When I was awarded a Chevening Scholarship, I was so happy that I would be able to study for an MA in Human Rights at one of the most prestigious universities in the UK. The Center for Applied Human Rights is not only a place to study and get a postgraduate degree based on theoretical and academic knowledge, but also an institution that enables you to take your position as a future human rights practitioner and activist. At least that is what I felt when I started to study the ‘Defending Human Rights’ module - the module has provided me with a set of skills I found very useful to apply practically during my placement in Cape Town.
My host NGO was the Sustainable Livelihood Foundation (SLF), a new, fresh NGO that has worked in partnership with the University of the Western Cape. I chose to be a part of the SLF project that focused on refugee rights because of personal reasons - as a Syrian - and professional interest – previously I have worked as a migration policies practitioner at the Arab League.
In Cape Town I realized that everything I’ve learnt and all I’ve practiced behind a desk for years was incomparable to the field work experience. This was a trip that enriched me culturally while enlightened me professionally and empowered me personally.
Working with refugees intensively for two weeks can be quite challenging, but at the same time appealing. I have listened to their stories of suffering and shared their moments of weakness and helplessness; I have explored the deepest details of their daily battles against discrimination and xenophobia. Sometimes I felt very fragile when my tears were unintentionally falling, but other times I felt forceful especially because my understanding was increasing. Through their powerful statements and strong will my anxieties decreased.
Events we encountered on the 27th November 2014 caused concerns and controversies of various kinds, including with our project supervisors! On that day the police responded violently to the refugees’ claims outside of the Home Affairs Office in Cape Town. The authorities not only closed the Refugees’ Reception Center and pushed hundreds of people away but also used pepper spray, rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the angry crowd of men, women and children. I felt responsible and accountable and so decided not to walk away, not to leave the rights violations undocumented; because for me that was what I was there for. I was fortunate to witness these incidents that have added value and credibility to my reflections. On the other hand I’ve realized that I should be more cautious and take security measures into account, because to be active you need to be safe and healthy as well.
The Cape Town experience has truly motivated me forever. I am now more confident and competent to stand for human rights anywhere on the front line, while distancing myself away from any discrimination and social stigmatization; I am now more a human!
Weaam Youssef – Syrian Chevening scholar, worked with Sustainable Livelihoods