Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Amnesty International Nordic Youth Conference 2017 in Norway

Last month, I attended the Amnesty International Nordic Youth Conference (NYC) in Norway with the Finnish delegation.

On Sunday 23rd July, I arrived in Helsinki in the afternoon, and enjoyed walking around the markets and parks. I also visited the Helsexinki exhibition in the Helsinki City Museum, which is about sexuality, gender and sex – and about the freedom to choose how to express them. The exhibition, closely linked with topical themes, challenges the visitors to think about whose voice is heard and who has the freedom to be who they really are. It was a good exhibition, although small. In the evening, I stayed at the Hostel Domus Academica, where I shared a room with one of the other participants.

In the morning of Monday 24th July, I met the rest of the participants as we travelled to the airport together. The flight to Oslo only lasted around one hour, and then we headed straight to Holtekilen Folkehøgskole. There we waited for the participants from the other countries to arrive before doing some icebreakers. There were 10 participants from Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, as well as 5 from Iceland, and 2 from the Faroe Islands. There was a youth representative from Amnesty International Norway’s board there as well, in addition to staff. It was really interesting to meet people from Iceland and Demark; and especially Sweden, Norway, and the Faroe Islands, nationalities that I’d never met before. I thought it was interesting how there were some similarities between most of the Nordic languages and people could seem to understand each other, except for Finnish!

After discussing our expectations for the conference, we had an intercultural evening with tables offering food from our countries. The table for Iceland and the Faroe Islands had some dried fish that smelt interesting. I put some British food on the Finnish table. Even though it was a Nordic conference, I guess it wasn’t so strict, otherwise I wouldn’t have been selected. I felt a little stupid, but I wanted to be represented and I didn’t see why it should be limited.

When people discover that I’m British, I’ve noticed that they sometimes just assume that I don’t know any language other than English. Some people wish they were native English speakers, but occasionally, I wish I wasn’t. I tried to understand and speak some Finnish, especially during our country meeting each evening. I still felt like a bit of an outsider, especially when one of the facilitators reminded everyone that we need to be patient because nobody has English as their first language. Particularly at my workplace in a restaurant, I can’t decide whether it’s more annoying when someone speaks to me in really fast Finnish, or predicts what I'm going to say and responds with something irrelevant, or immediately switches to English as soon as they hear that I have a foreign accent. Whilst I know that it’s easy for me to travel and speak my own language, being a native English speaker also sometimes annoys me because people often ask me to proofread something for them. I don’t mind as much as it’s for a friend, but it does get a bit much when someone doesn’t offer something in return, or even worse, offers something in return but never delivers it.

One of our guests was Sakris Kupila, a human rights defender from Finland that features in Amnesty’s global ‘Brave’ campaign. Sakris attended the entire conference with us, and is currently championing the rights of transgender people in Finland. Mostafa El-Sayed, an Egyptian student and human rights defender, also joined us for the whole week. Moreover, we had a visit from Norwegian human rights defender Nancy Herz. The highlight of the week were the public actions we planned for Thursday! The first action was to tell the Finnish government to support transgender human rights defenders, and to make the legal process to change gender quick, accessible, and respectful of human rights. The second action was to tell the Egyptian authorities that peaceful journalism is not a crime, as photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (known as Shawkan) is on trial for his peaceful work and risks the death penalty.

On Tuesday 25th July, the NYC officially opened, and the ‘Brave’ campaign and the public action were introduced. We were presented with the cases of various human rights defenders, and the methods that some governments and private firms use against activists. Mostafa El-Sayed spoke about his experiences, but mostly focused on the stories of his friends rather than himself. I admired his jokes and sense of humour despite the terrible things he had been through. After lunch, we had a World Café and Skillshare, where some participants facilitated workshops for us to discuss challenges that we face in campaigning and techniques to be successful, namely engaging others (such as being able to persuade someone), recruiting new members, group dynamics (such as coordinating roles in groups), staying motivated, action and campaigning (such as organising events), and social media.

We had more free time compared to previous conferences I have attended, so I enjoyed going for a walk around the area with some new friends, playing ‘Cards Against Humanity’ (one of my favourite games) and then another roleplaying game called ‘Werewolf’ for the first time. One evening, a group of us went to the harbour and swam from one side to the other.

On Wednesday 26th July, we divided into groups to plan the public action for Thursday, which were: message and choreography, materials, and social media. I joined the materials group and ended up in the group planning the materials for the transgender rights action. Someone had suggested using the rainbow flag and hearts, but we were advised to not to do so in order to avoid focusing the action on gay rights, but rather transgender rights. I tried to make some placards in both English and Finnish, and one placard had the languages of all the Nordic countries.

After lunch, there was a panel discussion about Defending Human Rights in the Nordic Countries with Mostafa El-Sayed, Sakris Kupila, and Nancy Herz. At one point, I realised that almost everyone was younger than me, including the panellists, and they were so active compared to how I was at that age that it really amazed me and gave me some hope for my future. Sakris was my favourite because he was incredibly down-to-earth, yet so active. He seemed rather quiet and shy, and I can be like that too sometimes, so it gave me some confidence that I can still be active despite not always being an extrovert. Here are some of the notes that I made during the panel discussion:
  • Amnesty International doesn’t support violent activists, although it can sometimes be difficult to define the margin between peace and violence.
  • We can’t cherry-pick human rights, as defending your own rights means defending those of others also. This brought to my mind religious activists who might not support Amnesty International based on one campaign, or who might support one campaign but not another, and the struggles that Amnesty International might face when engaging these activists.
  • Politicians and the media can use us to their advantage, but we can also use them to ours.
  • It’s easier to see the long-term development (10-15 years) of our activism than the short-term development.
  • Being a role model is too much pressure because you feel like you can’t make mistakes.
  • Who you are is not what you do, human rights are a part of who you are, but not everything.
  • To be a successful activist, you don’t need to do anything big or special, just exist.
  • It is ok to sometimes say no and rest, as there isn’t much use for tired or cynical activism, but rather it is better to do it well and with integrity.
  • We need to have our personal lives in order to take care of ourselves personally and professionally, and we need to surround ourselves with people who support and inspire us. It is normal to have different personas, for example in our personal lives and in our activism, and it doesn’t mean that it’s not real.
  • An age power structure exists, which can result in structural discrimination, even though as adults we aren’t classified by age as we are in school.
  • In Egypt, student activists are sometimes given bad grades, to the extend in which their grades are published on a separate sheet on the notice boards.

Afterwards, we had some more time to work in our groups in preparation for the next day, and Mostafa made some signs for the free press action in Arabic.

On Thursday 27th July, we spent the morning finishing the preparations and practicing for our public actions before travelling to Oslo. We started at Egertorget square in the centre. For the transgender action, some of us formed a shape of a ‘T’, crouched down, and then stood up periodically whilst chanting ‘Stand up for trans rights’, whilst others collected signatures for the petition. For the free press action, we arranged ourselves in a line holding the letters for ‘Free Shawkan’, whilst some knelt in front with their mouths taped and cameras around their necks, and others collected signatures for the petition. I tried collecting signatures for the petition for a short while, and I actually enjoyed it. However, I was surprised that many people, especially tourists, stopped to take photos of the action, but when I approached them, they weren’t interested in hearing what it was about. People also seemed ready to sign the petition without hearing much about the issue. Maybe I’m just stupid because if I get approached by a campaigner on the street, I often end up spending some time talking to them.

We then went to the Finnish embassy, where Sakris and some others went inside to discuss transgender rights, whilst the rest of us chanted outside. We divided into our national delegations and chanted ‘Transgender law now’ in our languages. The Egyptian embassy didn’t agree to a meeting, so we just chanted outside whilst some others delivered some petition signatures. We had a wrap up and evaluation at the office before having a few hours of free time in Oslo. I went with two Danish and one Swedish friend to see the Royal Palace and the National Theatre and then to a bakery called ‘Baker Hansen’ and ‘Paleet’ shopping mall.

Outside the Finnish embassy

Outside the Finnish embassy

Outside the Egyptian embassy

Amnesty International Oslo office


Royal Palace

National Theatre

On Friday 28th July, we had a workshop on group dynamics and social media, and an evaluation, and then we said our goodbyes. As the Finnish delegation had an evening flight, we had some free time in Oslo. We walked around Oslo; saw the Oslo Opera House (where you can climb on the roof for an incredible view), Oslo Stock Exchange, the Parliament of Norway, the Grand Hotel Oslo, Oslo Cathedral, Youngstorget square, and Folketeatret (People's Theatre); and had dinner at ‘Burger Bar’ before catching the train to the airport. I was hoping to go to the Nobel Peace Prize centre but didn’t have time. If I return to Oslo again in the future, then that will definitely be something that I would like to do.

Oslo Opera House

Oslo Opera House

'She Lies' sculpture

Incredible view from Oslo Opera House

The Grand Hotel Oslo

The Parliament of Norway

Oslo Cathedral

Youngstorget square

I think attending the NYC was valuable because I now have new friends from different Nordic countries, I feel reconnected to Amnesty International, and I’m inspired to get active again.