose Compass. Actually, there are three.
The compass rose is the name of the familiar circle-and-arrows design – showing north, east, south and west, and the gradients in between – which helps us to find our way when we are lost. Blue roses are rare and precious. It took 13 years for scientists to create one – the same amount of time our first BRC scholar had spent in a refugee camp before we got him a scholarship to Princeton University. Last but not least, my beloved grandmother – the guiding star in my own life, and the inspiration for our work – was a Rose, too.
The scholars are our blue roses. We try to be their compass.