The fourteenth Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies annual summer school brought together 42 participants eager to learn about and understand the current Human Rights issues as they stand internationally, regionally and locally. The participants were comprised mainly of undergraduate Egyptian college students with a few graduate and foreign students. They were chosen from 250 applicants who had heard of the school through the Employment Fair at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, announcements at Non-governmental organizations, and from previous participants. For the first time, Baha’i Egyptians participated in the program, helping break down some longstanding local stereotypes of the Baha’i faith and people and adding a unique perspective to the various dialogues on religious and civil rights here in Egypt.
The program saw a shift from the previous 13 lecture based programs to a more interactive activity based forum. Each day consisted of two lectures and two activities. The activities brought together the participants to watch relevant films and to express their ideas and thoughts on the days’ topics through art (painting, theatre), discussion groups, and campaign groups where they worked as a team on building campaigns against various human rights issues and violations such as female genital mutilation and religion on identification cards.
The training course, which lasted for 18 days, covered a variety of human rights issues. It began with a broad introduction to human rights and what they are. The days following narrowed their focus to specific rights and relevant examples of those issues within Egypt. They looked at discrimination and racism. They studied the backsliding of Egypt’s social tolerance policies in the past twenty years. On the third day they heard a lecture on the role of youth in reinforcing citizenship. A topic with the Baha’i participants could add first hand experience of to the discussions. They looked at torture, the rights to safety, and human rights violations in Egyptian prisons. They heard about Women’s rights and society’s role in violence against Women. They were educated on advocacy, and non-violent action, university independence and student unions, new social movements in Egypt. They were also educated on the human rights law, international and regional mechanisms for protecting human rights, and the judicial system’s part in human rights protection. They heard about the specific human rights violations of Darfur, Sudan and how the media and human rights are related. The course also exposed them to first hand experience of what human rights organizations do on a day to day basis. They toured, and spent time in, the offices of the human rights organizations Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, Cairo Institute of Human Rights Studies and the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners.
The activities were designed to facilitate a deeper understanding of human rights and one’s own prejudices. The week started with an activity discussing the importance of human dignity and the need for everyone to be objective. They made each other passports that claimed they were from ’another planet’ so that they could metaphorically release their state constrained thought processes. On day three they were divided into 2 groups and were instructed to either build walls to a house or the roof (from paper and tape). This activity showed them the need we have for each other and the importance that good communication plays in being successful at problem solving. They were also asked to present first hand accounts of a human rights violation that they had witnessed. Originally only four participants had been asked to do this. However the response was so overwhelming the activity carried into the following day so that all participants could share their stories of witnessing, being a victim, or being a perpetrator of human rights violations in an atmosphere of tolerance and discussion. They debated terrorism versus defence and were shown the gray area in which this can exist especially with reference to Hezbollah. Through this they learned the art of listening and debate without accusation. They also watched films that highlighted various topics including ’the Beginning’ about choosing democracy of dictatorship, ’Borders’ about the mental and physical borders between neighbors in the Arab world and ’ Behind the Sun’ the controversial film about torture in Egyptian prisons. Finally, they worked collectively, over a two day period, on a campaign for university unions, students’ rights and a proposed amendment to Egypt’s Students Charter. They presented their findings and opinions to two of Egypt’s leading university independence activists, Mrs. Laila Sweif and Mr. Imad Mubarak, who advised them on ways of improving their campaign. The activities provided them with hands-on learning and skill acquisition that reinforced the information given to them during the lectures.
At the end of the eighteen days the participants had gained extensive knowledge on human rights, an understanding of their importance and value, and had acquired the skills to go out and tackle the challenges of human rights violations in society. Specifically, over half of them went to the high court in support of a Baha’i participant’s siblings’ battle for birth certificates the day after the program concluded. They organized the International day for Peace event held at the CIHRS on September 21st. Currently, they have also begun work on a news letter which they fund, organize, write, and distribute collectively.
This past summer school was an incredible success. The students learned a great deal and put their knowledge into practice. They challenged their own perceptions of the world and human rights and went away aware of the challenges Egypt faces in overcoming human rights violations and skills with which to tackle them.
To the hundreds of youth who participated in the previous fourteen annual summer schools held at CIHRS and to the hundreds who will participate in the upcoming years we want to tell: “Not 18 days but a lifetime”.
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