Detroit, Mich. —
On January 23, 2015, MCHR board members met with a U.S. State Department-sponsored International Visitor Leadership Program delegation from the Middle East and North Africa exploring Human and Civil Rights Advocacy and Awareness.
The delegation consisted of 16 individuals from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. They met with board members at the International Institute in Detroit. Prior to their visit here, the delegation had made stops in Alabama and Washington D.C. and will finish their U.S. tour in Arizona.
The State Department had specific objectives for the delegation throughout its U.S. tour and meeting with the MCHR Board, including:
*Examining the historical context of human rights advocacy in the U.S.
*Illustrating the influence of human and civil rights activists on policy at national, state and local levels.
*Exploring the role and structure of associations, NGOs and religious groups in advancing civil rights and equal opportunity.
*Analyzing a variety of human rights concerns related to critical issues, including disability rights, freedom of press/religion/speech, access to education and due process.
The delegation consisted of 12 men and 4 women, most of them appearing to be in their 30s and early 40s, visiting the U.S. for the first time. The group included human rights attorneys, NGO executives, government employees, labor and refugee experts and advocates for women, children and the impoverished. All experienced, dedicated and enthusiastic activists working in a region characterized by some of most extreme and catastrophic human rights violations imaginable.
Through simultaneous translation, MCHR board members Cary McGehee, Abayomi Azikiwe, Kim Redigan, Eric Hood, Dorothy Aldridge, Saeed Khan, Marge Sears and Lila Cabell of the People’s Water Board addressed the delegation providing a brief overview of MCHR. This included: Our role in the community, history of MCHR, current issues/activities (cited participation/support for the People’s Water Board), regular events (film series, lectures, annual dinner), special events (Freedom Tours), and our use of publicity, the Internet and social media to promote human rights and MCHR. The delegates listened closely to each speaker and most took notes.
Then, through the interpreter, we listened for nearly two hours as individual members of the visiting delegation provided first-hand accounts of their work and challenges. They spoke to a number of serious (some shocking) human rights violations and situations in their regions, including:
*An Egyptian attorney pointed-out that Arab Spring has brought turmoil with its promise and that regular Egyptian citizens are not being represented in the government, which has become more oppressive (no matter who is in power). He deals with many freedom of the press/free speech issues and says the government has been arresting and illegally detaining more journalists and known activists. He said that this trip to the U.S. may very likely result in his own arrest upon returning to Egypt.
*A human rights activist and law professor from Mauritania and a teacher from Yemen said their countries still deal with a legacy of slavery and indentured servitude, long entrenched in their cultures. In their two countries, they said, there are over 3 million black people in slavery. For far too many in the West, these accounts of slavery in the year 2015 are simply incredulous.
*An attorney with the Palestinian Bar Association’s legal clinic said she and others have filed over 100 lawsuits against the Israeli government for the wrongful deaths and injuries of Palestinians and the destruction of homes and property during Israel’s latest military action. She said the cases must be brought in Israeli courts, where it is not only almost impossible to prevail, but equally difficult to actually be cleared to enter Israel and file a lawsuit. To date, three Palestinian plaintiffs have prevailed.
*Another attorney from Palestine talked about other possible actions, including the need to put international pressure on the Israeli government to change its Palestinian policies. This led to a discussion on the various BDS initiatives being undertaken by U.S. and European groups. She said that U.S. support of this type is much needed and
*An attorney from Jordan expressed deep concern about the negative impact of terrorist actions on Islam and all Muslims. He says Islamaphobia has worsened as religious terrorist violence continues and that politics has hijacked Islam.
*A number of delegates also described serious water availability and water rights issues in their countries. Problems include both water scarcity and competing political and corporate interests vying for control of the resource, trumping the basic water rights of the people. Privatization interests and plans complicate the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, as well.
As the delegation’s members related their efforts to address the many extreme human rights violations in their region, each also expressed thanks and gratitude to MCHR for meeting with them and listening to their stories. Each delegation member who spoke also said that any kind of help or counsel would be much appreciated.
The human rights issues that these activists face are on a vast scale — and often appear to be overwhelming, nearly hopeless situations. But these people will go back home continue their efforts.
MCHR thanks the delegation for sharing their stories with us. Their visit and narrative clearly remind us – again — that the human rights struggle is universal and ongoing. As we consider the significance of their visit, the question for us should be: What can MCHR do to assist and support these extraordinary activists?