Basic human rights and fundamental freedoms are not as self-evident in other parts of the world as they may seem in Groningen. This something Abdou, a human rights defender from West Africa, experiences firsthand every day. He stands up to this, not without the risk of being silenced, threatened and arrested. As a part of the project Shelter City, Abdou has come to Groningen. The municipality and University College Groningen (UCG) provide a safe haven for him and take care of his program during his stay in the city.
Shelter City is a nationwide initiative of Justice and Peace Netherlands, a human rights organisation, to protect human rights defenders. Groningen and seven other Dutch cities, including The Hague and Amsterdam, provide shelter for human rights defenders from around the world who are being threatened because of the work they do. When Abdou (fictitious name) first heard about Shelter City, he was fascinated by the idea. ‘Basically, the initiative mentioned issues that really relate to me as a human rights defender living in an area that is unsafe. The idea of getting out of that environment for a while was appealing to me. I felt it was a good way to lower the pressure on me, because in the environment in which I live you are constantly at risk of being arrested. Usually when this happens you are detained and not allowed to see your family and lawyers. Sometimes you are not told why you were arrested and you can be held for many days, or weeks or even months.’
A good fit
Abdou has been at UCG since the second week of April, where he has been given an office and has enrolled in a couple of courses. ‘UCG has welcomed me very well. I have been attending classes, but also have been having engagements with various members of the staff and lecturers. In my time here, I’ll continue these engagements, the classes, the discussions with lecturers, but also take part in social activities and give lectures centred around human rights and Africa in general.’ UCG chose to get involved in the Shelter City project because the staff thought the initiative was wonderful and fit well with the philosophy of the college. ‘The college is not only about doing things right, but also about doing the right thing. Liberal arts and science is a programme that is also about providing people the possibilities to reflect on what is a good life, not only for you, but also for others’, Dean Hans van Ees explains. The University Colleges in Maastricht and Middelburg and the University of Amsterdam are also involved in the project, each sheltering another activist. ‘Part of the programme is to provide possibilities to educate oneself and I assume that many of these human rights activists have academic degrees’, Van Ees says about the universities’ involvement in Shelter City.
Not taking things for granted
First of all UCG hopes to create a good place for ‘their’ human rights defender. Yet Van Ees expects their involvement in the project to also be beneficial to the college itself. ‘We want to address global societal challenges, human rights is obviously one of them and geopolitical developments too. We want to address these issues in a way that is activating, in a way that creates awareness among our students and in way that is effective. This project allows UCG to go for all these objectives. We hope to involve the human rights defender in our programme as much as possible.’ Abdou is also eager to be involved, he wants to share his story with the staff and students of the university. ‘I think being here is an opportunity to share the story of Africa and my country, to inform people in Groningen of the actual state of affairs inside Africa. As someone who lives in Africa on a daily basis, I think I can share practical experiences which could be beneficial to the people here. It could give them new perspectives to be able to understand Africa.’ He wants to spread awareness of the fact that there are parts of the world that do not enjoy things that seem normal to people in Groningen, like electricity, water, good infrastructure and the effective delivery of public services.‘ The message that I hope to get across is that we need international solidarity for the promotion and protection of human rights and human dignity. Making sure fundamental freedoms are protected is an ongoing battle. People in Holland should not take what they have for granted, because it can be taken away. This lesson is embedded in our history and our experiences.’
Understanding differences and getting new ideas
Apart from teaching other’s, Abdou hopes to learn as much as possible himself from his experience here in Groningen. ‘By observing this community and it’s daily life, I am learning a lot in terms of how to promote social justice, human rights and sustainable development . Here there is a lot of respect for human rights and a high level of personal security and personal freedom. In my society, this is not the case. I am trying to understand the factors that are responsible for this difference.’ During his time here, Abdou wants to get new ideas on how to better do his work. ‘I live in a difficult environment, politically and legally. The government does not respect the rule of law and doesn’t respect human rights. In Groningen I hope to get more ideas on how to engage with communities and individuals back home. To be able to sensitize them and enlighten them about issues of human rights, about participation in their own affairs and in decision-making processes in order to influence positive change in our society. These are things that I have been involved with in my home country in West Africa for a long time, but I am sure I will exposed to other ideas, other tools, other tactics and strategies here that I am not yet using at home.’
Due to potential security risks, a pseudonym was used to refer to the human rights defender. His real name and country of origin are known to the editorial staff.
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