On September 28th, students within Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations had the rare opportunity to catch a glimpse into the darkest parts of the world. The Undergraduate Diplomacy Student Association (UDSA) led a trip to the Oslo Freedom Forum hosted by the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) in New York City. The Oslo Freedom Forum is a dialogue where first-hand survivors, visionaries, artists, and lionhearted activists are able to tell their stories and share their gifts with the goal of creating a free, peaceful, welcoming world.
Opening the night was Thor Halvorssen, the CEO of the HRF, who told the story behind the creation of the foundation and explained how deeply he believes in developing a world of equality and peace. All the work that he has poured into his dream over the last eighteen years proved abundantly fruitful as the foundation has been able to help thousands across the world.
Following Halvorssen, the audience heard from Gulbahar Haitiwaji and Kalbinur Sidik, two extraordinarily strong women who were wrongly imprisoned in Uyghur concentration camps in China. While in prison, they endured unimaginable levels of anguish – so much so that as they shared their story, they teared up relieving those moments of suffering. Yet, after escaping, both Haitiwaji and Sidik chose to speak out against the atrocities committed by the Chinese government. Despite numerous threats, they continue to share their testimonies and work tirelessly to inform the public and advocate for Uyghurs still trapped in China.
Sanaa Seif, Egyptian filmmaker and activist, spoke next, sharing her experiences as a warrior fighting against the Sisi regime in Egypt. In 2011, Seif witnessed protests in Tahrir Square, a major town square located in downtown Cairo, which were sparked by rampant periods of intense police brutality. Inspired by this movement, Seif, alongside some friends, started an independent newspaper to report on the various issues at the core of the Arab Spring. She has been imprisoned three times, most recently from 2020-2021 for trying to get a letter to her brother, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who is also a writer and political activist fighting against the Sisi regime. Currently, Seif is working toward freeing her brother and many others from prison and bringing peace to Egypt.
Following Seif’s message, the audience heard from Víctor Navarro, who shared his experiences as a political prisoner in Venezuela. While studying at university, Victor worked as a journalist, and in 2018 he was imprisoned for speaking out against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. At age 22, he was sent to El Helicoide, the largest prison in Venezuela, known globally for imprisoning political enemies and those who have committed various human rights violations. While he spoke, he recounted the terrible conditions he witnessed and endured. He watched as prisoners were electrified, beaten, and hung by their limbs. The walls of the prison were filled with screams of those experiencing unbelievable levels of torture, leaving many of Victor’s nights sleepless.
In 2019 he fled for Argentina, where he has stayed since, in exile from his home country. While in Argentina he embarked on an incredible task and founded the non-governmental organization (NGO) Voces de la Memoria, a technological marvel that uses virtual reality within human rights activism. One of the organization’s most recent projects, titled Helicoide, recreates the terrible experiences of the prisoners in El Helicoide. By melding technology and reality, his NGO has been able to provide insight into the suffering that hundreds of political prisoners experience daily.
Pastor Seungeun Kim, a human rights advocate and leader of the New Age Underground Railroad, also spoke. As the head of Caleb’s Mission, a Christian Church located in South Korea, he works to aid North Korean defectors. After the unfortunate loss of his son, he and his wife devoted their lives to working to free, house, and ensure care of hundreds of North Korean orphans. The documentary Beyond Utopia highlights Kim’s work and portrays the trials many families undergo while escaping North Korea.
Other speakers at the event included Iranian actress and human activist, Nazanin Boniadi, who spoke about how the rights of women in Iran are being diminished rapidly. Garry Kasparov, Russian political activist, also spoke, passionately denouncing the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The testimonies of the speakers emphasizes the value of freedom and how millions of people each day experience their rights being stripped from them. Yet, the stories demonstrate how millions are fighting for good and willing to die for freedom. Despite the danger, the speakers’ passion and vigor inspire millions across the world. It is because of their efforts that we witness a global movement pushing members of the United Nations and legislatures to move to action against dictatorship and tyranny.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons