MA students talk about why they chose the Centre for Applied Human Rights, what they learned along the way, and where they are now.
The South Africa placement was one of the main reasons I had chosen the MA in Applied Human Rights as my area of study. Having both a law degree and a post grad diploma in legal practice I felt it was a more rounded subject area to study than the various LLM routes, and the course was highly thought of across the UK University courses I had researched. Having the opportunity to go to South Africa and engage with an NGO around specific legal challenges to indigenous people within South Africa was both exciting and a little daunting, even though I am at 54 a mature student and have a lot of experience behind me.
Cape Town was a place full of contradiction, where people were very welcoming on the one hand and yet the city itself had a feeling of impatience. I never encountered any stressful situations while I was there, no crime in the streets and no ill feeling towards me but there were refugees from other african countries camped in the center of Cape Town who were the subject of discrimintaiuon from both the authorities and the local people I met and spoke to. A strange state of affairs that made me appreciate the classroom work I had done in modules at the University. It was easy to put that learning into practice and understand the dynamics that were at play. In a post truth popularist world it seemed such issues as migration played out in a similar way in Cape Town as they were doing say on the Mexican border or elsewhere in the world, irrespective of the history of apartheid and oppression of non white communities in South Africa.
My work with the Khoikhoi and San people of the western cape was very interesting and for me the engagement was both spiritually and intellectually satisfying. There are some really amazing people within the indigenous communities I was privileged to have been allowed access into, who are dedicating their lives to a better future for those communities. The struggles they currently face, whether those of identity and recognition within modern South Africa, or the legal obstacles that have arisen because of inequity in the South African constitution and associated land restitution regimes, are not unsurmountable but help is needed and the advocacy that NGO's provide is hugely important in that struggle. The indigenous leadership groups I met were very aware of their responsibilities to their own people, and showed a great deal of interest in the research and work I was again privileged to be a part of. They were intelligent empowered people who had a very clear vision of what the future could be and were expert navigators of the political landscape they found themselves in. Personally I felt that I learned a lot about identity and power, and how indigenous people such as the KhoiKhoi and San were experiencing an awakening of identity and indeed a shared purpose as a group.
It was an extremely enjoyable two weeks but it was also very hard work. The contacts I made in South Africa were diverse, from government ministers to other NGO's to activists and civil rights campaigners. You get out of it what you put in and having put the hours in I have a greater appreciation now of what South Africa is all about and how the modules I have studied help me translate that place into a more meaningful experience.
Christopher Wilsdon UK (2019/20)
The word ‘fieldwork’ doesn’t often conjure up coffee in a cold York library at 2am, cosy in blankets and Skyping a human rights leader from Japan. Nor does the word conjure up leaving the library at 3.30am in the snow, feeling tired, empowered and determined to tell the stories of incredible women from across the world. However, this is a snapshot of our fieldwork with the Asia-Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN). APRRN is a network of over 400 individuals and organisations which advance the rights of refugees in the Asia Pacific. APRRN wanted to find out how to better support women leaders who are part of the network. Our team of three Masters students was privileged to design the project (interviews and an online survey) from the ground up.
We learned about the sobering structural issues women leaders face, including harassment and violence, gendered expectations, and lack of practical support. These issues affected women in different ways depending on their home country, status, age, and culture. Refugees had particularly difficult circumstances to navigate. There were no simple answers. Women met these challenges with creativity and a strong mindset, tapping into mentors, training, self-care, and supportive relationships. The strongest theme was connections and stories – the need for women to be together, visible, and listened to. APRRN can play a crucial role in amplifying these voices and providing the connections support women leaders in the work they are already doing.
In this project we spoke to refugees, directors of organisations, emerging leaders and those with vast amounts of experience. Our interviews spanned New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Japan, India and more. Our timetable reflected this! The project required tenacity to recruit participants around the busy Christmas period (and the UNHCR’s Global Refugee Forum). Like the women we interviewed, relationships were crucial in our team because we worked very closely together. I left the project in complete awe and admiration of the women who are fighting for their – our – rights around the world. I hope that our project report will support these women get just a fraction of the support they so rightly deserve.
Cheyann Heap UK (2019/20)
After taking a five year hiatus from studying, I was somewhat nervous about coming back to university and starting academic life again. However, any fears were allayed by the welcoming and engaging atmosphere at the Centre for Applied Human Rights. The lecturers, supervisors, and support staff all go out of their way to assist students and their knowledge and enthusiasm is infectious. On the course we’ve studied a range of challenging and practical topics, for example writing our own Universal Periodic Reviews for a country of our choice for the assessment for the Law and Advocacy Module. Practical assessment like this gives us the skills we need when going out into the jobs market, rather than simply writing an academic essay.
The Defending Human Rights Module places students within organisations in York, South Africa, and Malaysia. Working within an established organisation gives insight and opportunities for learning that you can’t foresee, and therefore makes it far more like the real world of human rights practice. Having regular lectures and seminars coupled with this hands-on placement meant that our learning in the classroom was directly translated into practice. Another highlight for me was the Culture and Protest Module offered in the Spring Term. As part of the module students must organise a cultural project from scratch, such as a film festival, a photography exhibition, or a participatory video, and it’s again this practical nature of the course that I find so important. It taught me skills as varied as making participatory videos and using theatre in human rights, as well as leadership skills and team management and communication.
The reason I chose the MA in Applied Human Rights is because of the emphasis on being ‘applied’, and there are opportunities to exercise this at every point of the course.
Johnny Rebours (UK, 2015-16)
When deciding on a MA program I wanted to make sure that it would provide me with both a theoretical basis as well as a practical one, especially since I had previous experience in the field. I believe that a purely theoretical program would not have benefited me as much, and probably bored me. The reason I chose the MA in applied Human Rights is because there was a lot of attention paid to the application of Human Rights which made the discussion of theory more relevant. The modules offered cater to a broad range of interests. The lectures were interactive and highlighted the key debates, while the seminars always led to thought provoking discussions. The lectures and seminars complimented each other well and enhanced my overall learning experience.
Alongside the teaching came the applied component of the program. I have been involved in one project after the other, each drawing on different aspects of the discourse. I worked on a team developing an advocacy strategy for the Travellers living in York, was part of another team planned a Human Rights Film Festival, and now I am working on a human rights indicator project for the York Human Rights City Network. I believe it has made my experience well rounded and has allowed me to work with groups of people or on projects that I would have not had the chance to otherwise.
All in all, my experience with the MA has been a successful one. The program has given me the space to reflect on the Human Rights discourse as a whole, as well as my position within it. Accordingly, I believe it has successfully prepared me for the field.
Mayada Soliman (Egypt, 2015-16)
I was employed by International Alert, a peace building INGO, as a Project Senior Officer within three months of finishing my studies in September 2015. My responsibilities include establishing a local mechanism of mitigating tensions in partnership with the local and affected community living in a multi sectarian region on the border of the endless war occurring in Syrian since 2011.
One of the multiple questions posed to me during the job interview was about my experience and my capacity in peace building within a war torn society like Lebanon, and where civic trust is lacking. Before getting my degree in Applied Human Rights I was an activist and was engaged in many struggle areas, but I was never close to dealing with the issue of civil war and tensions among local communities. Being exposed to various related modules and especially the Transitional Justice module and the placement that took place in South Africa were very significant in enriching my skills and extracting lessons which helped directing me in my current job. First, I had, theoretically, the chance to learn about the multiple mechanisms, intricacies and challenges of peace building in post-war societies (Rwanda, Yemen, Germany, Libya…). Moreover, I’ve learned how deep, impartially and unbiasedly scrutiny is needed in order to well understand the root causes of any conflict, and, then, engage all the concerned and vulnerable sides into this complex process. In addition, and throughout the placement in South Africa, I was so close to a 'success story' that increased my belief in the reachability of building a strong and developed nation after years of oppression and distress. Visiting and exploring the history of South Africa gave me hope and a very reliable answer to the skeptical people who question the possibility of peace. This was my main answer to the aforementioned interview question. Since securing the post I’ve managed three dialogue sessions in which we have succeeded in derailing obstacles and improving the chance of establishing a local mechanism for mitigating tensions that will sow the seeds of a peaceful society.
Rony Al Assaad (Lebanon, 2014-15)
I'm the Programmes Officer at Conciliation Resources, an independent organisation based in London that works with people in conflict-affected areas to prevent violence and build peace. CR has programmes in Colombia, Central African Republic, Kashmir and many other contexts. I work with teams to deliver these programmes, from helping to prepare policy briefs and fundings bids to coordinating their monitoring and evaluation strategies.
The MA course's interdisciplinary breadth familiarised me with a number of fields beyond human rights, such as conflict and development studies, that are key to a complete understanding of peacebuilding. There is a definite sense at the Centre of looking beyond the limits of academia - the field trip to South Africa in the first term and the frequent opportunities to interact with human rights defenders and activists, from York and beyond, really helped ground the coursework in reality. The MA was a great springboard for my career!
David Elliott (2012/13)
I was first exposed to drug users and people living on the streets at the tender age of nine when my parents started a drug rehab centre and a nursing home for people living with HIV & AIDS. Being the youngest in the family, I use to tag along, and the centre became my second home.
During my teenage years, we struggled as a family in journeying with my brother who has been a drug user since the age of 16. Fourteen years of witnessing this has shown me how delicate this matter is and how socioeconomic factors can effect even the strongest of us. It was exposure to vulnerable people as such that prompted me to take up psychology and pursue the study of human behavior.
I soon found my calling in Yayasan Chow Kit (YCK), where I was employed as one of the only two social workers and was promoted to a centre manager. YCK is a nongovernmental drop-in activity centre that provides social services to more than 400 high risk youths living in Malaysia's red light district.
During my years at YCK, the alarming number of children living on the streets prompted me to start and lead the first outreach team working with street children. While trying to keep the best interest of the child at heart, the overall lack of youth-friendly support and services on a grassroots and policy level has been a great stumbling block and sometimes leaves these children with no other option.
Throughout my personal and working life, I have come to realize that my passion and interest lies in working with the most at risk children. I believe that in order to really drive change in the area of street children in Malaysia, emphasis is required on both grassroots and a policy level, working hand in hand. While YCK may have sufficient opportunity for me to gain grassroots experience and exposure, I felt that the avenue for effecting policies, advocacy and research were very much lacking. This prompted me to peruse a higher education in the area of human rights.
I was first attracted to the Master’s course offered at the University of York’s Centre of Human Rights because of its emphasis on practicality. I was always a strong believer that the knowledge of human rights cannot only be learnt through books but involves a much more organic approach such as through experience, interactions and discussions. The Centre not only ropes in lecturers with years of experience in various human rights issues and ground work around the world, they also hosts a number of human rights defenders each semester. I always enjoy the unconventional teaching methods, and the lecturers’ willingness to encourage constant class participation. There is so much to learn from a room full of students and defenders who come with different experiences and background in human rights. I absolutely love the interactive environment which makes classes fun and entertaining, and always something to look forward to.
The placements in South Africa are definitely the most anticipated event of the first semester, and probably the most talked about event for the rest of the year. It’s hard to sum up what the best two weeks of one’s learning life can teach. My placement managed to challenge my core values and beliefs that I had been holding, but at the same time it allowed me space and experiences to then affirm it.
Nights were the most exciting as we huddled around and shared stories about our day. It was almost like I was gaining four different placement experiences other than my own. If planned well, the placement does not have to be all work and no play. I managed to do a few things that have been long on my bucket list. Most importantly above fun, I valued the time I spent together with my supervisors and group mates. For the first time in three months since I first arrived in York, I finally felt less home sick. Now that the buzz is over and we are no longer in Cape Town, I still look forward to meeting up for movie nights, afternoon coffee, stay overs, dance nights and game nights that has now become part of our MA group’s tradition. The placement in Cape Town has indeed brought me abundance, but I also gained equally valuable experience and knowledge from the relationships that I nurtured with fellow students and supervisors.
For those of us who are interested to learn more about other areas of interest, there are tremendous opportunities to join in events organized by other departments. The Centre also hosts many talks and events on human rights related issues from around the world. The Human Rights Festival that is organized by the Centre is a great opportunity for us to engage in creative expressions. This year, one area that interests me the most is engaging in storytelling with children on the history of chocolate in York by infusing human rights elements in the stories.
There is never a dull moment at University. Other than being involved with the Centre itself, the University offers many opportunities to interact with other students from different departments through organized events and clubs. My classmates and I take part in surprising activities that interest potential human rights defenders such as zumba classes, salsa nights, outdoor society, art class, drama class and many others. I also spend time involving myself with activities organized by my college. Getting to know people living in the same college can be very useful when I am particularly home sick.
It’s now 6 months away from the end of the course, the idea of leaving my new found life is heart-breaking. Here, I have found knowledge and experience that will help me make a change in the world, and friends that will make a change in my world. I know I am not alone, as I have heard this many times before from my other classmates, that joining the Master’s programme here was the best choice that I could have made for myself.
Katrina Arokiam (Chevening scholar from Malaysia, 2012/13)
MA students 2012-13, Laurie (bottom left) and Katrina (bottom right)