BY BROOKELYNN RUGGIRELLO, Student Life Editor
Amnesty International is a human rights organization with a presence in more than 150 countries. Get to know the students who make up UM-Dearborn’s chapter of the prolific activist group.
What does Amnesty International do?
Jessica Bacheldor, executive director of marketing and outreach: “We are one branch of an international group: Amnesty International. It speaks for itself. And we basically promote, raise awareness, raise money, try and get the word out and protest against human rights violations. So, it can be locally, it can be world wide, it could be another state over. As long as there’s a human rights violation, or something we personally feel could be stopped, we try and advocate for it and get the word out.”
How is the organization structured as a whole? Do you get instructions from an administrative branch or promote issues on your own charge?
Yousuf Ali, director of internal affairs: “Yes and no. The reason why is because there is some sort of centralization in that the group was founded in the U.K., and by nature that’s the biggest group. And there’s obviously a U.S.A. branch and what they basically do is do research into causes, preferably in their locale but sometimes international, and then they’ll release reports on these causes. A lot of the times, there will be letter-writing campaigns. Like for example, to Ambassador of X country to free journalist X who has been imprisoned for nonviolent offenses. Things like that. But, at the end of the day it’s up to the branches which particular causes they choose. Like they don’t have someone telling them, ‘oh, you must choose this cause because we said so.’”
You hosted an event on Tuesday, Sept. 22 that showcased some of your campaigns. What kind of projects are you working on?
Zeinab Jamil, executive secretary: “I focused on maternal health. I knew that women’s rights was something I wanted to bring to people’s attention. My mother being a woman who just gave birth a couple years ago, I was passionate about it because she kind of had a scare through her pregnancy; she had deficiency and malnutrition, she didn’t take care of herself as well as she should have, so I really wanted to go into that topic and we didn’t even really realize how some females in the U.S. don’t take care of themselves when they are pregnant and how such a big percentage of them try to go for C-sections which apparently, it [sic] affects the child and either the baby does not survive or it affects the woman herself after she gives birth. I focused on South Africa – there was a very small village – I believe it’s called Burma. They [women] have absolutely no clinics to go and be treated throughout their pregnancy or no vitamins available to them. They also, if they want to go to a clinic, they have a huge amount of HIV going around in the area. If they were to go be tested for HIV, they would be embarrassed. They worry about their reputation, they worry about everybody knowing who they are. A lot of the men prefer to not use condoms during sexual intercourse and they know they have HIV, so they end up passing it on to the mother. So, that was really important. I thought I’d bring it to people’s attention.”
Bacheldor: “Mine was a little less thorough, more broad. I did human trafficking, which is kind of what I’m heading up next semester. So, a lot of people don’t know that Detroit and Michigan in general is one of the worst states for human trafficking. We are so close to the Canadian border, we have the Canadian bridge, especially during the auto-show in Detroit. There’s not enough police to really keep track of the people coming in and all the people coming in to like see the cars or just who live on the streets. So, that’s when human trafficking goes up. But I focused on the borders mainly because a lot of immigrants are promised jobs coming in or they’re promised papers or don’t get the papers at all, or they get them and they’re revoked because they can. One woman was actually paid 30 cents an hour to work 12 hours a day, had no communication with friends or family and it’s just horrible the conditions they were forced to work in and a lot of the times when they are actually saved, they get treated like criminals and just deported. They have no rights. What I’m trying to go for is raising money for a local metro-Detroit shelter, maybe getting some petitions as well or the shelter I was looking at actually gives little supplementary [hygiene packages].”
Ali: “The event that I covered was about the Rohingya. Basically, they’re an ethnic group from Myanmar, specifically Rakhine state, and basically they’ve been denied their citizenship, they can’t vote, they’re ghettoized, they’re incited against. It’s a very serious situation and for that reason, a lot of them have had to flee to other countries. Out of a total population of 2 million world wide, 700,000 are living outside of Myanmar as refugees. So, it’s a very big refugee crisis. And as for why I chose it, obviously there’s the aspect of people being killed and having to leave their homeland but also because I kind of felt that it’s an orphaned cause. It didn’t get as much press as some of the other ones and I feel that part of what makes Amnesty great is that it’s not about following trends or jumping on the bandwagon, it’s very consistent in its devotion to causes and I felt like that would be fulfilling the purpose by choosing this specific group of people.”
Why did you get involved with Amnesty International?
Bacheldor: “For me, I am just a sophomore here and I’m a little baby. I came in as a freshman and I was in the honors college so I knew a lot of the orientation leaders. I kind of got involved because Afifah [president of the UM-Dearborn chapter of Amnesty International], who’s also in the honors college, was super outgoing, she’s very bright, she really wants to get to know you. She really took the time to get to know you, she talked about what their events were, what their plans were. She was very down to earth and she really wanted to know what I was about and what I was interested in. So, I just kind of wanted to make friends, but once I got into it, I really fell in love with the cause, I fell in love with the people.”
It became so much more than just a club you were in?
Bacheldor: “Yeah, the people I work with – they’re passionate about what they do, they care, they all had different things they’re passionate about and I love that so much because so many people just plead ignorance but we don’t do that and I love being around people who don’t plead ignorance.”
Jamil: “I actually just joined Amnesty last year but I had known Afifah for two years. I’m one of the Student Events building managers at the front desk and that’s how I met her and aside from being passionate about the organization, her personality just makes you want to be around her all the time and really get involved in what she’s doing and she really drew my attention and she told me: ‘you know it’s very easy to bring attention to these kinds of topics, but do you actually do anything about it?’ I can talk to you about a certain topic like Syrian refugees all day, but are we gonna actually go and take action? And that’s something that I really loved and how committed everybody is, how we work outside of school and we come after our classes. We had a meeting the other day at 8:15 and I was here till about 10:00 working on things. So, we’re really passionate. We wanna show people that we’re putting effort into it. Also, just because I on a daily basis get notifications on my phone about things going on around the world and it’s like ‘oh, what a shame this happened.’ Well, I can actually act upon it because I know somebody and I know people who can help me out.”
Ali: “Unlike the other two, I cannot really say that me joining Amnesty International was because of me knowing a specific person or anything like that. Although, I completely agree with what both of them said about Afifah; she’s a very outgoing person, very nice and all of the other stuff. As for myself, I actually knew about Amnesty before coming here. Freshman year of high school, I believe my brother took me to one of their meetings. And like I alluded to earlier, I was simply impressed by the wide array of causes that they were covering. For example, at that meeting, we signed a card to a person who was about to be executed based on very little evidence. So, I felt like that really connected to me because it wasn’t just about quote-unquote ‘my people’ or helping others. It was about helping everyone who needed help, regardless of whether or not they’re well-known or famous.”
What do you all believe is the biggest human rights issue that we face today?
Bacheldor: “Right now, I feel like the one that’s current and going on would either be the police brutality within our nation or the Syrian refugees because a lot of people don’t know about the Syrian refugees, or they brush it under the rug. Even I claim ignorance to certain parts and I don’t want to do that. It’s a really big issue.”
Jamil: “I definitely agree with Jessica – the Syrian refugees. And also, in my opinion, discrimination towards faith and towards race. That’s always been a problem for awhile, but I feel like it just keeps getting worse and worse. I don’t know if you heard the story about the student named Ahmed – that’s a really big deal. You can’t just judge somebody off of something they did because of their religious faith. That’s something that I think is really important.”
Ali: “As for myself, I would agree that Syrian refugees is the largest problem – certainly the one on the largest scale – a country of 20 million people, half of its people are displaced or refugees. However, I would like to broaden it out to include other refugee populations like the Rohingya. Also, the Palestinians and Central African Republic. There are a variety of refugee communities and internally displaced peoples that basically don’t have a home and by not having any home, you lose all of your rights – your rights to travel, and sometimes even your due process.”
What does that do to your psyche? What do you think about the people that call them “migrants?”
Jamil: “I mean, it’s just pretty insane because you don’t know what they’re going through. You don’t know how hard it was for them to even get to the position that they’re in – how they had to sneak their way through, how they had to come with only the clothes on their back and nothing else. It’s just not fair and that brings up the topic of statelessness and it’s 10 million people who don’t have a nationality.”
Bacheldor: “Additionally, for instance, my neighbors actually are immigrants, and from where they came from, they were doctors. They had degrees, they were very prestigious. But they came to America – I believe they were forced to – and here, one of them is a substitute teacher, the other works at Famous Hamburger. People think it’s so easy to leave, or they just downgrade it or brush it under the rug because it’s not their own problem, and that is just abhorrent in my opinion.”
What would you say to people who “plead ignorance?”
Bacheldor: “Personally, I would say that look at it as yeah, you can plead ignorance and your life will be happier, but look at everyone who is suffering because of your ignorance. Because you turn a blind (eye), there are people out there dying, starving, and even animals too. Not a human right necessarily, but there are so many things. People are being tortured, being thrown in jail and people are saying ‘it’s not my country. I don’t care,’ or they try and minimizing an issue by saying, ‘oh, you wanna let in migrants, but what about the veterans on the street?’ Why not instead of you complaining about veterans, you look for other solutions to maybe help them out? You can research, you can put together an organization. Be active instead of just complaining about things people are doing.”
Jamil: “Adding on to that, being at this school, we have so much diversity and you meet so many different kinds of people and it’s like countries I’ve probably never heard of myself. You think about that person’s background. I was born and raised here. I hadn’t seen my family overseas in ten years. I just went this summer. You get to see the difference in your lives and you really do appreciate where you are at the moment. But then, I have that privilege because I was born here. What do you say about people who don’t have that opportunity? They look at me and say: ‘I wish I can live in Michigan, and be able to go to school and drive around like you because I don’t have a car.’ Nobody really sits down and thinks about that because you already have everything. And that’s probably why they’re so ignorant. They’ve never experienced it themselves. Before going this summer, I didn’t ever think of that stuff before I went there. No electricity, you’ll be taking a shower and the water shuts off. Like, we really are not used to that.”
Ali: “In addition to the point about pleading ignorance, I have found that a lot of people also plead powerlessness. But the thing is, that’s not really true because ordinary people have a lot of power. For example, just the other day, an Egyptian journalist was released from prison because of a massive online campaign. Do you think that could’ve happened if people weren’t tweeting about it, writing letters and making Facebook posts? The point being is that in this day of mass-communications and social media, you have a lot more power than you think you have and you should not let it go to waste.”