Strength for the Fight Ahead

January 20 marks the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration. For human rights advocates, the past 365 days have been marked by daily efforts to resist actions from our nation’s highest office that propagate racism, hate, fear, ignorance, and greed. Right now, we are fighting for a clean Dream Act even as dysfunction in Washington holds up these efforts.

However, reflecting on the past year, and the work of our partners and staff in action, gives us hope—this work tells a story that is much more about courage and perseverance than one of despair.

Our shared vision of a world free from oppression provides fuel in the fight to advance human rights. Working together, with our partners and allies, we have activated strategies that confront unjust power structures and challenge oppressive policies.

Here are just a few moments from the past year that motivate us for the work that lies ahead.

This year, sustained by the passion of our community and supporters, we will continue to focus on strategies for protecting families fleeing violence in Central America, fighting for an end to ethnic cleansing in Burma, and responding to the front lines of climate change and ready to respond to natural disasters.

An Interview With Rachel Freed, Vice President And Chief Program Officer

Carly Cronon spoke with Rachel Freed about her past work in human rights, what drew her to UUSC, and her most memorable moments with the organization thus far.

When and why did you first become involved in human rights work?

I grew up in a multicultural family and spent a lot of time visiting relatives in Southeast Asia, where I witnessed persistent inequalities and the dehumanization that went with it. It made me eager to develop my own understanding of how different political, social, economic and cultural forces shaped how and why people had certain rights over others.

Years later, a pivotal moment occurred during my junior semester abroad in India. I visited a rural fishing community that had been subject to fly ash pollution from a neighboring Exxon plant. Villagers in the community were mostly illiterate and had been told by the company that the fly ash was not harmful. In response to their concerns, the company-sponsored health clinics told villagers they were fine. This continued until a local nongovernmental organization working with a community member tested the water and found strains of harmful chemicals in the fish and streams.

Through outreach and education, the villagers organized the entire community, mobilized, and successfully demanded accountability. This experience helped me to understand the power of local communities and NGOs to catalyze vibrant and democratic social change movements.

What drew you to UUSC’s human rights work in particular?

My journey to UUSC was inspired by working with a UU congregation and community in a great struggle against injustice. When I graduated from law school, I worked for a civil rights firm in New York City, where the lead attorney humored my request to do pro bono work by connecting me to his UU congregation in Ridgewood, NJ. It was there that I met four passionate women who chose to spend their free time visiting detained asylum-seekers in detention centers. I offered to take one case, but then I started to get calls from the detention center on a daily basis.

There was one rather stark case I can remember – that of a Liberian refugee who escaped rebel forces during the reign of Charles Taylor, the former President and now convicted war criminal. After witnessing her siblings’ deaths, she fled the country and came to the United States. She lived here for almost seven years – just shy of the residency requirement to become a U.S. citizen – when a minor shoplifting incident landed her in detention, facing deportation. She had no representation, she suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and her kids had been taken into child protective services. My UU friends began to visit her each week to connect with her children’s government rep, and to help piece together the documents in her case. Next began our three-year journey together. It was quite a trek from Brooklyn to the middle of New Jersey, but my UU friends never failed to ferry me from the commuter rail, or deliver documents and do a visitation when needed. Eventually, we found the psychologist who had treated this woman in detention; he testified about her PTSD, and we were able to win the case. She was released and reunited with her children after nearly four years of living in the detention center.

I share this story because it is about a few caring individuals and what they accomplished by offering their time and generosity and by organizing their community for a specific cause. This is what drew me, and continues to draw me, to UUSC – it is our collective approach and struggle for justice in this world—as inspired by our founders and continued onwards through the years.

What do you like most about your job?

At UUSC, we are lucky to work with some of the most remarkable human rights activists around the world – people who wake each day not quite sure of what their efforts may bring for their communities, but who continue on anyway because of their deep belief in love, equality, and humanity. We are able to draw tremendous strength and courage from our partners. I also feel incredibly fortunate to work with such talented, passionate, and committed colleagues – I learn so much from all of our staff on a daily basis.

What is one of your most cherished UUSC memories or success stories?

One of my most cherished moments occurred during my trip to Nepal a few months after the 2015 earthquake, while meeting with one of our partners focused on trauma resiliency. They were helping to train a cadre of local teachers working with rural Dalit youth who had received very little support since the earthquake. We were in a small classroom when one of the children began to break down – she had lost her mother during the earthquake and was struggling to take care of her little brother. One of the trainers immediately calmed her down, and they sat for a while, talking and focusing on her breathing and the present moment. She managed to calm down, stop crying, and soon was smiling and sharing with us her dreams for her brother and telling us about her hopes for herself. It was really moving. I felt proud to know that UUSC was able to help bring trauma resiliency skills to teachers serving Dalit children in a remote area that had been overlooked by larger recovery efforts.

What do you and your team look for in finding new UUSC partners?

UUSC’s approach is unique to most Western human rights organizations because we center the voices of communities and their values in our pursuit to advance human rights and transform unjust power structures. Our model focuses not on a community’s helplessness or lack of knowledge, but rather their assets and their solutions. Therefore, we generally look to partner with smaller, lesser-known organizations doing innovative work to transform and empower marginalized populations, often in the face of extreme and adverse circumstances. The process of selecting new partners involves working with those organizations to identify how UUSC’s financial and other resources can be best leveraged to further human rights on the ground. It also includes mapping stakeholders, identifying points of power, and thinking through how UUSC’s voice and prominence as a U.S.-based human rights organization can be used to instigate systemic change.

What is an upcoming UUSC initiative that you are particularly excited about?

I’m in the middle of packing my bags for a trip to Zagreb, Croatia to participate in a convening that brings together our partners in the Balkans who are helping to serve Syrian refugees. At this convening, our partners from Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Croatia will be coming together to exchange information, build relationships, coordinate responses and collectively strategize on how to navigate the increasingly challenging political environments in which they operate. Our Balkans partners work in counties that have become increasingly hostile towards refugees, and their organizations are facing new government restrictions on their work. I’m excited to talk with them about their experiences and strategize ways UUSC can support their collective efforts during this critical time.

Global Compact for Migration Offers a Strong Signal for the Protection of Human Rights

             

L: Representatives from the Mission of Tuvalu to the UN and Palau’s Ministry of Immigration with Salote Soqo, UUSC’s Senior Program Leader R: Civil society groups meeting outside the conference venue

Delegations came together in strength and in unity to improve global governance on migration.

The stocktaking meeting for the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration which took place in Puerto Vallarta December 4-6, 2017 was “extraordinarily” positive. Extraordinary in the sense that during a time of rising nationalism and xenophobia around the world, there was great convergence amongst delegates to center the global compact on the protection of the rights of all migrants, and that the withdrawal of the United States from the compact did not seem to deter the spirit of the deliberations. What was seen instead was delegations coming together in strength and in unity to improve global governance on migration.

In addition to the unifying call for a human rights-centered compact that respects and empowers all migrants, other messages were loud and clear: the compact should be gender sensitive, respect migrant workers, protect children, counter xenophobia and the criminalization of migrants, encourage data-driven policies, ensure ethical business practices for migrants regardless of their status, uphold existing conventions and treaties, respect national sovereignty and above all else, increase the benchmark for addressing migration.

These are all overlying principles that we must support when it comes to governing all forms of migration, including climate-forced displacement. UUSC hopes that states will adopt these principles in earnest as they develop domestic and regional policies and we encourage states to combine compassion with urgency and diligence as they embark on this historic momentum.

The high number of non-state actors that turned up at the meeting and their engagement since the inception of the global compact has also been encouraging. From faith leaders to labor unions, and other civil society groups, like UUSC – our engagement with state delegations has made this process inclusive. Perhaps it was the scenery that made this meeting so pleasant or probably the fact that we were only a few weeks away from the holidays, but this is the standard that we hope the negotiations will adopt moving forward into 2018 and beyond.

Collaborating to Serve Refugees in Challenging Times

This week UUSC organized a convening in Zagreb, Croatia of civil society organizations – many of them UUSC partners – serving Syrian refugees along the Balkan Route. Twenty-six representatives from 16 organizations came together to discuss how they can better coordinate their work, to problem-solve challenges that they face, and to expand their networks in neighboring countries in order to continue serving refugees. It was a privilege to provide the space and hear reflections and feedback from organizations on the front lines of this crisis, many of which experience scrutiny and harassment from their local governments. Because of those security interests we have chosen not to name specific participants.

On behalf of the UUSC family, Rachel Freed and I were grateful for the opportunity to spend time with this quality group of attorneys, case workers, and humanitarians striving to protect refugees in an environment where doing so is highly unpopular.

Participants of the UUSC Convening of Refugee Service Providers in the Balkans.

The groups who participated in the convening face extreme challenges: the closing space for civil society organizations in Eastern Europe, a rising tide of right-wing governments and factions, and general anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the region. When the Balkan Route closed in 2016, refugees headed for Western Europe were suddenly stuck in transit countries ill-equipped to serve the long-term needs of asylum-seekers. Further, both the refugees and the organizations providing services to them faced growing public hostility fueled by a misinformation media campaign similar to what we have recently seen in the United States. Governments are using increasingly aggressive, inhumane tactics to stop the tide of migrants, and there have been reports of border guards pouring water on freezing migrants in the middle of winter, using attack dogs, and other forms of violence and intimidation at border crossings.

As refugees wait for their claims to be processed they are often isolated from the rest of society in camps with varying degrees of accommodations and where their freedom of movement and access to services may be limited. In the camps, education opportunities for children are minimal, and psycho-social support is insufficient to deal with the trauma many have recently endured. The organizations who came together this week are among the only groups providing essential services ranging from legal assistance; protection against gender-based violence and the exploitation of unaccompanied minors; and mobile teams providing medical care. Case management is challenging and the formal systems of care and communication are insufficient. Gatherings, like the one held this week, help the organizations build their relationships—expanding informal networks which are frequently relied on to provide care in such a complex environment.

Participants break out in small groups to discuss the challenges they face and how they can problem solve and support one another.

As the rest of the world turns its attention to other crises, these 16 organizations continue on until the job of resettling and assimilating refugees is done. Much of the funding that was available at the height of the crisis has moved elsewhere and what remains often comes with conditions that challenge the integrity of the mission-driven service providers. As such, the financial support of UUSC members is particularly crucial and we appreciate the generosity so many have shown to ensure we’re able to make a positive difference where we can.

Read Danielle’s pre-trip blog post, Balkans Convening Aims to Offer Support to Partner Refugee Organizations.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This week, we are highlighting ways to get involved in the #May1Strike, the Nepal Earthquake anniversary, and the anniversary of the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse.

 Immigration rights demonstrators rally in downtown Los Angeles 11 years ago.

How to Join the ‘Day Without Immigrants’ on May Day, Ariana Rosas Cardenas, The Nation, April 28, 2017 

 “When workers, immigrants, women, Muslims, black and brown, indigenous, queer and trans communities face exploitation, criminalization, incarceration, deportation, violence and harassment, we strike.”

This year’s May Day, an annual worker’s day strike held on International Worker’s Day, is expected to have the biggest turnout in over 10 years. Not only are immigrants and workers participating, but Native Americans, refugees, LGBTQ, and people of color are all joining to protest the Trump administration’s threats and attacks on minority communities.

Hundreds and thousands will be missing work, school, and shopping to show the impacts these combined communities and movements can have and to defy the hate and criminalization they are facing. This article highlights different events that are happening all across the United States.

Together with the Unitarian Universalist Association, UUSC has launched a joint campaign, Love Resists, to resist hate and create more welcoming communities. We’ve posted some more ways you can participate in May 1 events here!

Nepal’s earthquake disaster: Two years and $4.1bn later, Narayan Adhikari, Al Jazeera, April 24, 2017

It has been two years since the Nepal Earthquake, and only 5% of the houses that were destroyed have been rebuilt. The Nepal Earthquake destroyed close to 824,000 homes, which means over 800,000 families are still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt. Despite over $4 billion being donated and pledged for reconstruction efforts, only 12% of these funds have been used. A lack of government coordination and understanding, low participation among local groups, and overall lack of transparency have all contributed to slow recovery.

The article emphasizes that “the international community can bring about more lasting change by directing their support towards citizens and local organisations committed to solving the root problems of corruption and lack of information.”

UUSC is proud to be part of this international community that brings lasting change. We work with grassroots partners that are empowering survivors and protecting their rights as they rebuild their homes and lives. Read more about our work with two of these organizations!

It Has Been Four Years Since the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse—How Much Has Changed?, Michelle Chen, The Nation, April 24, 2017

Four years ago, Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza factory collapsed, killing more than 1,000 workers and fueling an outrage for labor reform needs in the garment industry. Despite this outrage, labor reforms have been slow to make. After hundreds went on strike at one of the manufacturing centers in Ashulia, labor activists and factory workers have been fired and accused of various acts by the same government that promised reforms and protections four years ago.

Wage theft and proper working conditions are some of the basic demands workers are asking for. Activists and workers that speak out are being punished, and at the end of the day, workers feel that large companies are only looking to make a profit. These workers currently only making $67 a month, and the raise they were asking for is still far below a livable wage.

International pressure has allowed for some regulations and improved working conditions, but without continued public pressure, workers are losing their right to organize – a detrimental effect on equal rights and protections. Without the ability to organize, there is also no structure to hold owners and bosses accountable.

The Good Buy, UUSC’s online store, recently published a blog with resources on how you can get involved in the Fashion Revolution campaign, a new movement to wake up people to the continued injustice in the garment industry.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This week, we are focusing on Climate Justice, as Climate Justice Month comes to an end.

How a Tiny Alaska Town Is Leading the Way on Climate Change, Joe McCarthy, Global Citizen, April 18, 2017

 School in Kivalina

“By 2100, as many as 13 million people living in coastal regions of the US and hundreds of millions more people throughout the world could be displaced by climate change.”

Kivalina, Alaska is a small village in Northwest Alaska, with a population of 420 indigenous people. Located 70 miles above the Arctic Circle, Kivalina is one of the most affected communities of climate change. The temperature increases have doubled in Alaska compared to the United States, and the Arctic Sea has evaporated by half in the last 35 years. In just 10 years, Kivalina will no longer be a place people can inhabit.

The people of Kivalina are mobilizing and planning. They are known to be self-reliant and have a lot of experience working with their communities and government. The article highlights more of the history of Kivalina and some of the work our partner, Alaska Institute for Justice is doing.

How a Warming Planet Drives Human Migration, Jessica Benko, The New York Times, April 19, 2017

There are obvious environmental consequences to climate change, but the effects are manifold. Climate change leads to droughts, floods, food and housing insecurity, and famine. This then leads to both political and economic insecurity. While there is no official legal definition for what it means to be a climate refugee, in 2010, it was estimated that 500 million people would need to evacuate their homes by 2015 due to climate change.

The evaporation of Lake Chad has led to 3.5 million already being displaced. In Syria, 1.5 million were forced into cities because of a three-year drought in 2006. Other areas, such as China, the Amazon Basin, and the Philippines have also experienced the detrimental effects of climate change, displacing and even taking lives.

On April 29, We March for the Future, Bill McKibben, The Nation, April 19, 2017

Climate justice is being threatened by the Trump administration, but the reality is, climate justice has been a decades-long battle with each administration. The current climate-justice movement is being led by communities, farmers, scientists, and indigenous people. Those that are marching march for a multitude of reasons: pipelines, the labor movement, fracking, solar panels to other sustainable measures.

The United States is facing setbacks with the current administration, but the rest of the world is showing hope. Solar panel prices have dropped, wind energy is being used, and other countries are investing in renewables. People continue to march, protest, and resist in other ways, defining what the new normal is.

Check out related blogs and articles for climate justice month

Three-part series on composting, The Good Buy, April 18, 2017

5 Ways to #Resist this Earth Day, Green Peace, April 18, 2017

Making a Deeper Commitment to Climate Justice Month, UUSC, April 19, 2017