A Civil Dialogue on Immigration: Recap

A Civil Dialogue on Immigration, our panel event co-hosted by the UAB Office of Diversity and Inclusion, took place on Monday, March 21. President Watts introduced the evening by acknowledging the diverse community of UAB and the criticism faced by leadership from students and the Birmingham community for the inaction following the executive orders on immigration. The goal of the panel discussions is provide a forum for dialogue as a means of gaining understanding and cultivating empathy. UAB is limited in taking political positions as a public university, yet moderator Suzanne Austin says that UAB, through this panel, wishes to “take a deeper dive into rights of specific populations, demonstrate support for international students, and listen to the concerns of the public.”

A woman at a protest in London holds a sign saying, "I stand with migrants."
“I stand with migrants. Anti-Trump protester in London’s Parliament Square,” by Alisdare Hickson on Flickr.

There are four panelists: Selvum Pillay, Khaula Hadeed, Catherine Crow, and Inocencio Chavez, selected to aid in shedding fact on the misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding immigration. Pillay, an administrator and international former student from South Africa, begins the conversation. He came to America in October 2001, and faced significant racism created by backlash from the prior month’s infamous attacks. He was told to “go back to Afghanistan,” but today still believes in fostering peace through discussion and the sharing of opinions. Hadeed gives voice to the importance of shutting down misconceptions about immigrants, specifically those of the Muslim faith. She provides statistics about immigrant demographics, including that are majority Christian and most often from Mexico, India, and China. She concludes her introduction with a bold statement that “we will look back and say that these years changed the future, and we must not repeat the horrors of the past.” Crow, is a former immigration attorney, who currently works at UAB as the director of International Scholar & Student Services. She works closely with the international students and faculty at UAB. Chavez is Youth Organizer for Community Engagement and Education Program at The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. He states that immigration is a human right, particularly for safety. Immigration, he says, is also a benefit to society by diversifying thought and understanding; cities and countries with the most immigrants have been the best and most effective. Chavez says his personal aim is to help Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students obtain educational help through Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama scholarships and non-federal aid programs.

The floor opens for questions. The first audience questioner asks, “Is there a difference between current and past vetting programs?” Hadeed answers by saying that there isn’t substantial knowledge on the new vetting programs, but gives her experience on past vetting programs. She says that there is a two-year vetting process involving numerous levels of qualification checks, and individuals can be turned down for something as inconsequential as inconsistencies in paperwork. Others can go through the entire process, be approved, and yet still be denied entry under executive orders. Hadeed says that she has lived here for almost sixteen years, but only became a citizen last year. Her husband, on the other hand, has been here for even longer and is still waiting on his.

A ripped banner that says, "Legalizacion Ahora!" and then "Legalization Now!"
“International Workers Day march in Minneapolis” by Fibonacci Blue on Flickr.

An audience member asks for opinions on the forty arrests over the last weekend, and how to protect targeted people, to which Chavez responds, stating their rights were violated. ICE may not be targeting innocent people, but innocent undocumented people are undereducated on their rights and tend to get caught up in ICE raids that focus on other targets. Chavez emphasizes the need to educate all immigrants and U.S citizens on their rights to deny entry, the right to silence, and other rights that many may not be aware of.

The third question is, “As an elementary school teacher, what should we teach about immigration?’ All panelists answer this question and their answers vary, but center on acceptance and respect. Pillay answers initially and says that he believes that children should be taught respect for others through the Golden Rule, because respect is the biggest service individuals can do. Crowe adds that she believes inclusion of lonely and unpopular students should be emphasized in schools, because we carry those inclusive attitudes from childhood into civil society. Both Chavez and Hadeed speak on themes of equality though diversity, and acknowledging and celebrating the uniqueness of every student.

A young girl with her hands in the air and tongue stuck out in a silly expression sits beside a sign reading, "No human being is illegal!'
“Rally for immigrant rights,” by Alan Kotok on Flickr.

There are a series of written questions asked by moderator Suzanne Austin to the panelists. All three questions focus on inclusion of immigrants in the workplace, involving economic change, job “stealing,” and the combating of misinformation on this topic. Pillay answers first and quickly says that the question of job stealing is a non-starter, because the question answers itself. UAB has four-hundred nurse vacancies alone; there is a surprisingly large amount of jobs out there. In addition, most immigrants are not taking desirable jobs. Crow adds that getting a job is not an easy process for international students. For domestic students, you can simply walk into a place and find a job easily and quickly. For international students, it is a lengthy process involving many forms, references, and other steps that employers often do not want to deal with. In addition, international students only have a period of ninety days after graduation to find a job. Even in cases where that period is extended up to two years for STEM majors, that period is punctuated with evaluations from the university and constant contact with academic advisors. Additionally, obtaining a work visa is awarded on a lottery system, so there is no guarantee that you will be allowed to work. There are also a number of protections for federal appointments for international students involving a public notice saying that domestic applicants can come to challenge the appointment. In essence, Crow is saying that the steps to getting a job for international students are so intensive that it does not make sense to claim that they are ‘stealing our jobs.’ Chavez has the final response by sharing a personal story. He says that when he grew up in a rural area, he and his parents works in tomato and melon fields. Non-citizens were hired to do this grueling labor intentionally so that the owners could underpay them—sometimes as little as one dollar for hours of hard labor. This is not a job that non-citizens are stealing from the American people, because no one would do that work for so little money. Austin answers the last part of the question about misinformation and says that UAB is doing that through public forums like these.

Two signs are held high against a background of trees. The signs say "Immigrants right are women's rights" and "We are all immigrants."
“”Immigration Rights Are Women’s Rights” & “We Are All Immigrants” Signs At The May Day Immigration Rights Rally (Washington, DC)” by takomabiblot on Flickr.

The final question comes from a man who introduces himself as Ramirez who works for an accounting firm. He says that undocumented immigrants pay taxes into the system but never obtain the benefits that documented taxpayers do. Many do not want to file anymore for fear of arrest and deportation. Ramirez asks, “Will it hurt the economy if immigrants are too afraid to file their taxes? What can we do to minimize being taken advantage of by people who try to underpay us and violate our rights?” Chavez answers and says to do something. Be in local government, host rallies, and organize. He warns that you will face plenty of rejection, but even if you only reach a single person, your message still spreads.

This panel was particularly effective because it magnified the voices of people directly affected by the executive order on immigration. It allowed non-immigrants to more clearly understand the institutional barriers and societal struggles faced by both documented and undocumented immigrants. As a model for civic dialogue, panel discussions are a fantastic tool to spread awareness and challenge prejudice in a civil way.

 

Bullets, Band-Aids, or Both: Ambassador Robert Ford Visits UAB

 

Former Ambassador Robert Ford lectures at UAB
Former Ambassador Robert Ford lectures at UAB. Photo by Nicholas Sherwood.

Former Ambassador Robert Ford, on Wednesday, March 22, made a stop to the UAB Alumni House to speak on the United States’ foreign policy on the Middle East and North Africa.  As a career diplomat serving the US State Department and Peace Corps for 30 years, his tenure was categorized by his reputation as a brilliant Arabist. He first served in the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Morocco and as US Ambassador to Algeria (2006-2008) and as the last US Ambassador to Syria (2011-2014).  Additionally, he served on posts for the US State Department in Bahrain and Iraq.  Ambassador Ford’s career was lauded by the US government, and upon his retirement, the US State Department conferred upon him the Secretary’s Service Award, the highest award honored by the State Department.

The opening slide, entitled “Not Our Business: The American Approach to Human Rights in the Middle East in the Age of American First”, foreshadowed Ford’s disdain for the current administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East.  This disdain, he continuously qualified through his presentation, stems not from tangible behavior the Trump administration has enacted in the two months since President Trump’s ascendency, but from the utter lack of preparation to mindfully and successfully engage in the drama of foreign policy.  The Trump Administration has thousands of positions to fill at the national level, including the Department of State; this vacuum signals to politicos a few potential assumptions about the Trump Administration. First, Trump and his cohorts do not have the necessary means (i.e. time, energy) to fill these positions. Second, individuals who may have served in other administrations have refused service in Trump’s government.  Lastly, the Trump Administrations simply have not realized the pressing need of filling these vacancies. The likely explanation is a mix of all three. Ford explained “America First” is not inherently a bad or unproductive philosophy.  Governments must have self-interest.  The very nature of government is to protect its citizens (says the realists) and to actively contribute to a prosocial world order (says certain liberals).  America First is not the problem.  The problem is the infancy of the Trump Administration in its experience and insight in governing. President Trump, prior to his election, never served public office at the national level. Critics of Obama’s immaturity in governing at the national level (as he was a first-term senator when he was elected president) should be losing their minds at the thought of a complete political neophyte taking the reins of the highest elected office in the American political system. The fact, Ford argues, is the Trump Administration is in the middle of a razor-sharp learning curve on the basics of governing America. They know not what they do.

Vacancies go unfilled. This directly affects foreign policy as it would affect any office without employees. The second challenge to effective foreign policy, the Middle East notwithstanding, is the president’s desire to eviscerate the State Department’s funding. Trump reiterates a ‘no nation-building’ philosophy during his campaign; again, this is not necessarily a lack of judgement. According to Ford, former President George W. Bush’s overreach into the Middle East (among other expeditions) certainly landed America in hot water. America has retreated away from wholeheartedly committing to nation- and democracy-building interests.  Some argue the pendulum has swung too far into situational interventionism. Obama’s failure in Syria to oust Assad (or effectively empower others to achieve this end) has certainly contributed to jihadism in the Middle East.  The foreign policy game Obama played in Syria, one example of many,  was structured around a ‘red line’ (in the case of Syria, this was the use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians). This hardline stance can undercut flexibility; Obama couldn’t act in the case of Syria unless definitive proof implicated Assad.  Meanwhile, Syrians died, jihadists recruited, and Russia peered into the situation with increasing curiosity-turned-investment. This tricky game of knowing when and where to intervene vexes every player of foreign policy, including President Trump.

a picture of Umayyad Mosque Courtyard, Damascus
Umayyad Mosque Courtyard, Damascus. Source: american_rugbier, Creative Commons.

 

The American foreign policy in the Middle East has been, and continues to be, marred with interests in diametrically opposed parties. America’s investment in Israel compels American State and UN players to willfully and knowingly ignore the stark human rights violations being committed against the people of Palestine. The American naval base in Bahrain, as in the case with Israel, incentivizes American foreign policy writers and players to ignore the repressive tendencies of the Bahraini state.  Iran and the Nuclear Deal, another linchpin in American investments in the Middle East, angers Israel. The Syrian government, with the help of Russia, is still murdering Syrian citizens en masse. These are the headlines read by individuals with a keen eye for Middle Eastern politics, however this is not the full picture, Ambassador Ford argues.

The culture in the Middle East adds another layer of complexity that is frequently ignored by self-proclaimed arabists. America has poorly interpreted and acted in accordance with the social values and cultural mores of the Middle Eastern peoples. Ford explained, drawing on his experience as ambassador, the people of the Middle East want employment, less corruption, and the relationship with their government characterized by dignity and respect. He argued collectivism, the impact of the faith of Islam, and the shadow of colonialism all shape the psyche of the Middle East. Group affiliation is a substantial psychological need in the world region; the need to belong, coupled with rising anti-American sentiments, may explain the success of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Culture and politics are intrinsically linked, though some myopic policy analysts and writers take the stance that ‘never the twain shall meet’. Integration, whether between opposing US interests or in the American conception of social forces in the Middle East, is a herculean task.

Keeping these two complexities in mind, the Trump Administration’s glacial pace of governing and the convolution of Middle East politics and culture, what should the American public look forward to in the new administration?  First, proposed Ambassador Ford, expect the budget cuts to soft humanitarian aid to alter the composite of human rights interests in the State Department. Institutions like USAID will be on the chopping block. Human rights, rarely discussed by the Trump Administration, will likely not serve as America’s guiding maxim in policy development. Militarization, according to Ambassador Ford, seems far more likely instead. Trump and his team advocate for substantially greater investment in the American military complex, to the tune of ~$54 billion.  Although the argument could be soundly made that human right-based interests and intervention in the Middle East typically co-occurs with other American interests (i.e. oil), the Trump Administration has wholly ignored the human rights approach in US foreign policy.  This philosophical and political shift may elucidate how Team Trump plans to handle crisis situations in the Middle East.  Increased defense spending probably equates to increased free-floating militia to be utilized at the whim of the President and his advisors. In short, this probably leads to shift towards favoring a hard power solution in potential situations of conflict. Another alternative explanation  is that Trump’s team simply has not yet created the necessary opinion required for human rights-based foreign policy. Ford argued, due to the egregiously early developmental phase of the Trump administration (coupled with lack of adequate staffing at State and other agencies), the human rights approach to the Middle East simply hasn’t been codified. For human rights advocates (and those who favor soft power approaches), this is the better scenario of the two.

Dr. Reuter, the Director of the IHR, with Ambassador Ford
Dr. Reuter, the Director of the IHR, with Ambassador Ford. Photo by Nicholas Sherwood.

Several factors will indeed influence the future relationship between America in the Middle East. Trump’s administration is new; making judgement calls on their policy and behavior is akin to putting the cart before the horse. In addition to being a new administration, the Trump administration itself is completely inexperienced to political leadership. This inexperience, when compared to past administrations, means foreign policy researchers will have to wait longer than usual for fodder to present itself for dissection. Prior engagements in the Middle East (Bush with his democracy-building and Obama with a situational intervention policy) have not only exacerbated the Middle East as a whole but have set a dangerous precedent for interventionism. Bush’s failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan illuminate the dangers of clinging to your guns too quickly.  Obama, though he favored humanitarian response over military intervention, taught policy-makers that armed intervention is necessary on occasion; look at the ‘too little too late’ case in Syria. Cultural values in the Middle East, such as the importance of family and religious identification, dictate how Middle Easterners will respond to the imposition of foreign powers, whether imposing by force or aid.  Beyond these culturally relative qualities, individuals in the Middle East share common values with the rest of the world: to have a job, to raise a family, and to be treated with dignity and respect. Culture, and of course this includes the influence of Islam, determines how US forces will be received in the Middle East. The people of the Middle East wish to self-determine, according to Ambassador Ford.  Self-determination may be difficult for a group of people whose lives and livelihoods have caught the eye of warmongers and bleeding hearts alike. The pressing question for President Trump and the rest of his Administration is what will help the Middle East self-determine the most: bullets, band-aids, or both?

Empowering Marginalized Voices in Birmingham – a Recap

a picture of the panelists
StandAsOne Panelists. Source: Tyler Goodwin.

On February 16th, Stand As One Alabama partnered with the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Institute for Human Rights, and several other organizations to put on an event titled: Empowering Marginalized Voices in Birmingham. The event was held on UAB’s campus, and was live-streamed throughout the world. You can see the event in its entirety here.

“This is to fight hate, tyranny, and fear mongering principles….this is the way forward,”

– speaker Ashfaq Taufique proudly announced as he opened the event.

The event featured nine panelists from marginalized communities: Jillisa Milton, representing the Birmingham Chapter of Black Lives Matter; Angel Aldana, representing the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice; Halah Zein-Sabatto, representing the Birmingham Islamic Society; Dan Kessler, representing Disability Rights and Resources; Isabel Rubio, representing the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama; Lauren Jacobs, the Youth Outreach Chair of the Magic City Acceptance Center, a center devoted to the LGBTQ+ youth of Birmingham; Tai Hicks, president of the National Organization of Women; Rabbi Barry Left, from Temple Beth-El; Reverend Angie Right, of Greater Birmingham Ministries.

The discussion began with the premiere of a film produced by McKenzie Greer, a UAB film student and intern for the Institute for Human Rights, showcasing the struggles of fellow UAB students who are a part of marginalized communities. The emotional video gave a small bit of insight into the pain that those featured in the film have felt and still feel today. Watch the video by Greer here:

[vimeo 204448381 w=640 h=360]
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/204448381″>Stand As One Alabama by Kenzie Greer</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/mediastudies”>UAB Media Studies</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>

“I feel hurt and angry. Hurt by a country that I consider my home, that I now have to prove my loyalty to. Angry that I have to constantly prove my normalcy to other people to prove I am not dangerous.”

“I was scared to get off the bus each morning, and thankful to get back on in the afternoon.”

“Being a part of a marginalized community is a full-time job.”

“She’s pregnant? That’s what she gets for having sex. She must’ve been stupid about it.”

“You have to be the best at whatever you decide to do, because people will automatically think of you as incompetent and unqualified, simply because you’re black.”

“She felt blatantly racially profiled, and that he thought she was a maid.”

“Just because someone is slower at learning and retaining does not mean they are stupid.”

Emotions filled the room as the production came to a close. Prior to the event, the panelists were asked to answer three questions as part of the discussion:

What are the challenges that you and your organization face?

What have you done to adjust those challenges?

How do you see the future if we do stand as one?

“It would be impossible to talk about the challenges we face in four minutes,” Milton said. She further discussed how “We have to challenge our allies all the time,” meaning members of the Black Lives Matter movement must go through greater lengths to rally their allies who do not identify as Black, as it does not affect them. She mentioned how it was difficult to obtain a sense of unity with their allies for this reason. “We are skeptical about other people’s support of our movement as a whole (we don’t typically see the same passion as shown with other movements), but continue to challenge others to address the barriers and to step outside of their comfort zones.”

As Aldana spoke, he described that the Hispanics almost seemed invisible. “With the Alabama Coalition of Immigrant Justice, we would like to work with our allies, so that we can identify ourselves as allies…as an Immigrant, and as a Mexican citizen of Birmingham, we want to protect and defend our identity just as you do.”

Zein-Sabatto proclaimed, “it comes down to systematic hate…Islamophobia is actually a billion-dollar industry…there are people who are assimilating xenophobia.” She explained how she told her family overseas how much she enjoyed America, and how that it is no longer the “rainbows and roses” that she once thought. “We must reclaim our narrative,” she said, reflecting on how one member of the Muslim community is asked by society to represent the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, losing their individuality. “You will find us with our headscarves and beards in the grocery store, on the streets, as your neighbors, doctors, colleagues, students, and teachers.” Moving forward, she explained that she has hope. “History repeats itself, and it is just repeating itself with another group.”

“If we look over the past hundred years, we see oppression and segregation against people with disabilities,” Kessler began, “while we have seen gains since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we still have a long way to go…we still hear such language as ‘cripple’, ‘special’, ‘wheelchair bound’, and ‘handicapped’.” He gave us insight on the challenges the community faces in the workplace: “Unemployment of anyone with disabilities is the highest of any marginalized group in the nation.” Kessler then brought to light the issue of segregation in the education system against those with disabilities, and how there are bills in motion trying to limit their education rights. He also spoke of how the turmoil of the disabled community does not end after their schooling in grade school, he told of the institutional bias in the long-term care services. “Have you ever tried to use Uber?” he asked, as he then put perspective into what is like to be disabled and unable to receive the same services as those who are not, “try being disabled and having an Uber driver have to turn you away because they are ill-equipped.”

Rubio began her answer with a powerful statement: “Discrimination is legalized toward immigrants.” She spoke of the laws against immigrants at the state and federal levels. “Immigration laws are currently weighted to favor immigrants from northern Europe, therefore tacitly enforcing an ideology of white supremacy in the US.” Speaking more on the bias against immigrants, she told us how there are places in Alabama where immigrants cannot get water services. The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama helped to register 1,000 voters this past year, and for that reason among others, Rubio says, “The future is hopeful. There is something going on and we have to do something about it…we can’t stand for where we are now.”

Jacobs, whose organization works specifically with the LGBTQ+ youth at the Magic City Acceptance Center, enlightened us on how the LGBTQ+ youth faces challenges such as being unable to find friendly and competent educators and healthcare providers, and lacking family support. She also educated us on the statistics surrounding the community: “Three in four trans students are not allowed to use the bathroom in Alabama; four in five are not identified properly…The average life expectancy for a trans woman of color is 35 years…Trans students are targeted by peers, family, and teachers.” She implored that we must be the ones who say something if we see something, and that “Standing as one would be a commitment to staying in struggle with each other.”

“Whenever you do anything in your life, your gender is a factor.” Hicks said, as she explained the issues that women face in today’s society. She and her organization, Greater Birmingham National Organization for Women, have been working to achieve social justice for women and other minority groups as well in Birmingham. She spoke on how people think that women in the US have it good compared to other countries, and that they should all just “shut up.” Reflecting back on the marches that happened earlier this year, and earlier in the century, “They have no idea how long we have been fighting,” she said. “You should have the right to raise a child, and feel safe that a government official is not going to gun them down.”

Left began saying , “Speaking on a panel like this to a group of people like this was not something I thought I would be doing in Birmingham.” To relate to the different ethnicities, identities and religions in the room, he said, “The same people who hate Blacks, Mexicans, and Muslims, often hate Jews.” He spoke of how a family recently withdrew their child from his religious school at the Temple Beth-El, in fear of being attacked. “People don’t feel safe anymore.” He gave his history on how he was once evacuated from Iran 38 years ago, saying he felt a connection to refugees. “Many communities feel under attack; anyone who isn’t a straight, white, heterosexual, Christian male, and even they feel threatened by losing their dominance.” He ended on a note to rally the communities in the room: “We are much stronger as one community instead of several separate communities.”

a picture of two people touching hands in unity
Unity. Source: Phillip Taylor, Creative Commons.

After the panelists gave their written answers, the audience was given the opportunity to ask them their own questions.

  • What are the next steps for someone who wants to stand with you?
    • Think before you post. There is a lot of fake information out there.
    • Build a personal relationship with someone in another marginalized community. Your efforts will go farther when you have a connection.
    • If you see something, say something.
    • Contact your elected officials.
    • Plan for accessibility at each event (contact Disability Rights and Resources to figure out how to accommodate).
    • Support immigrant businesses.
    • Fund the resistance.
    • Educate yourself on human rights. Find out where to go when your rights are violated.

Here are some ways to get involved with the organizations represented at this event:

  • If you identify as Black, connect with the Black Lives Matter Chapter of Birmingham on Facebook, or email birminghamblm@gmail.com. If you would like to get involved with Black Lives Matter, but do not identify as Black, SURJE (Showing Up for Racial Justice) meets every month at Beloved Community Church, and you can also connect with them on Facebook.
  • The Birmingham Islamic Society is having an open house on February 26th from 2 – 5 at the Hoover Islamic Center. All religions are welcome. You can also email them by going to the “Contact us” page on their website: bisweb.org
  • You can contact the ACIJ by going to their website: acij.net, or connect with them on Facebook.
  • You can contact the Disabilities Rights and Resources by going to their website: drradvocates.org
  • The Magic City Acceptance Center holds Drop-In Hours every Tuesday and Thursday from 3:30pm to 7pm. You can also visit their website: magiccityacceptancecenter.org
  • You can connect with the National Organization for Women on their website: org/chapter/greater-birmingham-now/ or on their Facebook.
  • The Temple Beth-El’s website is: templebeth-el.net/
  • To join the Stand As One text alert for when any Human Rights Issue is threatened at your local or national level, text “STANDASONE” to 313131

Non-discrimination is a Fundamental Human Right

Protests at JFK Terminal 4 on January 28, 2017. Photo credit: Julia Symborski.
Protests at JFK Terminal 4 on January 28, 2017. Photo credit: Julia Symborski.

In light of recent actions from the White House banning immigration of Muslims of certain countries, including permanent residents and visa holders of the U.S., it is imperative that we speak about the right to non-discrimination.

Discrimination is one of the most common and most widespread human rights violations. It is multifaceted and present at all levels of public governance and in civil society. It affects all parts of people’s lives, including politics, education, employment, social and medical services, housing, the penitentiary system, law enforcement, and the administration of justice in general. It can be open and clearly visible (e.g., ingrained in a state’s institution or laws), or it can be implicit and form part of structural violence (e.g., discrimination against people living in poverty). While no general definition of discrimination exists in international law, we usually consider discrimination to mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference which is based on specific characteristics of an individual and which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by all persons, on an equal footing, of all rights or freedoms.

Non-discrimination is thus one of the most fundamental principles of human rights. The very essence of human rights – rights that are inherent to all human beings, inalienable equally applicable to everyone, at all times, everywhere, and in all situations – is embodied in non-discrimination, which gives voice to the equality of all human beings. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights covers non-discrimination in Article 2:

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

Essentially, non-discrimination is the right to be treated equally before the law and in all aspects of life. It guarantees that equal circumstances are dealt with equally in law and practice. However, not all cases of unequal treatment are automatically discrimination. For example, affirmative action on behalf of marginalized groups to establish equality in fact is permissible. A violation of non-discrimination clauses would arise if similar cases are treated differently, if there is no reasonable or objective justification for different treatment, or if the means used are not proportional to the aim sought.

Today, this fundamental principle is embedded in all major international human rights treaties, some of which specifically focus on non-discrimination (e.g., the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination or the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women). There have been efforts to expand non-discrimination beyond the traditionally covered characteristics to include, for example, persons with disabilities or the LBTQ+ community. However, non-discrimination was not always a principle of international law. It was only after WWII, which exhibited the consequences of deliberate, systematic discrimination, persecution, and mass murder of specific groups in the most horrific way, that the principle of non-discrimination fully entered the realm of international politics and law.

Picture of flags and street leading up to the United Nations Palais des Nations in Geneva.
The United Nations Human Rights Bodies are located in the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Source: cometstarmoon, Creative Commons

In the U.S., non-discrimination is included in the 5th Amendment (Due Process Clause) and 14th Amendment, which provides in its Equal Protection clause that states may not “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Nevertheless, we all know that discrimination, racism, and xenophobia have a long history in the U.S. The legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws continue today in institutionalized racism and segregation along socio-economic lines. Similarly, xenophobia and the barring of immigrants based on their country of origin has been common practice. In 1924, Congress enacted laws that banned Asians from immigrating into the United States and established “national origins quota” that favored Western Europeans and discriminated against Eastern Europeans, Asians, and Africans. This practice was abandoned officially only in 1965 with the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which states that no one can be “discriminated against in the issuance of an immigrant visa because of the person’s race, sex, nationality, place of birth or place of residence.” Note that religion is not mentioned in this list and that this law only applies to immigrants, namely people who intend to stay in the U.S. permanently, not temporary visitors such as refugees, students, tourists, or guest workers. This law was designed not only to protect immigrants, but also American citizens who have the right to sponsor their family members or marry a foreigner without discrimination.

President Trump’s executive order, which suspends the entry of all refugees for 120 days, barres Syrian refugees indefinitely, and temporarily freezes immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries, thus most likely not only violates U.S. laws, but also fundamental principles of human rights, esp. the right to non-discrimination. It also stands in opposition of core values of U.S. culture, which includes a history of welcoming immigrants and a philosophy of humanitarianism. While the ruling by a federal judge last night partially blocks the President’s actions, it only prevents the government from deporting those who have already arrived at U.S. airports. It does not allow them to enter the country or discuss the constitutionality of the President’s order.

Victims of war and violence have been victimized yet again.  The heart-wrenching stories and pictures of families torn apart, of students seeing their dreams shattered, and of professionals’ fearing for their livelihoods will probably become a common sight if the implementation of President Tump’s executive order continues. The chaos and outrage worldwide are likely to persist, with grave and long term consequences for the U.S., for its reputation in the world, and the values that it stands for.

It is important in these times that we are well informed about our human rights and those of others. We will update this post as more information becomes available.

UAB’s New Student Organization: Students for Human Rights

Universal Human Rights. Source: Chris Christian, Creative Commons.

UAB is home to many firsts. From the first women ever to receive a biochemistry degree from a university to the graduation of the first female African American nurse ever in the nation, UAB has been a symbol of strength, empowerment and confidence to me. As a proud Muslim American woman from the south, I strive to embody all three qualities. I have found that wearing my hijab is the best method for outwardly expressing these qualities. I believe that in order to exemplify strength, empowerment, and confidence consistently, I must possess and fundamentally adapt an understanding the integrity of human rights. The subject of human rights is often one that leads to various arguments. Yet for me, human rights have always been simple because by definition, they should be guaranteed rights to and for every human being. They are a birthright.

Last year our nation faced an intensely controversial time during the presidential campaign season. Senator Hillary Clinton and then candidate Donald Trump seemed to represent polar opposites. Supporting one candidate meant being passionately against the other. It’s difficult to identity a time in which our country has appeared more divided in partisanship. Rather than addressing important human rights topics like poverty and racial injustice, the value and right of refugees, climate change, and disability rights as human rights issues, candidates used them as talking points for soundbytes and the presentation of the best supporter garnering appeal. I personally struggled to find balance; so did the country.

“Our hopes for a more just, safe, and peaceful world can only be achieved when there is universal respect for the inherent dignity and equal rights of all members of the human family.” –  UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

I believe that we can all agree, regardless of political stance, on the fact that any form of injustice–whether be it racism, bigotry or intolerance–is unacceptable. I see as the responsibility of every capable human being to participate in the fight for the inalienable and indivisible rights of humanity. Therefore, we have this opportunity to join one another, irrespective of individual differences including political and religious affiliations, and work together to right injustice beginning here in Birmingham and bring awareness to atrocities around the world. This is our time to make the local, global and the global, local.

This belief is what inspired me to start UAB’s first student organization directly dealing with human rights. Students for Human Rights is a student-led, student run campus organization that, as the student outreach arm of the UAB Institute for Human Rights, will afford students a platform and opportunity to express themselves as a voice for the voiceless by creating a community of inclusive dialogue, where partnership is paramount as we stand against bigotry, racism, or every form of injustice. This is an incredible time to be a part of UAB. Given that we live in the city that played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, I see Students for Human Rights as an additional avenue for many as they recognize their role in changing the world.

 

 

Refugees Crisis: Who are refugees and who should help them?

I can remember a few years ago, after hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, the term ‘refugee’ was used to describe victims in New Orleans. Civil rights activists in America were noticeably upset because of the negative connotation and mental image generated with the use of the term. Rev. Al Sharpton, in an NPR interview shortly after hurricane Katrina, commented, “They are not refugees wandering somewhere looking for charity. They are victims of neglect and a situation they should have never been put in in the first place.” Could the same thing be said for people fleeing persecution, civil war, and conflict?

When you hear the word refugee what image comes to mind? According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk. The agency established the Convention Related to the Status of Refugees in 1951 to aid the more than 1 million people who were still displaced from World War II.

Photo taken by Charles Coleman
Zabia and Firas Attar. Photo taken by Charles Coleman

The increase in conflicts and civil wars in Africa and the Mediterranean have created a refugee crisis that is threatening international security. We have to ask ourselves, “who are refugees and who is responsible to care for the millions of people who are fleeing imminent danger”? Today, refugees around the globe number more than 20 million people. According to data compiled by UNHCR, half of these refugees hail from 3 states: Somalia, Afghanistan, and Syria. The number of refugees continues to grow. This crisis has created an atmosphere whereby countless human rights violations occur on a daily basis; however, policymakers and politicians seem to focus on the affects the numbers of people will have on their population, rather than on the wellbeing of those seeking asylum or refugee status. On November 16, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter led a panel discussion that provided faculty and students with an opportunity to hear from experts who have intimate knowledge of this global crisis, including two personal testimonies, in an effort to bring understanding and ensure clear background information on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean is communicated.

Zabia and Firas Attar are siblings and Syrian refugees living in Birmingham. They shared their harrowing story of escape from Syria, and their  elation at arriving to safety  in America.  Elation turned to fear  when  calls from Governor Bentley and other state officials who believe that an influx of refugees would threaten Alabama residents. Refugees are not in America to destroy our way of life. They are hard working individuals who want the same things that you and I want— to live in peace and provide for our families.

Panelists. Photo by Charles Coleman.
Photo by Charles Coleman.

Catherine Philips Crowe, director of UAB International Student and Scholar Services, Dr. Serena Simoni, associate professor of political science at Samford University, and Dr. Abidin Yildirim. associate professor, UAB School of Engineering presented insights on how the refugees in the Mediterranean from countries like Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria, are impacting the populations of Italy, Germany, Australia and the United States. As an international community, it is understood that the responsibility to protect people of every state from harm when their country is unwilling or unable to do so belongs to all of us. While images of refugees such as Omran Daqneesh litter the Internet, you or me could have been born into a similar situation.

 

 

The Post-Election World: Emotional Responses an to Unexpected Win

Subway post-it notes. Source: Cait Stewart, Creative Commons.
Subway post-it notes. Source: Cait Stewart, Creative Commons.

Responses to the shocking election have been varied. The backlash has been deeply emotional and carried out in both online and public arenas. All over the country and world, people have responded to the results of the election with intense fear and shock. Some, of course, were elated by their own party’s win, but most have some concerns about the controversial figure’s rise to power. As the first President-Elect with no military or political experience, the world has hung in suspense to see if his actions will change due to his new position.  The post-election period has been filled with stress and grief; those who found online activism to be no longer useful, have taken to public outlets: protests, works of art, and wearing certain items in public to send a message.

The safety pin trend is one of the most widespread and also widely criticized. In case you’ve seen people wearing safety pins on their lapels and not understood, here’s the premise: You attached a safety pin to your shirt to show that you are a “safe” person to talk to; you are an ally to marginalized peoples and are showing your support of their rights in the wake of the present uncertainty. However well-intentioned this may be, these same marginalized populations that this movement was intended to support are critical of it. Critics of the safety pin movement say that showing allyship should not be limited to safety pins. Valeriya Safronova of the New York Times says, “Some Twitter users voiced criticisms of the safety-pin trend, calling it “slacktivism,” a word that blends “slacker” and “activism.” They expressed concern that wearing something doesn’t equate to action.” It still is a valid effort and perhaps gives hope that there are still people who are passionately pro-human rights when the country seems to have voted in opposition of those values.

Put a Pin In It. Source: Mike Licht, Creative Commons.
Put a Pin In It. Source: Mike Licht, Creative Commons.

Matthew Chavez’s art installation in New York City subway tunnels has been well-received. Chavez started writing Post-It notes with reactions to the election, and was soon joined by thousands of others. The notes range from angry to hopeful, but all give some sense of relief to those who feel too overwhelmed to engage in other forms of political conversation. The project is called “Subway Installation” and is mindful of the station’s workers, removing all notes from the walls before the day is over. Such a visible reminder of emotional  sentiment gives some relief to those who felt disregarded by the election’s results.

Protests have been the most controversial of these outlets. According to Washington Post, more than 225 people have been arrested nationally during these protests, most of which have taken place on college campuses. Riot gear and tactics have been deployed nationwide, including tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets. Conservatives have criticized these riots ceaselessly and call for their end. The nation will likely experience various forms of protests over the next four years, as this election was a particularly nasty and hard-hitting one. Unlike most elections in our nation’s history, the divide on the issues is so that many minorities believe their rights, liberties, and wellbeing is at stake. As the President-Elect has continually dialed back on his previously controversial opinions (such as his declaration to jail Hillary Clinton), the nation may find more relief than expected.

SPEAK OUT Rally at Inner Harbor in Baltimore MD on Thursday night, 10 November 2016. Source: Elvert Barnes, Creative Commons.
SPEAK OUT Rally at Inner Harbor in Baltimore MD on Thursday night, 10 November 2016. Source: Elvert Barnes, Creative Commons.

 

 

 

Islamophobia: A Threat to All

Source: Daniel Zanini H., Creative Commons
Source: Daniel Zanini H., Creative Commons

 

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Dalia Mogahed, Research Director at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). She delivered a powerful speech at UAB’s Hill University Center about an issue that has plagued American society for many years, Islamophobia.

Islamophobia, as Dalia Mogahed defines it, is “anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination based on an irrational hatred and fear of Islam”. According to a new report generated by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the University of California, Berkeley, over $200 million dollars is spent annually to perpetuate this fear, which is evidenced by the tone and volume of reporting about Muslims. Nearly 80% of the media coverage about Islam is negative portraying Muslims as more dangerous than countries armed with nuclear weapons, drug addiction, or diseases such as cancer. As Americans, it is important that we seek out facts and form our own opinions rather than bending to the bias of others. Prejudice of any kind is a problem that affects all Americans by threatening our safety and way of life.

Islamophobia lecture.
Islamophobia lecture. Photo credit: Charles Coleman.

According to an ISPU report, Islamophobia is a gateway to other types of discrimination such as anti-Semitism, human rights violations, and anti-rights legislation. For example, Mogahed mentions the recently released Community Brief “Manufacturing Bigotry”. In that study, researchers find that legislators who promote Islamophobic agendas are 80% more likely to support anti-foreign legislation, voter identification mandates, and limitations on immigration and oppose women’s rights, access to abortion, and same-sex marriage – all laws empowering groups marginalized in the political process. She points out that

“fear erodes freedom, which is the foundation of our democracy”

and makes us more accepting of authoritarianism, conformity, and prejudices.

Each of these limiting ideas makes all Americans less safe. In fact, according to a recent report generated by Freedom house, the perpetuation of Islamaphobia aids the rise of terrorist rhetoric and opens the door for extremist ideology. One example Mogahed provided is a recruitment tape released by Al-Shabaab, a Somali terrorist group. In this clip, terrorists use an audio excerpt from one of presidential nominee Donald Trumps rants to push their Islamist views and label American society as racist.

What can we as Americans do about this and how can we protect our freedom and ideals? Mogahed states that we need to educate ourselves and replace our fears with facts. According to Martin Scott, author of the journal “Catholics and the Ku Klux Klan”, nearly a century ago this same scenario presented itself, but it was Catholicism that was the recipient of discrimination and prejudice perpetuated by groups like the True Americans and Ku Klux Klan.

Source: Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons
Source: Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons

 

Today, we need to understand who American Muslims are and how they help shape the diversity of our nation. American Muslims are not only Arab. In fact most are African American, Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic. According to Mogahed, Muslims are the most likely group to reject military attacks on civilians, and contrary to popular belief those that attend the masjid or “mosque” are the most likely to be engaged in community and civic activities, not radical Islam.

American Muslims, on the whole, retain strong simultaneous American and Muslim identities and want to work to protect the American way of life.

Therefore, it is our duty to help Muslims protect their identity by not associating every Muslim with ISIS or other radical Islamist factions.  If we learn about Islam and get to know the Muslims in our community we will see that they are normal people who are more disgusted with radical Islamic ideology than anyone else because they are the group that is most affected by the actions of radical Islamist groups. I have traveled across the globe and met many Muslims along the journey. They would all agree that there is nothing worse than the killing of innocent people and any individual who condones these acts of violence does not represent normative Islam and its values. To protect our American way of life we have to move past the unfair framing of all Muslims as terrorists. Mogahed advises that we need to create strong diverse coalitions that protect human rights, and religious freedoms to build a stronger more pluralistic America. We have to challenge bigotry by calling out prejudices when we see them. At the same time, we need to not be afraid to call out anti-Muslim bias in media coverage, not shy away from having difficult conversations challenging prejudice, preach outside the choir and vote for government representatives who will uphold American values as opposed to letting fear dictate policy.

IHR Director Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter with speaker Dalia Mogahed.
IHR Director Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter with speaker Dalia Mogahed.