The Fight Against Tragic Realities

Sean Oh
Fellowship Location: USA (Los Angeles)
Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project

Already a month has gone by since I began my time here at Esperanza. The experiences and lessons that I have taken away from this organization have already greatly surpassed the expectations that I held before joining. Looking back and rereading my first blog post before starting this position, I began to realize how naive I was. How could I possibly hope to understand and even fathom our daunting, discriminatory legal immigration system? Beyond the already complex and difficult structure that it beholds, the current administration, particularly in recent weeks with threats of raids and new policies that physically prevent asylum seekers from even entering the States, presents greater obstacles by the week. I now fear listening to the news, as it now directly influences the work that I am a part of and the community that I am surrounded in.  

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of joining one of our attorneys at immigration court. That session was particularly for children migrants, and there were roughly ten children under the age of eighteen who were attending. I remember being so excited on the way to court. I imagined a dramatic performance where the attorney would fight on behalf of these children and eventually secure their residency and asylum for the United States. Tragically, what I actually witnessed was far different.

In removal proceedings, there are two types of hearings: a master calendar hearing, where the judge essentially confirms the date for a merits hearing, and the merits hearing, where the substantive case is made to the judge for asylum or similar status to reside in the US. What I attended that day was a master calendar hearing, and I remember being shocked as the judge announced that she found each child removable by law. Each child in that room–terrified and in fear of their lives in another foreign country where they cannot adequately speak the language–was found to be deportable.

I was stunned by my  surprise. The premise of each case, after all, is that these children are deportable, unwanted, illegal. I knew this to be true before I entered the courthouse. This is what I had signed up for and what I had so eagerly looked forward to, right?

I knew that this would be a difficult and draining battle but nonetheless, putting faces–especially the faces of terrified and shaken children–to the cause that I would be fighting for made everything so real. It became more than an internship, more than a fellowship. Lives were on the line. These children, mostly from the Northern Triangle region of Latin America, are not just economic migrants in search for a more bountiful life. They are refugees in search for survival, and we are their last defense.

immigrant girl standing near children and adults

photo courtesy of Esperanza Immigrants Rights Project

How Local Women’s Groups Are Helping Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence

Viktoria Pashtriku
Women’s Association Medica Gjakova
Gjakova, Kosovo

Welcome! My name is Viktoria Pashtriku and I am a graduate student at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where I am studying the collective memories of post-conflict regions, the role of women in the transitional justice process, and human rights. I am particularly interested in exploring the ways in which international administrations, local organizations, and culture/society address wartime sexual violence in post-war Kosovo. 

This summer I will be interning at Medica Gjakova, a local women’s organization that provides survivors of wartime sexual violence with psychological and health resources and legal and economic assistance, and that participates in lobbying and advocacy work to address societal stigmas associated with survivors and advocate for policies for women’s issues. The location of Gjakova is particularly valuable, as it was one of the hardest hit regions of Kosovo during the Kosovo War (1998-99), with some of the highest cases of wartime sexual violence and missing persons reported. 

map showing sexual violence incidents during Kosovo War

While at Medica Gjakova, I hope to utilize my background experience working at nonprofit organizations–including several women’s rights organizations–in communications, development, and event planning to contribute to advocacy and policy work. Some of these tasks may include the organizing of educational workshops and seminars, engaging Kosovo’s public through the “Be My Voice” campaign, which encourages people to openly discuss sexual violence, and contributing to monitoring public institutions for the way they tackle women’s human rights issues.

Through this human rights project, I hope to learn how local women’s groups are able to support and provide assistance for survivors of wartime sexual violence when international and local governance fails. I hope to discover some of the biggest challenges they face in their mission and how they solve them. And finally, I am very interested in observing how successful Kosovo’s pension plan for survivors of wartime sexual violence has been in its applicability and capacity to help survivors since its installation in January 2018.

Advocating for Writers at Risk Internationally

Romaissaa Benzizoune
English PEN
New York, NY

My name is Romaissaa Benzizoune and I am a freelance writer and an almost-senior at Gallatin, pursuing a concentration called “Resistance Writing.” Working at the headquarters of the human rights literary organization PEN International seemed like a natural fit for me. PEN has countless ongoing campaigns internationally in defense of the “freedom to write, freedom to read,” in addition to an array of writing prizes that they distribute every year. English PEN specifically hosts writers in residence, funds the translations of different works into English, campaigns for reform of the UK visa system, and fights on the front lines of half a dozen other issues. It is their Writers at Risk program, which “campaigns on behalf of writers and other literary professionals who are unjustly persecuted, harassed, imprisoned, and in the most extreme cases murdered in violation of their right to freedom of expression,” that I will work with this summer.

During my day-to-day work, I will research and monitor PEN’s cases of concern around the world; additionally, I will draft digital communications, assist in the facilitation of Writers at Risk’s various events, and do general logistical tasks. Of course, I don’t have a complete picture of what my experience there will be, especially given how tied it is to current events around the world, but I’m very much looking forward to it.

I was drawn to this project because, for selfish reasons, the freedom of expression is the one that interests me most. In the realm of human rights, freedom of expression is the one I can see myself working to defend, because it offers a lot of opportunity for affecting change in ways that are not necessarily legal. It is also one that has attracted much controversy over the years, controversy that has played out on the margins of some of my own identities (as a writer, as a Muslim, as an Arab), and I am really interested in learning about the ways that English PEN addresses such controversy. There must be specific perks and challenges with working in such a large international organization, and I am also interested in exploring the way that these play out in a human rights context.

Informality, Gender, and Value at Senegal’s Mbeubeuss Garbage Dump

Rachael Mattson
Women in Informal Employment, Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO)
Dakar, Senegal

My name is Rachael Mattson, and I am a first year MA student at Gallatin with a concentration in “political ecology of urban infrastructures and development studies.” This summer, I will intern in Dakar, Senegal, with Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), a global action-research network that aims to help secure livelihoods of workers in the informal economy, especially women. One of WIEGO’s main focuses in Dakar is to explore advocacy efforts and organizational strategies with waste pickers at the Mbeubeuss dump as a result of recent state plans funded by the World Bank to upgrade the dump, which presents a significant threat to waste pickers’ livelihoods.

Urban informal workers are frequently labeled as disposable, and their voices get obscured by a lack of recognition or legal protections for their work, so I hope to fill in this gap by exploring the relationship between labor rights and the informal economy. While interning with WIEGO, I will be working closely with a group of women food waste pickers who are the most marginalized group of workers at the dump due to the nature of their work and their status as minority Christian women. They likely have the most at stake in the face of the uncertainty of the future upgrade. 

Going into my internship this summer, I am interested in asking how informal labor organizations use the language of human rights to make claims about the value of informal labor and to protect their livelihoods. Building from preliminary research I did in Dakar in January and in line with my MA thesis research, I am interested in studying how the labor of women food waste pickers is valued in terms of worth and dignity, voice and visibility, and according to their own self-perceptions. By taking a closer look at what labor is considered “valuable,” I will grapple with the intersections of gender, informality, and notions of “disposability,” allowing me to better understand the structural factors that impact the work of women waste pickers at Mbeubeuss, what is at stake, and possible trajectories or implications for the future upgrade.

A significant challenge is anticipating the status of the upgrade, since it is currently unclear exactly how the site will change, what new infrastructures will be built, who will have access to them, and when these plans will start being implemented. Despite these uncertainties, I look forward to better understanding the lived experiences of waste pickers in order to unpack the potential gains and limitations of using the human rights framework in this particular context along with building on alternative approaches advocating for informal workers already underway.

Holding District Attorneys and Prosecutors Accountable

Sophie Walker
Court Watch NYC
New York, NY

My name is Sophie Walker and I am a junior at Gallatin. This summer I will be interning with Court Watch NYC, a collaborative project with the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, 5 Boro Defenders, and VOCAL-NY (Voices of Community Activists and Leaders). Court Watch works to abolish money bail, end mass incarceration, hold elected officials and prosecutors accountable, and create more transparency in the New York City criminal justice system. Through organizing a consistent presence of court watchers in arraignments to collect qualitative and quantitative data, Court Watch works to hold district attorney’s accountable and amplify narratives that are underrepresented in the media.

I began volunteering with Court Watch in October after volunteering in other court systems and reading about Court Watch in a newsletter. A few months before I read Josie Duffy Rice’s article, “Prosecutors Aren’t Just Enforcing the Law— They’re Making It,” and then listened to Rice on The Appeal podcast, Episode 1: “District Attorneys Are the Most Powerful People You’ve Never Heard Of.” I had no awareness of the scope of their role prior to this.

District attorneys (DAs) are elected officials that have great impact and influence in their jurisdiction (and beyond). There are five DAs in New York City (one in every borough), and they each have unique perspectives on the criminal justice system. Some things they are responsible for include deciding what charges and individuals to prosecute, requesting bail, remand (detaining a person until their trial), or consenting to a person’s release on their own recognizance. They have a lot of say in day-to-day proceedings in court.

Though I have lived in New York City for most of my life, I, as a privileged white woman, have unsurprisingly had little contact with the criminal justice system. I was not aware of the scope of the different systems and industries that make up the prison industrial complex (commercial organizations and state/government agencies). I was not aware of how being arrested affects a person’s immigration status and parental rights, and I had no idea that the majority of people on Rikers are detained because they cannot pay cash bail.

This summer I will be learning about and contributing to Court Watch’s organizing efforts for the Queens district attorney campaign (June 25). It’s a huge event, because the prior DA, Richard Brown, held the position for almost 28 years. Additionally, I will be working on an accessibility campaign and ongoing efforts to end cash bail. While I am not yet sure what my position involves day-to-day, I am excited to begin!

Triple Punishment: The American Deportation Regime

Judy Luo
Centro para la Observación Migratoria y el Desarrollo Social en el Caribe (OBMICA)
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

My name is Judy Luo. I’m a third-year student at Gallatin studying carcerality (i.e., the broad terrain of social control, punishment, and discipline). Over the summer, I will be working as a research assistant with el Centro para la Observación Migratoria y el Desarrollo Social en el Caribe (OBMICA). OBMICA is a thinktank dedicated to issues associated with migration and social development in the Caribbean.

My human rights project is concerned with the lives of people post-deportation, particularly those who were exiled due to a criminal conviction. According to the 2017 ICE End of Year report, 89.2% of Enforcement and Removal Operations arrests were of people with a standing or pending criminal record. Deportees are subject to mental and physical trauma of a triple-tiered punishment regime: incarceration, detention, and deportation. Immediately upon their arrival to a country they likely have spent little time in, Dominican deportees are booked and marked as criminal. The import of the myth of the “American Dream” casts them as failures in the eyes of the general population. The stigmatizing mark of “deportee-criminal” shadows them everywhere, rendering them structurally vulnerable to human rights violations. Dominican deportees face great difficulty finding work and housing, accessing health care services, avoiding police harassment, and forging a place in their new communities. Family separation and cultural alienation contributes to high rates of depression, anxiety, and a host of other mental health issues.

Through speaking to some researchers and activists who are engaged in this work, I have discovered that there are no standing organizations dedicated to supporting this population. This summer, I will be contributing to OBMICA’s new research initiative, which seeks to consolidate updated information on the living conditions and survival of Dominican deportees. One challenge that I expect to be constantly grappling with is working with a community that I am not a part of. In our seminar this year, we’ve explored in depth how Orientalism often plagues human rights work. A wholly insufficient but necessary step I can take to addressing this is diving into the work with wide-open ears and readiness to learn. I intend to apply the grassroots spirit I’ve acquired through prison abolition organizing here in New York to my summer work in Santo Domingo.

My Summer at Sakhi

Ayman Mukerji Househam

Hello! I am Ayman Mukerji Househam, and I am a master’s of social work student at NYU Silver School of Social Work.  A very personal cause drove me to take on this second career. I was a physicist and computer scientist before, but I always wanted to address a rather common problem in South Asian countries–that of domestic violence against women–so I chose to work at Sakhi for South Asian Women this summer.

“Sakhi” (Sanskrit सखि, meaning “woman friend”) is a nonprofit organization that was established in 1989 with the mission of eradicating violence against women. It is the second US-based organization that was formed to work on South Asian women’s rights. Sakhi offers culturally and linguistically competent domestic violence and sexual assault services, engages communities, and implements policy and an advocacy agenda to advance its mission. 

As a policy and communication fellow at Sakhi, my responsibilities will include developing and implementing Sakhi’s policy and advocacy agenda, formulating a proactive advocacy activation plan, and deepening its collaborations with South Asian women’s organizations (SAWOs) and other like-minded organizations, with the goal of creating coalitions in response to obstructive immigration and women’s rights policy changes. I will monitor, research, and analyze the effects of policy changes and will host a town hall to better understand the community’s needs and to help Sakhi become a survivor-centered and survivor-led organization. 

Domestic violence in South Asian countries is a complex problem with a long history. I have chosen the immigrant South Asian subpopulation to address the issue in a more contained scope, and because victims in the US–being in a foreign country–may be better positioned to escape domestic violence. Advocacy against domestic violence, specifically offering asylum to the immigrant subpopulation, has occurred in the recent past in the US. However, policy changes made by the current US political administration may jeopardize the protections that have been available to South Asian immigrants trying to escape domestic violence. My project would allow for Sakhi to proactively find creative ways to offer protection despite the political adversities.  

I am looking forward to learning more about the various policies that touch this intersectional human rights issue and learning about how to navigate challenging policy changes. The biggest challenge in my project would be anticipating scenarios that might occur in a volatile US policy climate.

My upcoming work with Al-Jumhuriya

Robin Jones
Beirut, Lebanon

My name is Robin Jones and I’m currently pursuing a master’s in Near Eastern Studies at NYU. My academic research focuses on Syrian politics and society, particularly in the context of the 2011 revolution and the ongoing war.

I will be traveling to Beirut, Lebanon this summer to work with Al-Jumhuriya, a Syrian media publication founded by activists and writers as a platform for discussion on the 2011 revolution and ensuing conflict. Al-Jumhuriya publishes reporting and commentary in English and Arabic dealing with a wide range of sociopolitical questions and human rights issues in Syria.

My project will involve participating in the editorial process for Al-Jumhuriya’s English platform. I will work alongside others from the team to decide on topics to cover and articles to publish, while also editing and proofreading pieces. I will also be writing and publishing articles of my own on topics related to Syrian politics.

For my own written work, I’m particularly interested in writing about an older generation of Syrian activists, many of whom were imprisoned in the 1980s and 1990s for criticizing the ruling Ba’ath Party. I would like to know more about how the dissidents of eras past related to the 2011 uprising. In particular, I’m interested in considering the life stories and ideological transformations of leftist political prisoners, and examining how they perceived and related to international human rights organizations that advocated on their behalf.

I also hope to engage with the debate surrounding “humanitarian intervention” in Syria, which has been discussed in the context of well-documented, large-scale war crimes by the Syrian regime. Critics suggest that modern humanitarian interventions replicate past colonial structures and serve as an alibi for Western foreign policy goals. While this may often be true, appeals for support from Western states have commonly featured in media produced by Syrian protesters, putting anti-war ideals in tension with imperatives of solidarity with a popular uprising. I hope to think further about the Syrian war in the context of other conflicts where questions of foreign intervention and transnational solidarity have loomed large, such as Libya, Kosovo, and the Spanish civil war.

While this is a unique opportunity to engage more deeply and directly with a political cause that I have studied largely from a distance, I anticipate that it may be challenging to navigate traumatic issues sensitively. As such, I will seek to remain aware of how my presence might alter or negatively affect certain situations throughout my work with Al-Jumhuriya.

Health Impacts of Stigma

Michael B. Clark
HealthRight International and Refugee Coalition of East Africa
New York, USA & Nairobi, Kenya.

Hello! My name is Michael and I’m just finishing my first year towards a master’s in public health at NYU’s College of Global Public Health, with a concentration in social and behavioral health. My primary research interest relates the health impacts of stigma, particularly among LGBTQI migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in East Africa.

For the last year, I’ve been an intern at HealthRight International, a global health and human rights organization that works to empower marginalized communities to live healthy lives. While there, I’ve been developing a strategy to improve LGBTQI health in sub-Saharan Africa, with a focus on mental health and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. With HealthRight, I hope to continue that work interfacing directly with local health providers to explore how we can strengthen health systems for the LGBTQI community in the region.

But the other half of my project will be working directly with the LGBTQI refugee community in Nairobi, a topic I will explain in more detail in my next blog post. Through the Refugee Coalition of East Africa, I plan to do some assessments of mental health and HIV medication adherence. Although medication for HIV is universally available in Kenya, those most vulnerable (gay men, transgender women, sex workers) frequently do not adhere to their treatment regimen. Sadly, people are still getting sick, and several refugees have died in the past year. So, I’m going to try to determine what factors are contributing to this, and how those issues can be resolved.

This is a community that I am passionate about and have been actively working with for the last several years. Their resilience inspires me and it is always evolving but always in crisis. A big challenge will be working with community leaders to develop a plan to think beyond the needs for tomorrow, and to think about how to better provide for LGBTQI refugees while they await resettlement.

You can find out more about the Refugee Coalition here:


Expectations, Goals, and Determination

Sean Oh
Esperanza Immigrants Rights Project
USA (Los Angeles)

My name is Sean Oh and I am a rising senior at NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study. My concentration is “international law and long-term nation development,” focusing on a comparative study between Latin American countries and East Asian countries. 

The human rights organization I will be working with this summer is the Esperanza Immigrants Right Project. I plan to work with the direct legal advocacy of unrepresented children, reuniting them with their families and working for their legal status to reside in the United States. 

I chose this project for two primary reasons: I am an immigrant who once lost status to reside in the United States, and I believe that children are the light and hope of this world. While my experience will not correlate completely with the experiences of those I will be working with, I believe in the importance of intersectionally shared experiences, which I hope to leverage into my position. While I believe that greater institutional reform is necessary for immigration rights, currently we find ourselves in the situation that we are in and must work within it to maximize the justice we can hope to achieve. 

Through this project, I hope to understand better the process of immigration and the types of institutional changes that may improve the system to be one of greater equity. What are the roadblocks that bar justice, and how do we dismantle the notion that immigration is a poison to this nation?

I anticipate a great deal of challenges. The battle for human rights always seems to be a difficult one, one constantly facing many and greater adversities. There will be institutional roadblocks and more logistical ones, since the organization I am working for may not have the proper faculties for the change that I hope to see. I recognize that these roadblocks exist but refuse to use them as an excuse not to try. I refuse to give in to complacency and I refuse to let injustice win. I am determined.

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