What you leave behind

Excitement and sorrow, contemplativeness and enthusiasm, determination and uncertainty. The past week has culminated in a torrent of emotions owing to my departure from Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education. The card from my colleagues was a touching testament of their affections; I will miss them as much as they will miss me. And to have some write that they learned from me is especially heartwarming: it’s one thing to think you’re making a difference in other people’s lives, it has considerable more gravitas when someone tells you.

Last call

Apart from making people laugh on occasion and designing some posters over the years, I would hope that I’ve managed to do what I set out to do years ago: to educate others about human rights. For a true, meaningful education about human rights, it’s necessary but insufficient to learn only about human rights concepts and international human rights standards. An awareness and appreciation of the struggles that people have faced over the centuries to earn their rights in the face of violent oppression is a necessary pretext to situating our own struggles. As my colleagues wrote on a frame they gave me, quoting Paulo Freire, “Looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who we are so that we can more wisely build the future.”

It’s also essential to build an awareness that no true education is neutral – it must challenge, it must question, and it must move us forward in a meaningful process of dialogue. You don’t learn about human rights because it’s fun; you learn about human rights because the indignities that you either face or witness in others is deplorable, it’s inhuman, and we – in the most general sense of the term “we” as a species – are better than that.

For almost a decade at Equitas, the human rights educators I had the privilege to meet and train have embodied the values we so passionately associate with human rights concepts: acceptance, equality, non-discrimination, respect, solidarity, empathy, and love. The kindness that we extend to others is no more aptly seen than through the gestures of human rights educators from around the world who have invited me to their homes, shared their pain and their passion, and shown me their part of the world they are so ardently trying to elevate to a kinder, gentler place. Their strength and resolve has been a constant source of renewal and hope for me, and for that I will forever be grateful to them.

After ten years, what I take away is far greater than what I have given. Growing up as a teenager, I became an avid reader of Isaac Asimov, who wrote science fiction stories that swept me across the galaxy. He also wrote non-fiction books on just about every subject imaginable. In my early teens, I bought one of his books on astronomy, now safely buried in my basement, in which another author and inspiration of mine, Carl Sagan, wrote that Asimov was “The great explainer of the age.” Asimov had the gift of explaining the science of the universe to me back then in a way I found captivating. And the way he explained things made me realize afterwards that I had just learned with great simplicity something I had previously imagined to be too complex. Explaining – teaching, educating others – was a gift he mastered by realizing the necessity of keeping things simple, creating a sense of wonder, and understanding how people learn. Over the years his mastery of being the great explainer has been a guiding principle of my teaching. If there’s anything I hope to have left behind, it’s the creation of a sense of wonder¬†which human rights educators can ignite to make this world one worth living in and worth fighting for.

We Will Not Be Silenced

Yesterday’s news was dire: Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, friend and human rights defender from Bahrain, had been sentenced to life in prison along with other protesters accused of plotting agains the government. A “mocking portrayal of justice,” wrote the Irish Examiner. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the government in Bahrain to respect its international human rights obligations and allow those prosecuted to appeal their sentences. Even Barack Obama, known to tread delicately – wait, let me say feebly – on the subject of human rights in a country that hosts the US Fifth Fleet, said a few weeks ago, “mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens.”

Where politicians fear to tread, it’s reassuring to know that human rights defenders will move forward with purpose and with determination to fight for what’s right. Dozens of human rights defenders here in Montreal for an annual human rights training program hosted by Equitas decided, of their own initiative, to demonstrate at lunchtime today to voice their condemnation at Abdulhadi’s life sentence at the hands of a military court. Abdulhadi, a former program participant, was instrumental in assisting Equitas to develop a human rights education program in the Middle East and North Africa.

The voices of these participants expressing their condemnation today are no different than the voices heard in Bahrain over this injustice; they are no different from the voices of human rights defenders and average citizens from around the world angered at the government of Bahrain’s oppression. The message is clear, our collective voices are strong, and we will not be silenced until justice takes precedence: Free Abdulhadi.

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Demonstration by human rights defenders for Abdulhadi’s release