The Human Rights Foundation hosted the College Freedom Forum—a speaker series that hopes to inform students about democracy and human rights around the world—on Wednesday night at Harvard University. A series of civil rights activists and public dissidents shared their stories and answered audience questions about their own stories and the state of the world.
The audience, comprised of college students, academics, and professionals alike, filled the majority of a lecture hall at the Science Center on Harvard’s campus. The audience was given opportunities to engage with the speakers through a Q&A session and informal conversation following the event.
Steven Pinker, named one of 100 most influential people in the world by TIME in 2004, opened the event and gave his thoughts on the state of democracy in the world today. Pinker warned that “this year’s fashion is tyranny and dictatorship” and that media believes that “countries that are democratic are too boring.”
His outlook on the current state of global affairs was positive, however, as he said, “the world has never been more democratic than in the last decade.”
Leyla Hussein, who spoke after Pinker, served as the host and speaker for the event.
Following Hussein’s introduction, Portland Trail Blazers center and Turkish dissident Enes Kanter Skyped in to share his journey to statelessness as a result of his outspoken criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“I think the president views me as a threat because I am in the United States and I have a public platform and am able to speak clearly and loudly,” Kanter said.
He went on to detail how the Turkish government canceled his passport during a trip back from Indonesia, where he was hosting a basketball camp. When he learned that the government was looking for him in Indonesia, he escaped, in the middle of the night, to Singapore. When he flew to Romania, however, he was stopped by customs officials and told his passport had been canceled.
Kanter’s father had been incarcerated in Turkey for seven days and now he and Kanter’s sister cannot find work.
Kanter joked towards the end of his talk by saying “the only thing I terrorize is the basketball rim” but wants young people to “speak out against injustice.”
Following Kanter, Hussein rose once again and spoke about female genital mutilation (FGM), of which she is a survivor. Hussein noted that three million African women and girls are at risk of FGM and 500,000 European women and girls are survivors of it.
Hussein talked about her activism work in Britain, where she has brought awareness to female rights. Hussein said that she believes FGM is a global issue and that “girls deserve safety, but girls also deserve justice.”
“It’s not an African issue, it’s a global issue,” Hussein said, “but one thing I have learned is that you need allies to do this kind of work.”
Next, Abdalaziz Alhambra spoke on his experience fighting ISIS. Alhambra described Raqqa as a “forgotten city” before the Syrian Revolution in March 2011. During the uprising, he joined other protestors and found that with “[his] phone video, he could do something.”
Alhambra started sharing video of the protests when Syrian state-run media would not cover the protests, which would lead to him being incarcerated three times and even jailed for his journalistic efforts.
When ISIS took control of Raqqa, Alhambra joined with his friends to get information into and out of Raqqa. He founded Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) to publish articles, photos, and videos that came out of Raqqa so that the world could see what was actually going on. RBSS also distributed a magazine within Raqqa that looked like an ISIS propaganda magazine, but was in fact an RBSS publication.
RBSS has expanded to training citizens and working to combat the ideology that ISIS perpetrated because Alhambra believes that the fight is not over just because ISIS has been defeated.
“You can’t fight ideology with a gun,” Alhambra said.
Ti-Anna Wang then took the floor to tell the story of her father’s imprisonment. Wang’s father was jailed by the Chinese government on terrorism and espionage charges and thrown in jail after a one day trial where no evidence was presented.
Wang detailed her struggle to see her father, Wang Bingzhang, and her recent unsuccessful attempt that saw her be denied entry to China after Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. Wang was pulled off a plane with her infant child and detained by Chinese authorities before being eventually granted return home. She never got to see her father and has not seen him since he was imprisoned.
The last activist did not speak as much as his counterparts, instead he performed two songs on his violin while scenes of the civil war in Venezuela played behind him. Wuilly Artega, who has never been to school and taught himself to play violin, played violin amid the conflicts in Venezuela in 2017. He was eventually arrested, beaten, had his violin broken, and was ultimately tortured in prison. He is deaf in his right ear as a result of the torture.
Artega, with the help of the Human Rights Foundation, has been moved to New York where he now plays his violin in the subway.
“I became the wizard of my own life,” Artega said.
Featured Image by Owen Fahy / Heights Editor