Crossing borders: Youth in Norway and MENA use HRE to promote Freedom of Expression

This week, The Beirut Youth Activism Lab kicks off with a 5 day workshop held in Beirut, organised by youth activists from Norway and the MENA region. The Lab has one goal: mobilise youth from Norway and MENA to promote and take action on Freedom of Expression and other Human Rights. In the below interview, the core group tells us more about the lab, the importance of HRE and their key moments of success.

Meet the core Group: Grethe Kristine Olsen, 24, Youth Activist, Amnesty Norway, Joumana Talhouk, 23, Youth Activist, Amnesty Beirut, Lise Sundelin, 24, Youth Activist, Amnesty Norway, Meryem Khayat, 22, member of the Administrative Council and Executive Board of Al Morocco.

How did you all meet? What brought you together?
We, the core group, were all chosen for this project based on our various backgrounds as activists; our skill level combined is pretty impressive. We first met for a prepcom meeting in Oslo in June. It was a five day youth lab which aimed to bring together youth activists from Norway and the MENA region to develop and organize an international human rights conference on a specific theme. The four of us and Fatima, from Kuwait, who had a big role in preparing the work, were chosen by our respective sections or regional offices, and it was a great opportunity for us to get to know each other throughout the course of the youth lab. In addition to working together on an issue that we care about, namely human rights and freedom of expression, we had the chance to engage in social activities which really strengthened our bond. After the meeting in Oslo we have had regular online meetings to develop the agenda and prepare for the Lab in Beirut. 

Youth activists from Amnesty MENA and Norway outside Amnesty International Norway Youth activists from Amnesty MENA and Norway outside Amnesty International Norway
The Core group outside Amnesty International Norway during the prepcom meeting ©Private

What piqued your interest in Human Rights, and how did you get involved with Amnesty’s human rights education?

Meryem: Since an early age, I was taking human rights violations and injustice personally. I was never satisfied by the increasing number of violations and humiliations in my country. During my second semester at university, I knew there was a local Amnesty International youth group on campus, so I decided to join. One semester later, I was the president of that club and a member of the Administrative Council of Amnesty Morocco. I learnt about human rights education through the projects my section works on (Human Rights Friendly Schools for example), but we -activists in my local group- usually used education in our workshops at the university even before I got to know the Amnesty Human Rights Academy. After using the amazing platform, I got to know more about HRE, and realized the importance of HRE in my community.

Joumana: Living in Lebanon, it is difficult not to encounter injustice. Very basic services such as water, electricity, and transportation are poorly provided by the government, which is coupled with aggressive social norms and legal structures that discriminate against migrants, refugees, women, and the LGBTQ community. This is a very harsh environment to live in, and I couldn’t simply settle for this reality. I always felt a personal responsibility to do something about the circumstances in my country. This made me a political activist, and through the network of activists in Lebanon I discovered Amnesty’s human rights education program and participated in a workshop in Beirut. Since then, I’ve been working with Amnesty.

Lise: During my first year in law school I was looking for an organization that actually made a difference. I had a lot of options but Amnesty really caught my eye.

Grethe: I got involved with Amnesty and human rights when I started studying law at the University of Oslo in 2014 and became active in the Amnesty student group there. My involvement with Amnesty’s human rights education started when I began volunteering to hold presentations for high school students about Amnesty International Norway’s national campaign against rape (“Nei er nei”). Gender-based violence, including rape and sexual violence, is still a big issue in Norway we are trying to tackle.  

Youth Activist, Lise Sundelin from Amnesty International Norway Youth Activist, Lise Sundelin from Amnesty International Norway
Youth Activist, Lise Sundelin from Amnesty International Norway ©Private

What is the importance of Human Rights Education?

Human Rights Education is essential to learn about your human rights, how you can claim them and hold governments accountable.

Can you tell us more about the Lab, what is the goal, how did it come together and what can participants expect to gain?
Our goal is to mobilize youth from Norway and MENA region to promote and take action on Freedom of Expression and other human rights. The agenda is set to equip the participants with the tools needed to fulfill the goal. The sessions we have chosen are very interactive, there will be next to none traditional “lectures”. Hopefully, by the end of the youth lab, participants will have a deeper understanding of freedom of expression and its complexities across different contexts, and they will acquire skills to empower them in taking action and promoting this fundamental human right.

What do you hope to achieve from this Lab, what outcomes are you expecting?

We expect that the participants will have a better understanding of human rights and especially freedom of expression, that they will be familiar with different forms of activism, be aware of challenges facing youth and human rights activism and learn about good practices from different contexts. The participants will also develop facilitation and organizing skills based on participatory and action-oriented methods and techniques and develop concrete actions plans. We are also hoping that the participants will stay connected after the Lab.

Working across borders, how do you think this has shaped your understanding of human rights, and their impact on a global scale?

Working across borders, and as young activists, we get to know the situation of human rights in other countries with different contexts. We get the chance to know that we are not the only ones demanding justice, but there are people all over the world doing the same thing we do, maybe with different tools and using different methods which we can benefit from. Also, sharing and opening up to others is important while working on human rights issues because it gives you more motivation to work hard in being an activist. It also gives you hope.

The core group during the prepcom meeting in Norway The core group during the prepcom meeting in Norway
The core group during the prepcom meeting in Norway ©Private

What advice would you give people who want to take action and defend human rights?

Meryem: The first advice that always comes to mind when someone asks me this, especially in my context, is that we should never underestimate ourselves as young people. It is also important to join a group of people who share the same interests as we do when we want to take action on a specific matter.

What has been the biggest success or achievement you’ve experienced as activists?

Meryem: Just the fact that many students and faculty members at my university are aware that we exist and we want to be heard is a great achievement for me. In April 2018, when I was the president of the group, we organized a Palestinian day at the University. It was a big success. The room during the plenary session was full of students, faculty and staff members to the point that people were sitting on the floor. Everyone in the room signed the petition of “Ahed Tamimi”, the 16-year-old Palestinian activist who has been arrested, thrown in prison and sentenced to eight months. Some students joined Amnesty right away after the success of that day. We got many messages asking us about our future events and how they can join us.

Joumana: My biggest successes as an activist have been collective achievements. When I was still at university, I was elected as the president of the AUB Secular Club, which is the biggest student-led independent political group in Lebanon and has been established and growing for 10 years now. This is definitely one of my best experiences as an activist, because through the Club we’ve been able to influence a whole generation of university students and propagate values of democracy, social justice, feminism, environmentalism, and anti-racism. This is particularly important because it’s being done in a context where spaces of free expression are limited and dominated by Lebanon’s ruling sectarian political parties. The AUB Secular Club is an example of a group that was able to break this domination and challenge the status quo.

Lise: The release of Phyoe Phyoe Aung in April 2016. My group “Amnesty Student Tromsø” had worked so hard on that specific campaign “release Myanmar peaceful students”. We were just about to have an new demonstration when we heard about her release! I can still feel the joy talking about it.

Grethe: One of my biggest achievement as an activist would be organizing a solidarity concert outside the Norwegian Parliament for Syrian refugees before the municipal elections in 2015. At the time Amnesty International Norway and 10 other Norwegian organizations were trying to lobby the government and the municipalities to receive more resettlement refugees from Syria. The concert gained a lot of attention in the media and we were able to collect many signatures for the petition.

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