Two Decades of Human Rights
Colby’s Oak Fellows shine a spotlight, and are aided in return
Since 1998 Colby has had 27 Oak Institute for Human Rights Fellows from 23 countries. Prior to being selected, they all had been working on various areas of human rights, from indigenous people’s rights to human trafficking to food sovereignty. Bringing their firsthand experiences to Colby, each made an impact on the College community, introducing students, faculty, staff, and the public to problems in different parts of the world. In turn, the fellowship experience has had a lasting, and in some cases transformative, impact on the fellows.
“My time at Colby is one of those times that I will not easily forget in my life,” said Zimbabwean human rights activist Jestina Mukoko. “I sought a seed of healing while I was at Colby. I think when I came there I was bruised. I had a lot of pain. I had a lot of anger.”
Established in 1997, Colby’s Oak Institute for Human Rights hosts a human rights activist on campus each fall that teaches a seminar class on human rights. The institute was created at then-President William R. Cotter’s request and made possible with a generous grant from the Oak Foundation.
Oak Institute’s latest fellow was Russian human rights lawyer Olga Sadovskaya in the fall of 2021.
This story was published on Dec. 2019 and last updated on Feb. 2022.
- 2021 Olga Sadovskaya A human rights activist takes a well-earned break from decades of anti-torture work
- 2020 Adriana Jasso Continuing the work, reaffirmed and refreshed
- 2020 Nasim Lomani Becoming reenergized to carry on with the fight for justice
- 2020 (Spring) Venuste Kubwimana Changing the youth, changing with the youth
- 2019 Jamila Bargach Activism with roots in education
- 2018 Bassam Khabieh As bombs fell, he took photographs
- 2017 Jinyan Zeng Individuals can make social change
- 2016 Khalid Albaih A solitary cartoonist finds a global network of support
- 2015 Jodi Koberinski For food activist, seeds planted at Colby are still growing
- 2014 Clare Byarugaba Solidarity—and a precious car—for an LGBT activist
- 2013 Maung Maung “Tony” Than and Mya Nandar Aung From prison to freedom on Mayflower Hill
- 2012 Zandile Nhlengetwa Teaching whites, for the first time
- 2011 Fatima Burnad Finding common ground in human rights
- 2010 Jestina Mukoko For a brief time, a house without a wall or gate
- 2009 Hadas Ziv Seeing America—and its issues—like never before
- 2008 Afsan Chowdhury Finding the company of other angry, idealistic people
- 2007 Nancy Sánchez After activist friends killed, a needed respite
- 2006 Joan Omaming Carling As burnout loomed, students offered encouragement
- 2005 Frances Lovemore Debating torture, in Zimbabwe and the United States
- 2004 Chanthol Oung Attacked from all sides at home, validated at Colby
- 2003 Raji Sourani “They sent us to the Middle Ages”
- 2002 Ushari Mahmud Standing up for children
- 2001 Sevdije Ahmeti A life dedicated to victims of war
- 2000 Héctor Hernan Mondragón Báez At Colby, a moment to breathe. At home, chased by threats of death
- 1999 Didier Kamundu Batundi In solidarity with victims of violence
- 1998 Zafaryab Ahmed After the fellowship, asylum granted
2021 Olga Sadovskaya | Russia A human rights activist takes a well-earned break from decades of anti-torture work
- Russia Civil Society Forum, “EU-Olga Sadovskaya: ‘In the Last 20 Years, the Problem of Torture Has Completely Stepped Out of the Shadow and Stopped Being Latent’”
- Forum2000, “Olga Sadovskaya: Torture cases in Russia are not a secret anymore,” February 2021
- New York Times, “Trump Said ‘Torture Works.’ An Echo Is Feared Worldwide,” January 2017
As early as first grade, Olga Sadovskaya knew she wanted to become a lawyer and protect those in need. She followed that path with determination and became a human rights lawyer more than a decade later. Since then, she has tirelessly worked to fight torture in Russia, her home country, and she was part of a team nominated for a Nobel Prize because of its efforts.
“I adore my work,” Sadovskaya said.
But continuously working on torture cases and trying to find justice in a broken system isn’t easy. “I’ve never suffered from burnout in my job, but I think this is because of my character … I’m a person who really needs inspiration,” she said.
She found that inspiration on Mayflower Hill, where Sadovskaya took her first significant break from her human rights work as the Oak Institute for Human Rights Fellow for the fall semester of 2021.
Besides re-energizing her, the fellowship gave her back something she had missed: teaching students. Until the government pressured her to stop, Sadovskaya taught courses on human rights at a Russian university. “I realized, actually, that I missed working with students a lot,” she said. She also missed planting seeds to inspire students to work in human rights—something that happened to her as a student.
Sadovskaya was a first-year law student when Russia ratified the European Convention on Human Rights. A professor introduced her to the European Court of Human Rights, and in her senior year, she joined an organization called the Committee Against Torture that was established in her home city, Nizhny Novgorod, to investigate and litigate torture cases.
“I just felt I belonged there,” she said of the three-person team. She began her career as a volunteer and climbed the ladder, becoming an investigator and working with the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations. In 2005 she was named vice chair, a role she remains in today.
She is proud of her work. “We’ve saved hundreds of people from torture. We’ve won hundreds of cases nationally and internationally,” she said.
“I was really inspired by being here [at Colby] because when you are able to look at what you have been doing from a certain distance, it already gives you some other point of view.”
But getting to this point wasn’t easy. “When we started, … there were zero verdicts for torture,” she said. There was also little public discourse, media coverage, or attention paid to torture. Now, it’s widely discussed. “We believe that this pressure, at a certain point, will reach the level when it will cause a systematic change,” she said.
At Colby, she shared her expertise in building an organization and calling attention to torture cases nationally and internationally. She loved her time in Waterville and the people she met.
“The group was really amazing,” she said of the students in the Oak Institute seminar. “I really enjoyed meeting with them. They had very interesting questions.”
The course, in turn, exposed Sadovskaya to a liberal arts education. In Russia and other countries, most students choose a discipline and only take courses related to it, she said. At Colby, she was surprised that students aspiring to become lawyers, psychologists, mathematicians, and chemists all were in one class.
“This inspired me a lot,” she said. Back home in Russia, she wants to find ways of initiating human rights discourse with people who don’t work in the field. “Because, actually, any discipline has a connection with human rights.”
2020 Adriana Jasso | Mexico Continuing the Work, Reaffirmed and Refreshed
Adriana Jasso crossed the Mexico-United States border for the first time as a child in the early ’90s. She was part of a 15-person group with her two siblings and her father—who followed his father’s footsteps as a bracero, a guest farm worker, and accompanied his children in the journey. They reunited in California with her mother and two other siblings who had made the crossing earlier.
Ever since, Jasso has followed issues concerning the migrant community. For the last 14 years, she has been advocating for the rights of other migrants as the program coordinator of the U.S.-Mexico Border Program with the San Diego-based American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Part of a four-person team, Jasso documents civil and human rights abuses, interviews those impacted, and helps them file complaints.
But the COVID-19 pandemic shifted her team’s focus to the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. “That detention facility since early April through the summer had become nationwide the detention center with the most infections of COVID-19,” she said. In collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other key partners, her team worked to free people from the facility—and Jasso became central in corresponding with women in the detention center. When the time for her Oak fellowship at Colby came, “I just couldn’t walk away from that critical time,” she said. She chose to participate in the fellowship virtually.
“When you’re invested in the work, it’s really, really hard to sense or to feel like we are really changing things. I think the experience and the conversations through this fellowship really allowed me to see the interest, empathy, compassion that is out there and the interest that is out there.”
In the fall, she remotely taught the first five weeks of the Oak seminars on borders and human rights, which the second 2020 Oak Fellow, Nasim Lomani, continued. “Once the students got to hear the program’s work, my experience, there was a building of a collective or a dynamic in the class,” Jasso said. In addition to bringing guest speakers from the frontlines to the class, Jasso highlighted the case of Anastasio Hernández Rojas, a migrant worker from Mexico who died in 2010 during his deportation by the Border Patrol, an incident that was caught on camera.
“I truly feel that a lot of the brutality and the impunity that happened in the case of Anastasio Hernández is symbolic,” said Jasso, adding that the case exemplifies the experiences of other migrant workers from Latin America. When the Department of Justice closed the legal case supported by AFSC in 2015, the UC Berkeley International Human Rights Law Clinic took it to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The lead counsel was one of Jasso’s guest speakers in the Colby seminar.
Some students saw similarities among Rojas’s case, George Floyd’s, and Breonna Taylor’s. “It was an interesting connection that was being made by the students, that had it not been for witnesses that recorded those instances of extreme violence, we would probably not be having these conversations,” Jasso said.
Her students’ empathy and sensitivity toward the issues stood out to Jasso. “In some ways, they were shocked and surprised as to how these injustices can continue to take place, because after Anastasio’s case, over a hundred more migrant workers, including U.S. citizens, have died in a violent way at the hands of Border Patrol.”
Doing this work for more than a decade and a half, Jasso has seen a continuous effort to militarize the border, regardless of the administration. “Some people call it the Washington Consensus that the border is a place which always seems to need an unlimited amount of resources, that the Border Patrol as an agency needs more equipment, more technology,” she said. But the last four years have been the most challenging, she said, with the implementation of policies such as the “Remain in Mexico” program, requiring close to 60,000 asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for a decision.
Although still engaging with her work at an unprecedented time, the Oak fellowship provided her with a breath of fresh air.
2020 Nasim Lomani | Afghanistan
Becoming Reenergized to Carry on with the Fight for Justice
Only two days after Nasim Lomani arrived on Mayflower Hill, a devastating fire swept through the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. To stand in solidarity with those affected, he organized a small protest at Colby, showing videos and reading letters that refugees wrote to him.
“I thought that it would be the best way to make a connection between what I’m talking about, that it’s not just telling some of these stories of something that is happening somewhere,” he said, “but making a real connection between people and the class and what was happening.”
From there, the original protest group grew in size and became known as Colby Solidarity Refugee Group. In the fall, they organized a series of events ranging from exhibiting works of the Greek Cartoonist Association on migration to selling masks with solidarity messages like “solidarity beyond borders” and “no human is illegal” to raise money for refugee initiatives.
Lomani himself was a refugee, arriving in Greece at 16. “I care about all of those things, I guess because it’s connected with my life,” he said, adding that anyone concerned with fairness and rights should too.
“It’s not the work that you’re doing that makes you tired, it’s the environment sometimes.”
In addition to joining a number of solidarity groups, Lomani participated in and served as a key organizer of important projects in Greece and Europe. For more than a decade, he has been part of the solidarity movement for refugees and migrants in Greece and beyond.
At Colby, he shared his experiences as a refugee and a migrant rights activist through events and courses including the Oak seminar on borders and human rights, and Oak Activist Research Lab on Mobility and Mutual Aid.
“Sometimes when we are talking about border violence, about border regions and victims of the borders, we have the feeling that those are happening so far from us,” he said. “For me or for [2020 Oak Fellow] Adriana [Jasso], we know that this is happening everywhere, even if you go to the smallest country in the corner of this planet.”
To make connections between the United States and Europe on border issues, the first half of the Oak seminar was taught by Jasso, whose work focuses on migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, and the second half by Lomani.
In class, Lomani strived to create a collective learning space with the students, where everyone learned from one another. While he brought in the practice, students provided the theory, he believed, adding that some students had experience working with refugees or were children of migrants.
For Lomani, the fellowship was an opportunity to briefly disconnect from the work. “I had some years of very intensive work, quite stressful,” he said. Stepping away from the crowded city of Athens to a small city in Maine provided a much-needed respite. “It’s not the work that you’re doing that makes you tired, it’s the environment sometimes,” he said.
And that environment was becoming more and more stressful over the years.
“The European Union is getting quite brutal in terms of receiving no mass migration,” especially in the last two decades, he said. He teased out three major events that increased risks for refugees and worsened their treatment in Europe: the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, which changed migration patterns; the EU-Turkey agreement that closed the border with Turkey and the Balkan route; and the changing of asylum procedures, shifting asylum from an individual right to a collective decision by the EU.
More than ever, he said, it’s important to speak up against injustices against migrants—something he says has been getting harder as the EU not only criminalizes migrants but also anyone with a different opinion on migration. “But we have to continue doing what we have to do,” he said.
After the fellowship, Lomani will continue his work in this realm with human rights organizations and activists. “It’s not something that you do for some time and stop,” he said. “Defending human rights and being politically active—it’s a political opinion.”
Spring 2020 Venuste Kubwimana | RwandaChanging the Youth, Changing with the Youth
Ever since he cofounded International Transformation Foundation (ITF)—a youth-led NGO in Kenya and Rwanda providing programs to facilitate communities’ development—in 2010, Venuste Kubwimana has worked non-stop. He thought the Oak Fellowship would be a chance to switch gears.
“It was the opportunity to take time off and reflect on the future as we were busy trying to expand our work,” he said. He was also looking forward to being in an educational setting, learning from Colbians while also sharing his own experiences.
But visa complications delayed his arrival at Colby by a month, until March 2020—just two weeks before the College went fully remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, Kubwimana said even those weeks inspired and reenergized him.
As soon as he arrived, he began teaching the Oak seminar. “What I enjoyed was the flow of the conversation with the students,” said Kubwimana, who wanted to explore real-world issues in class. The students learned and discussed Kubwimana’s work, including one of ITF’s major projects, “A Water Kiosk at School.” The kiosks, installed at schools with the community’s buy-in, bring clean drinking water to rural villages. They’re run by students in their free time and maintained by a user’s fee—determined by villagers themselves. So far, the organization has installed 15 kiosks—12 across Kenya and three in Rwanda’s Muhanga District—that serve almost 9,000 students and close to 90,000 community members.
“It was the opportunity to take time off and reflect on the future as we were busy trying to expand our work.”
A water activist, Kubwimana grew up in the southern province of Rwanda and survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide—but lost many of his loved ones, including his father. “I grew up in an environment where everything was so limited,” he said. “I wanted to do something that helps communities get basic needs.” When asked, ‘Why water?’ he answered that it’s life and that it has a ripple effect on communities, causing everything to flourish.
Sharing his work, he felt, generated a lot of interest and also questions in the Oak seminar. The students were very curious, asking endless questions to uncover every detail of the project. “That for me was inspiring.”
Unfortunately, Kubwimana’s course was canceled due to the campus closure and he went to Texas, where he has family. But he had one other opportunity to engage with Colby students: as a guest lecturer in Assistant Professor of Economics Lindsey Novak’s Economic Development course. “We went for more than two hours just talking—so many questions, it was really nice,” he recalled.
“When I think about those moments, those few ones leave you thinking, ‘Ahh, what could have happened if I stayed even more?’” Kubwimana will cherish those memories and hopes to stay in touch with his students. “Life brings you some strange moments, but they’re so enriching, you never forget that.”
And even from those short weeks, he walked away with ways to build on his work.
Colby felt like a family to Kubwimana. It’s a core value he hopes to mirror in his organization. Moreover, he aspires to establish a network that connects youth in East Africa and the U.S. to collaborate on projects and exchange skills. While the idea came to him prior to the fellowship, he said his time at Colby helped him realize its potential since Colby students expressed interest in his work.
All of Kubwimana’s plans remained viable because of the stipend that accompanied the fellowship. The stipend rescued ITF and helped it stay afloat during the pandemic.
“Getting the financial part from the fellowship, we are able to survive,” he said. “It was really something that it came at [the] right time when things were going south financially.”
2019 Jamila Bargach | MoroccoActivism with roots in education
- PBS News Hour, “How scientists are harvesting fog to secure the world’s water supply,” July 2019
- UN Climate Change, “Women led Fog Harvesting for a Resilient, Sustainable Ecosystem,” July 2017
- Ecosolutions, “Morocco’s fog catchers”
- The New Yorker, “Could Harvesting Fog Help Solve the World’s Water Crisis?” March 2016
- The Guardian, “‘Cloud fishing’ reels in precious water for villagers in rural Morocco,” December 2016
For several years, Moroccan anthropologist and human rights activist Jamila Bargach was the director of a women’s shelter in Casablanca that she cofounded in 2006. Then she came in contact with massive thick fog for the first time in the mountains of her country, stirring her activism and giving her scholarship a new direction.
“The fact of witnessing a fog event, what’s called the fog sea, was so very amazing that I just fell in love with it,” said Bargach, the cofounder and director of Dar Si Hmad, which runs the world’s largest functioning fog collection project on Mount Boutmezguida in southwestern Morocco to deliver clean water to nearby villages without easy access to water.
Although Bargach’s feelings toward fog were new, experimenting with fog in that mountain wasn’t. “I kind of connected the dots,” she said. “It had amazing results. … At the same time, the women who were [in] my husband’s family were still going to get the water from the wells and there are certainly some serious limitations about doing that.”
Currently, the organization brings fog-harvested water to 15 Morrocan villages in Aït Baâmrane, a Berber region, where women used to spend hours to bring water to their households. Now they can reallocate that time to do other things, such as to produce Argan oil. “We’ve just gotten funds to expand the projects and add in twelve more villages,” Bargach said.
In addition to fog harvesting, Dar Si Hmad is also deeply invested in education—a critical part of the organization’s mission. At the Water School, local children learn about the water cycle and water’s importance. The Ethnographic Field School teaches students, mostly from the U.S., about the impacts of climate change and responses to it. “The international students that we host mostly understand the impacts of climate change in a place where water is becoming scarcer.”
This fall, she shared her knowledge and experiences at Colby.
“I feel really humbled to be partaking in the footsteps of people who have been on this program before.”
“I love the class,” Bargach said about teaching on Mayflower Hill. “I think that the core of the class, of the students, are people who are very much committed to issues of environmental justice. And it’s a pleasure to hear them talk in class and comment on things that really touched them personally.”
During her fellowship, Bargach got to know the students more closely and tried to be a resource to them. “Colby students are serious, studious and very committed to making the world a better place,” she said. “I really appreciate their genuine engagement with environmental issues.”
Moreover, she used this time to reflect on Dar Si Hmad’s work. “I finished writing commitments to share the unique experience of fog-collection with interested readership,” she said. Bargach also attended numerous lectures at Colby. These talks, she said, inspired her to search for other possible solutions for water accessibility of poor communities.
“I am extremely happy and excited to have worked in the Oak Institute where Human Rights are the guiding principle of engagement,” Bargach said. “I feel really humbled to be partaking in the footsteps of all those who have made the unique experience of the Oak Institute.”
2018 Bassam Khabieh | SyriaAs bombs fell, he took photographs
When the Syrian War broke out in 2011, Bassam Khabieh turned his passion for photography into a tool to document atrocities.
“It was a huge responsibility for me, but it [was] worth it, actually, because if we didn’t do it—the local journalists, no one would do it— this crime, these human rights violations and war crimes, would not be documented ever,” said Khabieh, a self-taught freelance photojournalist, who first started taking pictures with his phone. Between 2013 and 2018, he worked as Reuters’ Damascus correspondent. From UNICEF to The Atlantic, his work was featured widely and internationally, and received prestigious awards.
“It was a big opportunity for me to share my knowledge with some brilliant students who were interested in human rights and photography as well. We talked a lot about what it looks like to be holding a camera in a war zone.”
“I covered different kinds of stories during the war; not just the sad side of war, but also the optimistic side,” he said, “people who try to continue with their lives, to overcome the obstacles of war, and to find solutions because life should be continued.”
His work brought him to Mayflower Hill for a brief respite. “It was a big opportunity for me to share my knowledge with some brilliant students who were interested in human rights and photography as well,” he said. “We talked a lot about what it looks like to be holding a camera in a war zone.”
At Colby, he also met an audience curious about what was happening in Syria. From those interactions, he found out that the details he didn’t cover—like cooking without electricity or gas, or digging a tunnel from one neighborhood to another to carry food during the shortage—were of great interest to outsiders. “If I came back to Syria now, I would not take a photograph in the same way,” he said.
After the fellowship, Khabieh settled in Turkey, where he’s trying to relocate his family. He enrolled at Istanbul University to complete his computer science degree. “I’m still in a transitional period, trying to balance my study and my work as a photographer,” he said. He’s working on a photo book project that would tell Syrian children’s story during war.
In the meantime, he’s observing that the situation back home is getting worse “because the Syrian regime wants to re-control also the north of Syria.” The future of millions of Syrians, he believes, will be determined by what the international powers will agree upon. “I’m so sad because no one cares for the life of people in the north of Syria.”
2017 Jinyan Zeng | ChinaIndividuals can make social change
- Colby Magazine, “Oak Human Rights Fellow Jinyan Zeng interviews artist, activist Ai Weiwei,” January 2018
- “Political Opposition as Way of Life: I have no enemies, I have love,” 2017
- Made in China, “Imagining the Digitalisation of Politics: A Conversation with Wang Lixiong,” Translated by Christian Sorace, November 2018
- Made in China, “We the Workers: A Conversation with Huang Wenhai,” Translated by Nan Liu, 2018
Zeng Jinyan, a Chinese documentary filmmaker and activist, came to Colby shortly after completing her Ph.D., when she studied the social activism experiences of Ai Xiaoming, an eminent Chinese filmmaker and human rights activist. “I was thinking of taking a break from my research and filmmaking work without worrying about supporting my life,” she said in an email.
“The kindness I received during my stay at Colby College has fundamentally changed me and has released me from my traumatic experiences in China from 2001 to 2012.”
With her 10-year-old daughter in tow, Zeng came to Colby for respite. “Teaching at Colby brought me the most memorable experience,” she said, adding how she loved seeing the students’ shining eyes in class. “Students are very intelligent, independent, and curious to know and experiment beyond their own fields.” Her class produced short videos to tell human rights stories in small groups. “They surprised me by putting so much effort into investigating local communities, raising critical questions toward authorities (including Colby College leadership), and presenting their research projects with their own cinematic languages,” she said.
In addition to teaching, Zeng continued her writing projects, worked on a film about working women’s issues, and went to film screenings of her 2017 film We the Workers. Her time in the U.S. gave her a new outlook, too. “I started to understand the practice of citizenship and democracy in everyday life via my interactions with, and observations of, people I met,” she said. “It further developed my belief in why and how to empower individuals rather than relying on big/collective powers to make social change.”
Her time on Mayflower Hill was also a moment of healing, she said. “The kindness I received during my stay at Colby College has fundamentally changed me and has released me from my traumatic experiences in China from 2001 to 2012.” During those years, both Zeng and her husband, Hu Jia, a prominent Chinese activist, were put under house arrest—the subject of their documentary film, Prisoners in Freedom City—and forcibly disappeared at different times. Zeng is still pursuing the same kind of work in China while also writing for Made in China. Recently, she interviewed Chinese film director Ying Liang.
2016 Khalid Albaih | SudanA solitary cartoonist finds a global network of support
Sudanese cartoonist Khalid Albaih discovered early on that cartoons combined his love and curiosity for art and politics. “For me politics was the reason why I didn’t have a home,” said Albaih, who had to leave Sudan with his diplomat father and activist mother in 1989. “I wanted to know more, but living in the Arab world, it was a big no-no to speak about politics.” To provide an alternative to the Western media and “tell our news from our side to make people understand how it actually is in this part of the world,” he created Khartoon!, a name driven from combining “cartoon” with the name of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.
“It [the fellowship] really introduced me to a lot of great people who are willing to support different causes around the world. And also reintroduced me to me, really.”
“I always worked online, I was always alone,” said Albaih, who also tried to stay in the shadows for safety. “I was never supported, especially in my political work.” But that changed at Colby, where, he said, he found support to step out of the virtual world and break new ground. In collaboration with documentary filmmaker Milton Guillén ’15 and music composer Mohamed Araki, he made a multimedia performance called Bahar, “sea” in Arabic. They collaged videos shot by refugees and rescuers to depict a refugee’s single day at sea. “This is an idea that I had for a long time, but I didn’t know how to go about it,” Albaih said. “Oak [Institute] gave me the way and the support to do that film.” Bahar has been shown globally, in Tokyo and at Oslo Freedom Forum. “It [the fellowship] really introduced me to a lot of great people who are willing to support different causes around the world,” he said, “And also reintroduced me to me, really.”
Besides discoveries about himself, he was surprised to discover student activism on campus. “I was very proud of the students because they’re in Colby, they’re in Maine, and they’re so far from a lot of things, but at the same time, they care. … they choose to fight for a cause,” he said. “I remember being there during the election of Trump winning and the amount of activism that was happening was incredible.” Since Colby, he has been doing bigger projects to expand his reach beyond cartoons. As a 2018 Soros Art Fellow, he has been creating an app for artists to meet and engage beyond galleries. He’s also working to start a public library in Sudan.“We’re the biggest country in Africa and we don’t have a public library.” His book, Khartoon, was published in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he’s been living the past year and a half as an ICORN/PEN artist in residence, which provides him a safe space to work. “It doesn’t really matter where I am, I think I do the same work. Maybe now I’m focused more on Sudan and what’s happening because it’s the revolution I’ve been waiting for the last 30 years,” he said. Another book, a collaboration with 30 Sudanese artists, Sudan Retold, is underway. “It’s an art book about history. It’s not a history book,” he said. “It’s the first of its kind.”
2015 Jodi Koberinski | CanadaFor food activist, seeds planted at Colby are still growing
After the Oak Fellowship, Canadian food activist Jodi Koberinski went back to school to become a scholar-activist. She recently completed her master’s degree at the University of Waterloo and is now enrolled in a Ph.D. program there. She’s studying indigenous people’s food sovereignty issues and examining aerial spraying of glyphosate, an herbicide that turns forests into pine plantations. “Now I’m finding space within the academy to be able to do the research and then, when I finish the degree, be able to use my networks built at Colby and elsewhere to go and disseminate that information is really exciting,” she said.
Since going back to her home country, Koberinski successfully launched Beyond Pesticides Canada, inspired and informed by the Washington, D.C.,-based NGO Beyond Pesticides, which pushes for an organic, pesticide-free world. Recently in New Brunswick, she participated in the Praxis Project Permaculture Art Festival, which combined theory and practice in ecological education. “I saw my opportunity at Colby as an activist to provide the kind of ecological education that most of us don’t get even at university,” she explained. Colby also gave her other opportunities, like presenting at the Common Ground Fair, “one of the most famous fairs in the world for organics,” and exploring Maine’s food system. “Maine has farmers that are doing things nobody else in America is doing on the social scale,” she said.
“I was blown away to learn about a number of sustainability initiatives, including having a deeply active—small but active—group of youth at the College.”
She was also surprised to learn about Colby’s own food operations. “I was meeting with one of the managers within the food services, who has been bringing in all kinds of innovative purchasing and food print reduction initiative,” she recalled. “I was blown away to learn about a number of sustainability initiatives, including having a deeply active—small but active—group of youth at the College,” who were involved with many organizations, like 350.org. While in Waterville, she went to farms and farmers markets. Everywhere she turned she was surprised to come across a Colby student. She taught students the Marxist analysis of food systems and had great conversations.
“I think people are a lot more conscious about food and how it connects to other concerns, whether it’s human rights, ecology, climate change, or biodiversity,” she said. “That’s true, but I think that the climate crisis has become so overwhelmingly obvious that we’re in a different conversation than we were when I was at Colby in that regard.”
2014 Clare Byarugaba |UgandaSolidarity—and a precious car—for an LGBT activist
Just before coming to Colby, Ugandan LGBT activist Clare Byarugaba was part of a major victory. At the time, she was working with Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law that was founded to fight against Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, which would severely punish the LGBT community and its allies. Although signed into law in 2013, the Ugandan Constitutional Court annulled it in August 2014.
“When I stood to speak at the Colby community in my main speech, I wasn’t afraid of being attacked,” she said. “I felt so much solidarity, I felt so much camaraderie. I felt like I belonged to a community that did not mean harm to me.”
This was a luxury she didn’t have in her own country. “It was really life changing, just being there and experiencing the respite, and peace, and security. … I didn’t know I needed those things until I was at Colby.”
It was when she met a 60-year-old lesbian couple in Waterville that she saw the manifestation of what she was fighting for. “I’m a firm believer that progress is going to happen, but it’s hard to see it when you don’t see the actual result,” she said. “Seeing that represented in a couple physically made so much sense to me as an activist. I could see what I’m fighting for or the future that I want to see.” Being able to notice progress was also something she tried to show her students. “I’m hoping that I told them to be grateful for their gains, for the progress that they have, even if it’s not perfect, because it could be a lot worse,” she said. She also tried to encourage them to show solidarity to those fighting for their rights in other places.
“When I stood to speak at the Colby community in my main speech, I wasn’t afraid of being attacked. I felt so much solidarity, I felt so much camaraderie. I felt like I belonged to a community that did not mean harm to me.”
When she returned to Uganda, she found it was getting harder and harder to work as an LGBT rights activist while still in an LGBT organization, she said. Byarugaba is now the equality and non-discrimination coordinator of Chapter Four Uganda. “The fact that Chapter Four is a mainstream organization allows me a bit of security.”
Another piece of security comes from her Colby stint. With part of her fellowship stipend, she was able to purchase a car. “This car accords me a level of security, like you have no idea, this car saved me so many times,” said Byarugaba, for whom taking public transport isn’t safe. “So having this vehicle and being able to move from work, from home, from my social life, and be safe and feel safe is so meaningful.” At Chapter Four, she was also able to fulfill a dream that she started and cultivated at Colby—introducing PFLAG in Uganda and bringing together families and allies of the LGBTQ community.
“While we don’t have a law [criminalizing LGBTQ], and that is progress, we still do have widespread homophobia,” she said. “Still religious leaders use negative rhetoric when they’re talking about LGBT individuals.”
2013 Maung Maung “Tony” Than
& Mya Nandar Aung | MyanmarFrom prison to freedom on Mayflower Hill
In 2013 Mya Nandar Aung and Maung Maung “Tony” Than, Colby’s first and only joint Oak Fellows, were working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for the rights of stateless Rohingya people in Myanmar. When the riots broke between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in 2012, Aung and Than were imprisoned for six months without evidence.
The next year they were on Mayflower Hill.
“Morally we were lifted, we were welcomed,” Than said of his time at Colby. “If you say where you find complete freedom and human rights, I have to say no other place rather than Colby.”
His co-fellow and wife felt the same. “It is one of the best experiences in our life,” Aung said. “My daughter never forgot her first experience at the school, the Alfond Center. She’s still talking about her teachers, her classmates. She was hardly three while we were there, but her memories are still vivid.”
While at Colby, Aung’s father, a Muslim community leader and a physician, was imprisoned in Myanmar. She was working tirelessly from Maine to secure his release and got help from students, who wrote letters to their representatives in Congress and contacted their offices. “One of their offices actually called me, and they were telling me that they received the letter and they will do whatever they can do within their capacity,” she said. “We felt very supported.”
“Morally we were lifted, we were welcomed. If you say where you find complete freedom and human rights, I have to say no other place rather than Colby.”
—Maung Maung “Tony” Than
Aung’s father was released in 2014, but, she said, “the overall situation there got really, really worse [as] almost one million people were displaced outside Myanmar,” losing everything as the villages were bulldozed. “My family was completely uprooted from our home,” she said. While her father had to resettle in a new city in Myanmar, Aung and Than have been living in Malaysia with their two children. They’re both working for a global humanitarian organization. Aung is in human resource management and also trying to finish her Ph.D. on women refugees’ and asylum seekers’ issues in Malaysia. Than is a liaison doing community work with the Rohingya population from Myanmar, which he said is more than 100,000 people.
“Now people from the camps [from] time to time contact us,” Aung said. “They ask what would be the solution, what would be their future, but we have no answer at the moment.”
They also don’t have an answer for their own future. “There’s no certainty at all,” Than said. Malaysia isn’t a permanent home for them. “Basically we want peace and [to be] free,” he said. “We want everybody to live rightfully in their motherland.”
2012 Zandile Nhlengetwa | South AfricaTeaching whites, for the first time
Prior to Colby, Zandile Nhlengetwa was the principal of Ulusda Christian School in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, which served both as a learning and community center. Although a primary school teacher, having to teach college students during the fellowship made her anxious, she said. It was also partly because, “I never taught white children.”
“Standing in front of these young people at Colby brought a paradigm shift for me because I was coming from a country where they called me ‘maid’ when they see an ethnic woman. ”
To overcome her anxiety, Nhlengetwa came up with a creative solution: dancing. “It has been [an] important part of our upbringing; every South African would do it. Music—it has some sort of therapy when you’re anxious, it de-stresses you,” she explained. “Doing that, it would calm me down and [make me] gain my confidence. And when they joined in, it connected us. So it was a way of connecting with the students, with my class.” Since the first day, students paid her a high level of respect and showed a great hunger to learn from her experiences. “Standing in front of these young people at Colby brought a paradigm shift for me because I was coming from a country where they called me ‘maid’ when they see an ethnic woman,” she said. But at Colby, she said, they looked at her and saw a human being. “I think my attitude towards other races changed, really.”
In her three months in Waterville, she enjoyed faculty talks, went to a local church, and spent time with the Colby African Society. Before the semester ended, she got a package from the mothers of the young girls that she was protecting back home. They sent her handmade bracelets and necklaces, which they were making to support their children’s education. Nhlengetwa gave those to her students as presents. After she left, Nhlengetwa sent more of those accessories to the Colby African Society, which sold the goods to benefit girls in her community. It was helpful, but the situation remained grave.
“When I went back, the situation was really, really bad,” she said. On top of ethnic and tribal tensions, there were local government tensions. “We stayed for about four months, then we had to move from the area because the situation was now unbearable.” She settled down in a new place and arranged for around 20 children (mostly girls) to travel 60 kilometers to her home for classes. “I saved some money from Colby, and when I came back I was able to hire a minibus for them, because walking to school was not safe anymore,” she said. “I continued for about a year and then I ran out of funds.”
Later she was invited to join Meals on Wheels, an organization fighting hunger by delivering meals directly to people’s homes, and is now its area director. Since she left education work, she said, the conditions for female students are getting better, but there’s still a disparity between rural and urban areas. “In the city, it’s a different issue. They are more schools, there are more opportunities. But in rural areas the opportunities are not as wide and as open and accessible,” she said. “In the rural areas it’ll depend if the family has money.”.
2011 Fatima Burnad | IndiaFinding common ground in human rights
Burnad Fatima Natesan is founder and director of Society for Rural Education and Development (SRED), which works with India’s marginalized communities, like Dalit and tribal women. For most people at Colby, her arrival as an Oak Fellow was their first time learning about the Dalit issue and “untouchability,” where people don’t come in contact with anything that has been touched by the Dalits, she noted.
“The students from different backgrounds enjoyed what I had shared on human rights, poverty, and caste system in India,” Burnad said. “We sang together, learned together about people’s movements, songs of civil rights movement, and the international labor movement.” When Occupy Wall Street happened, she said, “‘I questioned why not at Colby,’– which led to bringing leaders from Occupy Wall Street Movement to Colby and students got mobilized over many issues they faced during the college days.”
“The students from different backgrounds enjoyed what I had shared on human rights, poverty, and caste system in India. We sang together, learned together about people’s movements, songs of civil rights movement, and the international labor movement.”
—Burnad Fatima Natesan
When she returned to India, she resumed her work with SRED, where Katy Lindquist ’14 went to intern in January 2012. “The Dalit movements in India, they talk about public cast discrimination,” Burnad said, “whereas we are saying caste discrimination cannot be eradicated immediately, but slowly. Because it is a four- to five-thousand-year-old caste system where the Hindu hierarchical system perpetrates it. So it’s not a caste alone.” That’s why SRED is working with women to reclaim lands and work on them collectively. Currently, Dalit women have 15 collective farms, which the organization provides with seeds, plowing, and irrigation. “We have established a solar water pump in one collective farm using solar energy—this is also a response to climate change,” she said.
Besides operating at the local level, SRED is also active nationally and regionally. Currently, they’re working on a significant problem that the indigenous people from the forest are facing—an ongoing Indian Supreme Court case that might leave millions of indigenous people landless. “Without land, there’s no life for us,” she said. “So once we have the land, then we have to work towards political power also. It’s land rights and political rights.”
2010 Jestina Mukoko | IndiaFor a brief time, a house without a wall or gate
Former journalist and national director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP) Jestina Mukoko came to Colby after a traumatic experience. Working to document human rights violations, in 2008 she was abducted from her home near Harare at dawn.
“My time at Colby is one of those times that I will not easily forget in my life,” she said. “I sought a seed of healing while I was Colby. I think when I came there I was bruised. I had a lot of pain. I had a lot of anger.” It was also then that she began her book The Abduction and Trial of Jestina Mukoko, published in 2016. “When the book was eventually published, I think it just brought back memories of Colby.”
She still remembers her fence-less home in Waterville, where she lived with her son, who made friends at Colby and took a class. “Initially when I was told that this is where you are going to be living, I just thought, are they crazy or something? Do they expect me to stay in a house without a wall, without a gate?” she said. Seeing how peaceful and secure Waterville was, she got used to the idea. “I particularly enjoyed the way that I could freely move around,” she said.
She also enjoyed being with students. “When I spoke to them about me being abducted, being tortured, and had not been protected by the law—that was really far from where they are, being students in the first world,” she said, “but I really looked forward to those sessions when I would interact with the students.”
“My time at Colby is one of those times that I will not easily forget in my life. I sought a seed of healing while I was Colby. I think when I came there I was bruised. I had a lot of pain. I had a lot of anger.”
Mukoko felt proud to meet Zimbabwean students at Colby. “I think they also took great pride for them to recognize that we were all raising our flag high,” she said, especially during a Zimbabwean day, when they cooked Zimbabwean food, brought a Zimbabwean activist to campus, and had a big party. She liked having the opportunity to speak with the Maine community and at different colleges around the state. “Their wanting to understand how things operated in Zimbabwe just meant a lot to me, that people actually cared despite the fact that they were several miles away from where I was.” Mukoko also visited a juvenile jail. She said it was “nothing compared to what I had experienced in Zimbabwe.”
Despite the continued danger associated with her work in Zimbabwe, she carries on. “I live a life where I am very cautious, I’m alert and vigilant at all times,” she said. “I don’t take any incidents that happen around me as a coincidence.” There was a period of peace after the ouster of Zimbabwe’s longtime leader Robert Mugabe in 2017. It was short lived as the army was deployed on the streets to suppress the protests before the 2018 election. “It was a shock because even if we existed in a dictatorial regime during Mugabe’s time, there was never a time that Zimbabweans were shot at in broad daylight on the streets of the capital city,” Mukoko said.
“Usually I am a very optimistic individual, but I think with what I’m seeing now, this all coupled with the financial challenges that every Zimbabwean at every level is going through—I think it just brings forth a situation that is difficult to deal with,” she said.
2009 Hadas Ziv | IsraelSeeing America—and its issues—like never before
Since 1995 Hadas Ziv has been with Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel), advocating for the right to health care in Israel and occupied territories. Before the Oak Institute Fellowship, she was executive director of the organization.
“The Oak Fellowship is a huge present to anyone who receives it,” she said, “because I think Colby gave me all the time I needed.” She had time to meet students, read, and learn new things outside of her work. “Interacting with American students was an interesting experience for me because they are very, very different from Israelis,” she said.
“I saw American society like never before,” she said. “I saw what poverty looks like in a different country.” This gave her a new perspective on how to look at her own country in terms of what to appreciate and what to criticize. She was also in the United States during the debate on Obamacare.
“Everyone [in Israel] accepts that it’s the obligation of the state to give us proper public health services,” she said. “To see such a heated argument in American society made me realize that we’re not that special, that other societies are torn on different issues, that they have heated debates as well, and that their politics is not so calm and easygoing as I thought.” She also felt much more convinced that it was up to society in Israel to resolve its local conflict. “We need solidarity. We need help,” she said. “But I understood that other governments and other countries are preoccupied with their own interests, power relationships, etc. And if I wanted to see hope in my country I need to engage with the people. This is what should be done with NGOs.”
“It is a memory that I keep with me when I want to get perspective. I say, ‘Let’s breathe and think about Maine,’ because really it’s a marvelous place.”
Going back to Israel, she decided to return to the field to work as a public outreach and ethics committee director rather than continuing as the executive director. “I started to work much more on public outreach education and medical ethics,” she said, working with students in medical fields to make human rights part of their professional practice.
In Israel, the lingering discussion is about who is entitled to receive healthcare from the government, she said. The organization helps with treatment of those who have trouble accessing it, and it aids people from Palestine who need treatment outside of Palestine to be taken to Israel, and find volunteer doctors to treat asylum seekers who have no resources. “It’s always like a jigsaw,” Ziv said. “You have to take charity from here and there.”
In hard times, she looks back on her Colby experience. “It is a memory that I keep with me when I want to get perspective,” she said. “I say, ‘Let’s breathe and think about Maine,’ because really it’s a marvelous place.”
2008 Afsan Chowdhury | BangladeshFinding the company of other angry, idealistic people
Afsan Chowdhury is a Bangladeshi historian, journalist, and human rights advocate, and previous director of advocacy and human rights for BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. From climate change to children’s rights, he has been involved with many human rights issues.
“I’m still an idealist,” he said. “Colby was a place where everyone was very idealistic.” He also found solidarity in the causes he believed. “On sexual abuse of children, on sexual violence, I’m very angry. I have been angry about this issue for the last 40 years, and I will remain angry until I die,” he said. “So what Colby gave was to show you; you’re not alone in this; there are other angry people, everywhere.”
As a fellow, he was able to air his documentary film Who Cares if Bangladesh Drowns? in the U.S. “I travelled to different parts of the United States, including to Washington [D.C.], to show my video, to talk about climate change, my main area of interest.”
“I’m still an idealist. Colby was a place where everyone was very idealistic.”
After Colby, he returned to Canada, where he was living before the fellowship, and worked as a research associate at York University, Toronto. From 2012 to 2016, he was an advisor with BRAC. Then he began teaching at BRAC University in Bangladesh. “I try to get my students involved as researchers and this is very key to me,” he said. Chowdhury teaches history of Bangladesh and also a self-designed course on diversity and discrimination. As a way of protecting his independence and freedom in his work, he also raises his funding for research. For his work on Bangladesh’s War of Liberation, which resulted in the country’s break from Pakistan in 1971, he received the Bangla Academy Literary Award. Right now, he’s trying to write three different novels in three different languages—Bangla, English, and Urdu.
“I think the world is much more vulnerable now than before,” he said. He talked about the changing dynamics of the world and how climate change hasn’t gotten the prominence it deserves. There is a growing disparity between the poor and the rich, Chowdury said, and noted that none of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals are on track. “Sometimes we will win, most of the time we will lose, but we don’t stop trying. This is what I would ask my Colby students to remember,” he said. “I haven’t won any of my fights, but I will keep on fighting.”
2007 Nancy Sánchez | ColombiaAfter activist friends killed, a needed respite
Colombian human rights advocate Nancy Sánchez had lost many friends in the war between the Colombian government and paramilitary groups. And, she points out, fighting for human rights there and surviving is stressful. Her Colby fellowship was a welcome respite.
“The students, they gave me the opportunity to be heard, to be understood, and in a way reaffirmed my struggle and give me a new energy,” Sánchez said.
During her Colby fellowship, she wanted her students to understand that Plan Colombia, a U.S.-funded plan to combat drug trafficking as well as internal conflict, “was an excuse to intervene in the internal armed conflict in Colombia.” From her Oak teaching, she still remembers reading the comment “you rock!” in a student evaluation and holding a big celebration, Fiesta Colombiana, complete with Colombian musicians from Boston and Colombian food that Sánchez and her students prepared. Sharing a picture of her Colby hoodie via Skype, she said, “They gave me a beautiful gift that I keep by my side.”
“The students, they gave me the opportunity to be heard, to be understood, and in a way reaffirmed my struggle and give me a new energy.”
The decades-long internal conflict was still ongoing when she returned to Colombia. “Between 2008 and 2012, I got many challenges in my work of human rights,” she said. “I managed this situation but it was so hard to come back to Colombia.”
She was part of the Minga Association, a human rights collective. In 2012 she worked at the Andean Parliament—the region’s “European Union.” The same year, she attended Women PeaceMakers Program at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice in San Diego, Calif., where her life story was collected in a publication. Now she’s working as the coordinator of the Alliance of Women Weavers of Life of Putumayo—a coalition of women’s organizations across 13 municipalities of Putumayo, Colombia. In 2011 she said they had over 40 women’s organizations, but now it’s more than 80, with almost 1,200 women leaders. “I think now it’s the biggest network of women’s organization in Colombia, recognized by the government.”
After the 2016 peace agreement, the situation improved, but some challenges are still remaining, Sánchez said. In 2019 at least 120 leaders that have been killed in different parts of the country while defending their land against multinational mining and oil companies. “In three years more than three hundred leaders have been killed,” she said. “Now we have two indigenous women threatened by armed actors because they defend their territories against some multinational oil company.”
In 2019 she helped submit Putumayo’s first report to the truth commission, documenting 25 cases of sexual violence in just one of the villages that was taken by the paramilitary before the agreement. “We have more villages with hundreds of cases of sexual violence. We have now documented that for the truth commission and the special justice for the peace,” she said. Now the women are speaking up about what has happened to them—forced disappearances, massacres, systematic sexual violence.
“We are really happy for peace,” she said, “but the post conflict is really complex.”
2006 Joan Omaming Carling | PhilippinesAs burnout loomed, students offered encouragement
Before coming to Colby, indigenous rights defender and environmental activist Joan Omaming Carling was with the Cordillera Peoples Alliance fighting against dam and mining projects in the Philippines.
“At that time I was facing a serious threat to my life,” she said. “My colleagues had been killed, and I was completely stressed, getting burnt out because it’s not easy dealing with that kind of situation.” The fellowship came when she really needed a break. During the alliance’s campaign against mining, she said, none were built, which made the activists unpopular in some circles. “It [the fellowship] really helped me gain my balance a bit, but also strengthened further my commitment to human rights, also because the students were really warm, very interested in the issue.”
At Colby, she found the students’ interest in human rights very inspiring. “I also started my activism as a youth, so it always gives me that hope that the young people will always find their ways and means to contribute to shape their future,” she said, “and I felt that strongly also when I was at Colby.” Together with students, Carling visited indigenous people’s lands in Maine. Some Colby students later went to the Philippines for internships.
When she returned home, the situation was better, enabling her to continue her work. In 2008 she moved to Thailand to work for the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, where she twice served as the secretary general. She has also been involved with the United Nations as an expert on indigenous people’s issues. In 2017 she became the co-convenor of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development. In 2018 she was included in a list of alleged armed rebels and labelled as a terrorist by the Philippine government; she was cleared in January 2019. The very same year, she won the Champions of the Earth award from the United Nations, the organization’s highest environmental honor.
“I also started my activism as a youth, so it always gives me that hope that the young people will always find their ways and means to contribute to shape their future, and I felt that strongly also when I was at Colby.”
—Joan Omaming Carling
Recently, Carling was in Copenhagen, Denmark, for a conference on climate change and the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “The biggest crisis that we’re facing is climate change. And the biggest ambition that we have is sustainable development. But they are looking at both issues, not from the lens of human rights, and that is the danger because it’s again business as usual,” she said.
Carling is arguing that combating climate change and achieving the SDGs cannot happen without the protection of indigenous peoples lands.
“In Brazil,” for example, “their president is giving away the Amazon for mining, for ranchers, for logging, and even for business, eco-tourism. That’s a complete regression.”
In India, she said, conservation organizations started a legal battle, going as far as the Supreme Court, to overturn the Forest Rights Act, which allowed indigenous people, the adivasi, to claim their land in protected forests. She said that those organizations believed that indigeneous people would destroy the forest. “I’m so mad at them, so mad,” she said about those organizations, because the Indian Supreme Court might decide on the eviction of two million people. “Two million, that’s what they call the biggest eviction in the name of conservation,” she said.
2005 Frances Lovemore | ZimbabweDebating torture, in Zimbabwe and the United States
Medical practitioner Frances Lovemore has been working with victims of organized crime and torture, first for Amani Trust and now with Counselling Services Unit in Zimbabwe, where she’s the director. “When I applied for the [Oak] Fellowship, our organization was under a lot of threat. It’s kind of a nice way to add a bit of a break,” she said.
Colby was an interesting experience, she said, because while she was teaching a class on torture and its impact, investigations were underway into the rendition of terrorist subjects to the United States. Students had a variety of viewpoints on whether torture should be outlawed. “It was an interesting debate,” she said. “I suppose it’s quite difficult to explain to youngsters the impact of torture when the government of the day is saying rendition is fine and torture is likely fine. You can see the impact of the media in the U.S.”
As for the current state of worldwide anti-torture movement, she said, “The funding is plummeting. And that has very serious consequences. The lack of understanding of the current governments, of the impact of government being allowed to torture its people—that’s a very scary development in the world.” She also stressed the emergence of the Far Right, even in countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.
“When I applied for the [Oak] Fellowship, our organization was under a lot of threat. It’s kind of nice way to add a bit of a break.”
At the local level, the independent Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission was established in Zimbabwe in 2012, and a peace and reconciliation commission has also been formed. “So there is progress,” she said. “It’s just that there isn’t a complete resolution of the issues.”
Despite the progress, torture and abuse continues. After the 2018 Zimbabwean election, “The army turned on the people and shot seven people dead in the streets, seven civilians,” she said. “January this year there were some protests, and eighty-seven people were shot and injured and thirteen people were shot dead and other people were raped by soldiers.”
“We still have a lot of fresh cases, which is very sad.”
2004 Chanthol Oung | CambodiaAttacked from all sides at home, validated at Colby
For a decade, Chanthol Oung ran the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, an organization she founded to help victims of violence and human trafficking. “Many traffickers were not happy with us, and attacked us on website, attacked us in the court, … even when I was riding in my car out of the office they assaulted me,” she said. “So sometimes I feel, what did I do wrong?”
At Colby, she felt her work was validated. “While at Colby, they gave a great motivation to my job. They really appreciated what I was doing.”
It was also through the fellowship that she was able to take a step back and evaluate her next steps. She did a study of human trafficking laws in several countries, including the U.S., Cambodia, and the Philippines. She also learned a lot from the Waterville police, who visited her class and talked about how they help domestic violence victims. “It was so impressive,” she said; at the time Cambodia didn’t have similar kinds of institutional support.
At Colby, she also thought of other services that her organization could offer, such as launching a scholarship program for girls. “I feel that education was so helpful to protect a girl from human trafficking during that time. And this program has continued for some of the girls now. Even some of them graduated from university right now,” she said. She also had Colby interns at her organization.
“While at Colby, they gave a great motivation to my job. They really appreciated what I was doing.”
A couple of years after the fellowship, Oung moved to the U.S. because of a new marriage and because of her increased safety concerns. “During that time many traffickers attacked the website and I was also concerned about my daughters, because one of the women who worked on human trafficking issues, they said that her daughter was kidnapped. It was so frightening for me” she said.
She continued to work with human rights organizations in the U.S. In 2017 she received her Ph.D. in public policy and administration. “My degree previously was on law,” she said. “In Cambodia there’s a lack of good policy writing, [that] is why I take public policy. We need to have good policy that share the common good.”
Last December she returned to Cambodia and began working for Arbitration Council Foundation, a national organization settling collective labor disputes. Although she is no longer working on human trafficking, she said, “in terms of human trafficking and in terms of awareness raising, prosecution, are much better than before but the issue is still critical. Many Cambodians are poor, they still look for [a] job in a neighboring country. They will be trafficked, they will be exploited. It’s still one of the serious issues that needs to be tackled.”
2003 Raji Sourani | PalestineThey sent us to the Middle Ages
Palestinian human rights attorney Raji Sourani is Colby’s only Oak Fellow who couldn’t come to Mayflower Hill due to visa problems. He’s the founder and director of Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), a Gaza-based NGO that documents human rights crimes and pursues justice both nationally and internationally.
“I’ll tell you, never ever in my life, I thought for one second, for one second, in the nice old days of the direct occupation in the ’70s, or ’80s, or ’90s, Gaza can be bombed by Apache, and F-16s, and F-15s,” he said. “Now, this is day-to-day practice. … You would sleep tens of days thinking next morning, I wouldn’t be existing, neither me or my family. I never thought [that] we will be collectively restricted, like leaving Gaza—it’s mission impossible.”
“We used to say we want a Palestinian state, we want independence, we want to be freed. No. I’m telling you of what we want. I don’t want any of these. I don’t want. Only give me the right of movement for goods and individuals.”
The center also provides training for lawyers and activists to document what’s happening in their respective countries. Their past collaborators included Syrians, Libyans, Yemenis, and Iraqis. They collaborate with Israeli and international human rights lawyers, too. In different capacities, he has been involved with organizations such as the International Legal Assistance Consortium, the International Commission of Jurists, the International Federation for Human Rights, and the Arab Organization for Human Rights. He also works on cases for universal jurisdiction, including for the International Criminal Court.
“We used to say we want a Palestinian state, we want independence, we want to be freed. No. I’m telling you of what we want. I don’t want any of these. I don’t want. Only give me the right of movement for goods and individuals. We are just isolated, enclosed. Entire generation doesn’t know the other, doesn’t know the outside world. We are locked in, closed, suffocated socially, economically, and otherwise,” he said. “This is the biggest manmade disaster. They sent us to the Middle Ages.”
As a human rights activist—or “romantic revolutionary” as he described himself—he said he will continue hoping and believing in tomorrow. “I hope one day that I do Oak Fellowship and be able to come and stay for some time,” he said. “I need some rest.”
2002 Ushari Mahmud | SudanStanding up for children
Sudanese child rights activist Ushari Ahmad Mahmud Khalil is best known for a 1989 report he coauthored exposing a massacre of 1,500 internally displaced Dinka people. The study’s findings revealed that the Sudanese government in power at that time was complicit in the incident.
After the Oak Fellowship, he continued working for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and became chief of the Child Protection Division in Burundi. In 2009 he returned to the U.S. as a visiting scholar at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center. There, he worked on book projects and gave lectures.
A couple of years later, he came back to a familiar place: Colby. Through a matching program with the New York-based Scholars at Risk Network and the Institute of International Education, he spent the 2013-14 academic year on Mayflower Hill, teaching two courses: “Human Trafficking” and “Corruption and Anti-corruption.” For the 2015-16 academic year, he was a visiting scholar at the University of Washington Law School.
2001 Sevdije Ahmeti | KosovoA life dedicated to victims of war
Sevdije Ahmeti dedicated her life to helping victims of war in Kosovo. Together with Vjosa Dobruna—who she knew from her hometown, Gjakova—they cofounded the Center for the Protection of Women and Children. Ahmeti was documenting human rights breaches and investigating cases of violation against women.
During the war, the two were separated, but reunited in 1999. They restarted the organization, and Ahmeti became its director while Dobruna decided to take on other responsibilities in the rebuilding of the country.
“She didn’t work eight hours a day. She worked 20,” said Dobruna, who recalled checking on Ahmeti at night, on her way to home. “I would go to the café and get these espressos in plastic cups and go to her. And I see her still working and it was cold, it was 1999, winter was minus 20 degrees here. And she would work all the time. She was really a workaholic. She was so devoted to work. And I miss her being here, being alive.”
Igballe “Igo” Rogova was another close witness of Ahmeti’s life. “She was working in a library before she started being an activist,” she said, “She was very careful to document everything she was doing.”
After the Oak Fellowship at Colby, Rogova said Ahmeti resumed her work of seeking justice for survivors of sexual violence. She worked to bring those cases to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
“But what happened … they blocked the offices of the center three times to collect the documentation that she had.” When they couldn’t find what they were looking for, Rogova said, “they found a way to accuse her of misusing funds of the center. And that was the way to keep her mouth shut.” Later, Rogova said that the court found her not guilty.
Until passing away from an aortic aneurysm in 2006, Ahmeti was a board member of the Kosovo Women’s Network (KWN), which includes more than 143 women’s organizations and is directed by Rogova. “She was, to be honest, like my big sister,” she said.
To keep her memory and legacy alive, last year KWN started an annual Sevdije Ahmeti Prize for activists. They’re also in close contact with the municipality of Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, to name a street or a town square after Ahmeti. “We asked the president’s office to give post mortem decoration to Sevdije Ahmeti for the work she did for Kosovan women and children,” said Rogova. Ahmeti’s book, Journal d’une Femme du Kosovo (The Diary of a Woman from Kosovo), will be published in Albanian. “She will be remembered always as a brave activist who never was scared of anyone.”
2000 Héctor Hernan Mondragón Báez | ColombiaAt Colby, a moment to breathe. At home, chased by threats of death
A native of Colombia, Héctor Hernan Mondragón Báez worked with indigenous and peasant communities to ensure their cultural, economic, and environmental well-being—work that became harder and harder to do, eventually leading him to leave his country.
When he was at Colby, he had a moment to breathe. “For us, the time in Colby was very nice,” he said. He enjoyed meeting students and the rest of the Colby community. He also connected with American human rights defenders and visited other schools, including Stanford and Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, to talk about his work.
When he went back to Colombia, the nightmare began. “The worst years for me were from 2001 to 2008,” he said. “Because the paramilitary groups were in the door of my house, in the door of my children[’s house], in the door of my work to kill me. They wished to kill me [and] only that.” When working with rural communities, he constantly had to change locations. At the time, he was one of the leaders of Minga, a collective indigenous mobilization.
In 2008 he left for Brazil because of increased threats. At the time, he was working for Continental Social Alliance, which brings together unions and indigenous organizations from all of North, Central, and South America. For two years, he carried on with the same organization in its Brazil branch. Following that, he began teaching classes in Latin America and worked on human rights issues at Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. This was a permanent switch from front-line activism to academia. “I like the academic work, but I prefer [to] work with communities,” he said, adding: “but it’s the life.” In addition to teaching, he has been contributing to the literature on Latin America. Most recently, he wrote a chapter in the book Ditadura E Violência Institucional (Dictatorships and Institutional Violence).
“The worst years for me were from 2001 to 2008. Because the paramilitary groups were in the door of my house, in the door of my children[’s house], in the door of my work to kill me. They wished to kill me [and] only that.”
—Héctor Hernan Mondragón Báez
Since January he has been a visiting scholar at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. After that, he will return to Brazil, where he fears the conditions are getting harder and more problematic for human rights defenders, refugees, and professors. But going back to Colombia isn’t an option right now. “The rights and the laws are very good,” he said, “but the paramilitary groups and armed groups continue to kill Indian leaders, peasant leaders. Each week really, there are killings.”
1999 Didier Kamundu Batundi | Democratic Republic of CongoIn solidarity with victims of violence
Didier Kamundu Batundi of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) founded Solidarity for Social Promotion and Peace to support victims of violence and provide education on human rights. He directed it for over two decades until 2017. The organization now seems to be inactive, and Batundi couldn’t be reached for an interview.
1998 Zafaryab Ahmed | PakistanAfter the fellowship, asylum granted
Just before coming to Colby, Pakistani journalist Zafaryab Ahmed was detained in his home country in connection to his writings on the murder of Iqbal Masih. Masih was a 12-year-old child laborer in the carpet industry who escaped and became an activist with the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, where Ahmed was a strategist. Ahmed was facing sedition charges and possibly the death penalty.
With the Pakistani prime minister’s intervention, he received a 90-day visa. “He was so passionate about the causes and saving the children,” said Steve Collins ’74, who met Ahmed when he arrived on Mayflower Hill during winter break and later wrote a story about him for Colby Magazine. “That really struck me as impressive, and that kind of may have colored all of his other interactions,” said Collins. Ahmed was so passionate that his health was impacted by its side effects. “I remember he was having some kind of dental problem, so I got him into see a dentist. And the dentist came to me and said, ‘Oh my god, who’s this guy?’ I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ He said, ‘He has some kind of infection that you see only in extremely stressed people.’ And I said, ‘Well, like death row in Pakistan, that kind of stuff?’”
After the fellowship, Ahmed remained in the United States and was granted asylum in 2000. In the fall of that same year, he enrolled at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology. SUNY-Binghamton awarded him a posthumous master’s degree after passing away at 53 from a heart attack in 2006 in Pakistan.