Volunteering in Calais: Experiences and Challenges by Liying Zhang

Volunteering in Calais: Experiences and Challenges by Liying Zhang

Photo credit: Liying Zhang

You can connect with Liying on Instagram and via LinkedIn

Calais, the northeast city of France, faces the UK across the sea. The majority of migrants in Calais are waiting for the right day to cross the English Channel. They are mainly from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, some of the most dangerous countries in the world.

Recently, I had the opportunity to volunteer for two weeks in Calais. In the mornings, we would stay at the warehouse to sort and check donations and prepare for distribution and services. In the afternoons, we would go to campsites in Calais or Dunkirk, providing hot drinks, equipment for cutting hair and sewing, games and opportunities for English practice. Usually, distributions of brand new and second-hand clothes, waterproof boots, trainers, and hygiene supplies also took place.

I learnt so much in these campsites. One day, I met an Afghan man who had been forced to leave home 9 years earlier, but had never had video calls with his family because it’s forbidden in his country. Another day, I met a 17-year-old Sudanese boy who was wearing a pair of new pink gloves.  I said to him that I loved his gloves, that they looked so fashionable. He said twice that he had one more pair, and he could give it to me. Of course I said no: how could I take stuff from people who need our help? But I was touched by his kindness and we chatted more. He had left his country due to violence and wanted to go to the UK to study Computer Science. He had to cross the English Channel, but he said he was not afraid. I was touched by his bravery and determination, and also thought about my privilege to study in a peaceful environment.

There were also some challenging moments for me. As a young Asian woman, I also had experiences where I felt discriminated against and sexually harassed. Many of the migrants asked me if I was Chinese, and I said yes. Some said they love China, others smiled uncomfortably. One person used racial slurs against Chinese people. Another day, as I was distributing biscuits, a man came to me and said he loved me. I replied that you could not love me by my appearance. When I continued handing out biscuits, he suddenly hugged me, and I said NO, NO, NO. I have been flirted with or received marriage proposals before, but this time, a person invaded my boundary. The organization and other volunteers showed their care to me, but from then on, I pretended I was married, and I hardly showed my smile anymore. This experience led me to reflect on the gender and race dynamics and wonder how other women have suffered, as migrants, survivors, volunteers, and workers in the humanitarian sector.

On the last day of my stay, I donated some money and received a T-shirt that says MIGRATION IS NOT A CRIME.

If one stands, we must all stand together: Uniting our voices for women in Iran by Shirin Golkar

If one stands, we must all stand together: Uniting our voices for women in Iran by Shirin Golkar

Image credit: Women’s Entrepreneurship Program

Shirin Golkar is the Iranian founder of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (WEP). She is a passionate defender of gender parity and equality, fighting for a better world for women through peacebuilding, knowledge spreading, and practical assistance for women entrepreneurs in Iran and around the globe.

Connect with Shirin via: https://www.linkedin.com/in/shirin-golkar/ Facebook@Shirin Golkar / Instagram@ Shiringolkar

My country is a beautiful land filled with rich culture, warm family traditions, and an underlying strength that makes every Iranian stand tall in their shared identity. Despite its beauty, Iran has been less than perfect for its women. Recently, the women there have reached a breaking point under ever-worsening conditions, with riots and protests all over Iran now. Unsurprisingly, it is the women and school girls who are leading these protests. I have always known my compatriots are fighters, and have been saying for many years how resilient they are, how they are leading a social movement. For me, it feels like generational trauma is now boiling over, from my mother’s generation to mine, and even to Generation Z!

Though words cannot fully express the extent of emotion this situation arises within me, suffice it to say that I am exceedingly proud of these women fighting for their dignity and their existential rights.

The role Iranian women are playing right now seems unprecedented. It may be the first time in Iran’s history that women have been the spark and engine for an attempted counter-revolution in this manner. Women are the heart and soul of a nation. I believe the unrest now seen in Iran is a reflection of that heart, bleeding and broken, yet ready to stand up and change the way the world and our country views their value. Iran knows the sentimental value of its women–grandmothers are cherished, mothers loved, daughters treasured. But there is more to a woman than her place in the matriarchy, and Iranian women are calling their nation and the world to see what too long has been hidden from sight.

We need to help the women in Iran and the men and children who support them in this cry for life and freedom. As an Iranian woman myself, there is no doubt that these women are my sisters, but as a member of the global community and a humble partaker of many lovely nations, I now see we are all sisters in this, the human family. We in the global and academic community cannot leave our sisters alone. If one is assaulted, all are assaulted. If one stands, we all must stand together. These women are fighting for their basic rights. They have counted the cost and considered their cause worthy of risking their safety, even their lives.

Anything we outside the streets of Iran can do to amplify their voices can help. Having more people outside Iran take a leading role to talk about this does exactly that. If you would like to act in solidarity with women of Iran:

  • Share the news on social media as a symbolic gesture: utilize your platform to share information on the efforts taken by women and girls; by doing so, you are multiplying their impact.
  • Contact any organizations you are connected with to speak on behalf of Iranian women’s rights.
  • Academic awareness is a must: post analyses on LinkedIn, discuss the news in classrooms, assign research articles for students or publish one yourself if you can.
  • For those of you who pray: prayers too can create change in the world around us.

These actions have a ripple effect. We can all stand with the women of Iran. We stay hopeful and we stay positive that these women will prevail in their plight for a greater life for Iranian women now and for future generations.

The women-led protests occurring are not acts of mindless violence by a people against its country; they are the cry of courageous Iranians who wish to see their country and the citizens living in it flourish in equality, freedom, life, and liberty. For women, and for all.

Attention, please

Attention, please

Photo credit: Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

According to Johann Hari in his stunning new book entitled Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, research shows that among the top words gaining most social media traction, we find:

destroy, obliterate, slam

What? Really?

I search for evidence and find it too quickly.

DESTROY: I scan the headlines on Ukraine and read all the ways humanity can decimate itself in the name of something else. How to make sense of the violence inflicted and the terrible pain? The children around me have answers they’ve been given by their parents and their teachers: they are enemies, he is a demon. I cringe, encourage them instead to ask (for this is what I’ve learnt to ask when violence confuses me):

Which interests might be benefitting from this barbarity? Take your time to think expansively (while the peace industry wrings its hands…). 

OBLITERATE: But what if we choose not to see? Well, then (as we’ve also learnt), violence can only get closer. It starts to get uncomfortable. It starts to feel real, and possible, and Right Here. Suddenly so much human suffering inflicted by people and policies and everyday practices—In So Many Places—can no longer be denied. As too many survivors of injustice have been saying for too long: there is nothing new here.

We may deny, be we cannot unsee.

SLAM: In other news (and not so long ago), one of my students was arrested following their participation in a non-violent climate justice protest. This young person was urging their government towards more robust climate protection policies. What followed? Detention. Court appearance. Justice? My student now worries what a criminal record will do to their job prospects.

I am shamed by my complicity and my comfort. I bow to their courage.

We need to pay more attention. Our life depends on this.


Transforming Violence by Manuel León

Transforming Violence by Manuel León

Photo credit: Fundación Santa Teresa, Proyecto Alcatraz

Manuel León is a Venezuelan Economist and an MA candidate in Development Studies at the Graduate Institute, specializing in Power, Conflict and Development. His research interests are violent non-state actors, violence, peace and economic development. In the last four years, he has been an Assistant Professor at Universidad Central de Venezuela’s School of Economics, a Research Analyst in the private sector, and a consultant to the Venezuelan National Assembly’s Permanent Committee for Finance and Economic Development and now to the Observatorio Venezolano de Finanzas.

You can engage in conversation with Manuel via email: manuel.leon@graduateinstitute.ch, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @Leon_Manuel

Proyecto Alcatraz, a case of transforming violence in Venezuela 

Imagine you are a young man that spent all his life growing up in a low income area of a little town one hour away from Caracas. You grew up surrounded by gang violence since you were a kid, and with little to no opportunity to get away from it. Maybe you didn’t even grow up with your mom, you were raised by an aunt or your grandma and everywhere you went, you were not recognized as a member of the family, you were always marginalized, and subject to intrafamily violence and even sexually abused by a family member, like some of the young guys that are part of the project I’m writing about.

Now that you know the context, imagine you commit a crime with some members of your gang and you are presented, for the first time in your life, with two options: to go to jail, or to redeem yourself and pay the damage done with work… which one would you choose?

The ‘Proyecto Alcatraz’ was created in 2003 precisely as an opportunity like the one mentioned above. It was a response to the action of three young men that robbed the ‘Hacienda Santa Teresa’, where the company Santa Teresa produces one of the most famous Venezuelan rums. When they were captured, they were presented with the opportunity to choose between work to pay for the things they stole or be presented to the police and go to jail.

‘Proyecto Alcatraz’ is a social reintegration program for young people and adults with problems of behavior, through training in values, education for work, restorative justice and in which rugby is the vehicle of transformation necessary to move from a world of darkness to one with freedom and light. Throughout, young beneficiaries receive psychological accompaniment, another important factor for their transformation process.

The three young men that were apprehended were part of a gang called ‘La Placita’ that operated in the historical district of El Consejo, in the State of Aragua, Venezuela. When apprehended, the leader of the gang was about 20 years old, and the average age for kids to join was around 15.

Something interesting I found out during the interview I had with Gabriel, the General Manager of the project, is that the only supervision that these now ex-gang members had during their work in the Hacienda was another member of their gang and that, twice a day, they would talk with a supervisor from the company. They were never supervised by security force officers. This was done in order to build trust.

According to Gabriel, the environment where the kids grew up was so violent, that when given this opportunity to live in peace and in a calm manner, without the fear of being killed by other gangs, the probability of these members to invite more friends that are also in gangs was really high.

In this project, youth gang members participate voluntarily, they are the ones deciding to take the opportunity to change their lives and transform their violent leadership into virtuous leadership. The program achieves this through three routes:

  • Reinsertion and Restorative Justice: First, the Foundation Santa Teresa directly contacts and recruits gang members and invites them to go through four work phases in which, assisted by a multidisciplinary group of professionals, the participants develop new social and work skills to face a new life. (approx 200 young recruits).

The latter seeks to recover the affected relationships between victims and perpetrators, through a process of reconciliation and reparation of the damage, with the participation of a mediator and the community. Thus far, they have reached 1,449 people who have been made aware of options that exist in forgiveness, which they had not previously considered as an alternative.

  • Penitentiary Rugby: This part of the program uses training in values, through the constant and disciplined practice of rugby and psychoeducational support, as a tool for the reintegration into society of those deprived of liberty. (over 800 direct beneficiaries).

Again, rugby here is the vehicle for transforming violence, because for you to enjoy the game and, in order for your team to win, you must follow the rules and respect what the referee (the authority) states if you do wrong and a fault in favor of the other team is given. Both things that are usually not seen by gang members.

  • Prevention: Alcatraz Rugby Club, a rugby club composed of 5 categories: Infants, Under 14, Under 18, Female and Free Adults. By training kids and young adults on how to play rugby they are learning great ways to channel ‘violence’ in a good way, since the sport has rules and by following them, fair play allows for everyone to enjoy the game.

When I learnt about Proyecto Alcatraz, back in 2016 I felt contempt, but by looking at it in a deeper way I was able to grasp how great it is that, through sports, the lives of a community can improve. In this sense, Proyecto Alcatraz made me realise how important it is to be given a chance for redemption, a chance to change the life you knew.

Being given hope sometimes could save the lives of many by changing the life of just a few individuals, like that one given to the kids that robbed the Hacienda Santa Teresa.

In the looking glass

In the looking glass

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: an experiment in literary investigation

Annecy, France, 20 June 2021

This isn’t my story, I tried to console myself as I passed the (sparsely-attended) voting stations this Sunday morning, where (some) French people were exercising their right to vote in regional elections. But it is also my story, and so I felt a tugging sense of desolation: Why are so few people voting?

Over the years, the bureaucracy of immigration has dulled my own suffragist will. Far from home, I’ve submitted to simply paying the taxes that support the system that keeps us living in our haven of privilege and calm. I am fortunate enough to be able to choose this exclusion; if one day overpowered by a desire to fulfil my political franchise, I’d just go back to where I’ve come from.

Yet once we’ve crossed certain frontiers, going back is no longer an option. As Alice experiences in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 Through the Looking-Glass, some crossings are so transformative that old logics become too peculiar to sustain.

Having made it through the uncertainty, heartache and loss of this pandemic season, we must not now squander the perspective we were given on the strangeness of all that we had come to accept. Rather, for those of us fortunate enough to have made it this far, we have the duty to reflect on who we are, and to envision who we could collectively become.

What do we see in this mirror?

These days I see fear, masked in political vitriol around ‘protection’ and ‘security’. Such words promise to soothe visceral distress resulting from rising precarity and economic insecurity. These raw, searing concerns are painfully real for growing numbers of people falling off the receding  edges of prosperity and plenty.

Breath-choking, heart-gripping, stomach-churning, fist-clenching… Fear needs a place to go and searches for courage to help it find its way. But courage can be hard to find sometimes, and easier alternatives often emerge, like blame. Blame offers an apparent bulwark to protect us from that which we do not wish to see in ourselves.

These days the blame falls on the migrant (in search of dignity), but in the not-so-long-ago past it fell on someone else, and in the not-too-distant future, it will fall on yet another category of faceless unknown.

We have been here before. We will keep coming back to this place (mise en abyme) until we are willing to show up on behalf of our shared humanity.

One View of the US Election from North Carolina: Better Things to Come by Eric G. Berman

One View of the US Election from North Carolina: Better Things to Come by Eric G. Berman

Image credit: Rachel Berman

Eric G. Berman has worked for the United Nations and the Small Arms Survey on arms control as well as peace and security issues, with a focus on Africa. He is currently working on a study on Boko Haram and peacekeeping efforts in the Lake Chad Basin region.

My move from Switzerland to the United States to support Democratic candidates and progressive causes did not go as planned: most of ‘my’ candidates lost … and baseball was played without fans in the stands. Yet I gained a new appreciation for both the challenges to American democracy and the prospects for a brighter future.

I chose North Carolina as the state, the tenth most populous, was considered ‘purple’—i.e. in ‘play’ on the Electoral College map. This was so even though the Republican Party (frequently depicted in ‘red’) had won the presidential contest all but twice over the past 50 years against the (‘blue’) Democratic Party. The state’s junior senator, a Republican, was also up for re-election and seen as vulnerable.

My five-month sojourn consisted of three distinct activities. First, I engaged infrequent Democratic and unaffiliated voters in an effort to encourage them to vote. Second, I registered new voters without regard to any party affiliation (but focused on neighbourhoods that leaned to the left on the US political spectrum). And third, I worked for a Democratic candidate running for the General Assembly in Raleigh, the state capital. I knocked on some 7,500 doors, spoke with perhaps 1,000 voters, and registered about 200 people.

I experienced greater voter antipathy toward Trump than enthusiasm for Biden. The electorate in North Carolina certainly includes white nationalists (many households in the state proudly and prominently display the Confederate flag), Q-Anon adherents, anti-abortion proponents, and Second Amendment enthusiasts who won’t be voting for a Democratic presidential candidate anytime soon. But I met a considerable number of people who voted for Trump in 2016 who expressed buyer’s remorse.

That said, many voters, while unhappy with Trump’s tweets, rhetoric, and character told me that they would still vote for him. They felt their financial and economic prospects had improved during the first three years of his tenure and were hoping for a return to good times after a vaccine for the coronavirus was available.

Trump still carried the state, but by fewer than 75,000 votes, down from almost 175,000 in 2016. George W. Bush won North Carolina by an average of more than 400,000 votes in 2000 and 2004. Reagan won by more than 500,000, and Nixon by more than 600,000, in 1984 and 1972, respectively. Whereas Nixon captured nearly 70 per cent of the vote, and Reagan topped 60 in those two campaigns, in 2020 Trump fell short of 50 per cent in both of his runs.

Democratic candidates in North Carolina should do better in 2022 and beyond. In 2020, many college campuses were closed with students studying remotely—many from outside the state who did not have a chance to register in North Carolina. This group tends to support Democratic candidates. The Democratic Party authorized its candidates to knock on doors less than two weeks before election day. The Republican Party, I was informed, imposed no such restrictions. Post-pandemic, the Democrats will not be hobbled in this way. Canvassing, as this activity is called, is considerably more effective in turning out the vote than is phone-banking or letter-writing. Moreover, I met lots of voters who had recently moved to North Carolina from deeply blue states (e.g. California, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Washington). This migration, which likely will result in North Carolina gaining an Electoral College vote in the wake of this year’s census, shows no signs of slowing.

Republicans still control both houses of the state legislature and will draw districts in a manner that is advantageous to their cause (as Democrats are wont do in states they control). This practice, known as gerrymandering, is arguably a greater threat to the health of U.S. democracy than is the role of money in campaigns.

On a happier note, the state’s judiciary and the governor (a Democrat—who, incidentally, received some 50,000 more votes in 2020 than Trump did) will serve as an effective deterrent to the legislature’s worst instincts. And another city in North Carolina will field a professional baseball team in 2021—the state’s eleventh!

More importantly, I now better understand the complexities of the U.S. electorate. Trump’s supporters are far from a monolithic bloc. To demonize them and label them all as ‘racist’ or ‘misogynistic’ is both wrong and unhelpful. A way must be found to lower the rhetoric and work to bridge the divide. While I personally believe that the blame is not shared equally between opposing sides, I do think everyone must strive to walk back from the abyss and not stoke tensions.

I also found the chance to work alongside people who shared my values and aspirations to be restorative and inspiring. It’s easy (and understandable in light of the past four years) to become jaded and discouraged. Volunteering and working on partisan as well as non-partisan issues to promote civic duties and participation in democratic processes was worthwhile and rewarding. If anyone reading this is motivated to act similarly, there’s no time like the present as there are two critically important Senate runoff elections in Georgia on 5 January (especially if you’re supporting the Democratic candidates).