I enjoyed watching the Olympics, and seeing the solidarity and spirit of “Team Canada”, “Team USA” and other countries. One Olympic commercial noted the number of people behind every athlete: family members, coaches, sponsors, teachers, friends, and their home town. It seems many things that are worth doing require a dedicated team. My Fulbright project is the same. I am working on transcribing 100+ hours of oral history interviews, building a database of these interviews and turning this oral history into a book about one of Egypt’s leading human rights organizations. I am very fortunate to have 52 interns (some from last fall and many more this semester) helping with this project. It is our own “Team Human Rights”.
I began this oral history project while I was living in Egypt after the 2011 revolution. After travelling to Egypt as a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar in 2010, I stayed through the revolution, completing a diploma program in International Human Rights Law at American University in Cairo. I applied for and received a “Revolution Grant” from American University in Cairo to do an oral history of the human rights organization where I was volunteering.
Egyptian Human Rights Advocates: A story that needs telling
As a former public defender in the United States, it was inspiring for me to interview fellow lawyers who were courageously representing Egyptian victims of human rights violations: protesters, professors, student activists, women, farmers at risk of losing their land, gay people, whistle-blowers, victims of environmental pollution, victims of torture, and relatives of those who had been tortured to death. This organization housed the Front to Defend Egyptian Protesters which provided a 24 hour hotline and free legal representation to protesters who were arrested during the revolution. The staff of the organization was also very active in the revolution.
Who are these Egyptian voices? Here are a few examples:
Seif is an attorney, a founder of the organization and a human rights visionary. Incarcerated for years as a political prisoner during the Mubarak era, Seif became a lawyer while in prison. His organization represents torture victims and Seif, himself, knows what it means to be tortured because he was during his years of detention.
Along with Sief, Mustafa was one of the 37 people arrested when the organization was raided in the middle of the revolution. The organization had been open around the clock during the revolution, offering free legal representation to any protesters who phoned in or came to the office seeking their help.
Mona, a researcher with the organization who focused on issues affecting the poor, was very active in Egypt’s 2011 revolution. She described being on the Nile Bridge with thousands of other protesters trying to get to Tahrir Square while thousands of security forces tried to stop the protesters. She was in the back of the crowd initially and said her role was that when protesters had been shot by the police and their injured bodies were being passed back in the crowd, she would flag down cars going by to ask them to take the injured to the hospital.
Nadeem, another researcher, was in Tahrir Square on a day when protesters were being shot. He called doctors he knew and helped set up a “field hospital” in the Square. He also called people he knew who owned cars to ask them to come to the Square to drive critically injured people to the hospital, as ambulances were not available.
These are just a few of the unsung heroes working for this human rights group. I met many as I interviewed more than 50 people for a total of 100+ hours of interviews. One of the most striking things about the people working with this organization was the unwavering commitment to the cause of human rights. Even when the small budget of the organization is not enough to pay all staff members, staff will work for months on end for free. For them, human rights are much more than a job; it’s their lives.
Setting up a human rights internship program:
I never dreamed that I would have a small human rights army of 52 interns helping with this project. People volunteered little by little, often a few joining after each presentation I gave: at the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies; guest teaching at Loyola College; presenting at a forum hosted by students from Journalists for Human Rights; as a panelist at a conference I organized called the Symposium for Sustainability and Human Rights; at a forum of Oral Historians at Work sponsored by the Center for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, as well as a couple radio shows. I sent announcements to many student organizations and tracked down the procedure for students to get academic credit for doing internships at Concordia’s Loyola College and the Political Science Department. One guest lecture I gave for a large class at McGill University lead to 32 students signing up for more information about becoming interns. Many joined the team. For those doing the internship for academic credit, they will do independent research as well as the oral history project and will then be part of an evening of presentations for the university and the public entitled “Perspectives on Human Rights in Egypt” (this event will be taking place April 14, 2014 at 7 P.M. at Concordia University, see poster below for more information).
As part of this internship, I offer a weekly seminar at Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling about the political context for this project and current events in Egypt related to human rights. Students also present each interview they transcribe as I project a photo of the interviewee on the big screen. In this way, students who are spending many hours transcribing each interview hear many voices from this human rights organization and their clients.
Our human rights team is as diverse as it is committed, including people from 15 different countries: Canada, United States, China, Turkey, Burkina Faso, Columbia, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, the Philippines, Spain, Mauritius, and France. Most are students at Concordia or McGill, some undergraduate, some graduate, and some recent graduates or other people from the community. All share a passion for human rights and an eagerness to be part of something real … a way to combine their studies with their values. All are keento know the stories of the people on the front lines in Egypt working fearlessly for human rights.
We will complete the transcriptions this semester. About half the interviews were conducted with Arabic speakers through a translator. My Arabic speaking interns are working on transcribing all Arabic sections into Arabic characters so that future Arabic researchers can read the interviews in their native language. I plan to have a book proposal submitted by the summer. The database with all the transcripts and audio/visual tapes will also be completed by that time with the plan to eventually have a permanent archive at Concordia’s Center for Oral History and Digital Storytelling as well as the Alexandria Library’s Center for Peace and Democracy Studies in Alexandria, Egypt.
It is unclear what the future will be for human rights in Egypt. What is clear to me is that there are many bright, committed, courageous Egyptians who are determined to create a future that is based on respect for human rights and accountability for victims of human rights violations. I am happy to share the inspiration of these human rights advocates’ accounts with my internship team, whose help has been, and is, invaluable for my Fulbright project.