Women human rights defenders meet at the 2017 Nobel Women's Initiative Conference. Credit: author.“It’s just inspiring to have this in our city,” says Jana. She’s 16 years old and has come from Dusseldorf with her mother to the public talk by five female Nobel Peace Prize laureates hosted at the historic Kaiser-Friedrich-Halle in Mönchengladbach, Germany.
Jody Williams, Mairead Maguire, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Shirin Ebadi and Tawakkol Karman have come to address the 900 attendees about their work fighting totalitarianism and fundamentalism in its many global guises in order to build a more peaceful, just and equal world.
The public event took place on the final evening of the sixth international conference of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Over the last three days, more than 50 women human rights defenders have been in Mönchengladbach to discuss the future of the feminist movement in collaboration with Initiativikreis Mönchengladbach.
Jana studies at Volkshochschule. I asked her what made her come to hear the Nobel laureates speak: “I’m interested in helping people,” she declares enthusiastically, “I want peace all over the world, and so having women here who have won the Nobel Peace prize is fantastic.”
There are many high school students among the crowd and I chat to a few of them in the lobby. Victoria is 17 and studies at the International School of Dusseldorf. She became interested in human rights issues after studying the issues at school, but also through her experience helping at a local refugee shelter.
The global response to refugees has been a key theme of the conference over the past three days and is a concern of all the laureates. One of the reasons the delegates decided to hold the conference in Germany was to come and congratulate Germany for its policies, explained Tawakko Karman, Yemeni human rights activist and 2011 Nobel Peace laureate.
Since the beginning of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe, Germany has welcomed more than one million refugees, more than any other country in Europe. For 2016 and 2017 alone, the government has set aside 28.7 billion euros of funding for their accommodation and integration.
Victoria is proud to welcome the migrants. Her school has paired her with a young boy from Syria who she helps with homework and German conversation skills. “We meet and chat,” she explains, “it’s going well.”
I ask Victoria and her friends about how their peers have responded to the arrival of refugees to their region. Do they agree with Angela Merkel’s public statements that Germany should welcome people fleeing the conflict in Syria? Lea, 16, tells me that she is proud of the policy, but at first some people were scared.
“Even me to be honest, when I heard they were coming close to my house I didn’t know, like, I just didn’t know about it. But now I feel safe, really safe. There are always kids around and it’s nice.” Another student Lea is a keen footballer, she chips in. “The refugees come to the facilities at our school and we play football together, it’s great.”
Many of the young people here have been politicised to defend human rights more broadly because of personal experiences of getting to know refugees in Germany. It heartens me because I know this experience will stay with them for life. I saw the same transformation time and time again myself as a national coordinator with Student Action for Refugees. The UK NGO supports students to set up volunteering and campaigning projects in their local communities.
But unlike Germany, the UK – and other countries who are now turning their backs on refugees – is training the next generation to look inwards rather than out. They’re turning away from fostering international consciousness among citizens. This, Jody Williams has repeated over the last three days, is “the real fake news.” Jody won the 1997 Nobel Peace prize for her work to ban antipersonnel landmines.
Germany’s decision to welcome refugees has nevertheless not come without challenges, especially in terms of the far right explains Brigitte Schuster, a German teacher who has come along to hear the Nobel laureates speak. She teaches as part of a network of state funded programmes run by BAMF (the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees). Despite some “teething problems” in the provision of services, Bridgette insists that people are now moving forward with their lives. They are contributing a lot to the community, she explains, including through sharing their stories and fostering consciousness of totalitarianism in other parts of the world.
“Over time they learn to tell their stories in German,” Bridgette tells me. “Sometimes we have breakfast before class and share food, flowers, stories. Sometimes I see students a year later and they have lots to tell about their progress. They have babies, jobs. They’ve reached a higher level.”
Victoria tells me that she doesn’t discuss politics or “his story” with the Syrian student she is partnered with through her volunteering – “he has been through a lot so he just wants to move forward with his life”. But, she explains, “coming to events like this and hearing from the Nobel women helps people to understand the kind of situations of persecution they might have fled.”
After the event, in the foyer, it appears that the laureates' message has got through. Attendees have been issued a call to action. The laureates have thanked the German people for welcoming refugees but also asked them to keep up the pressure on the totalitarian regimes that they have fled. They're also summoned to fix the gaps in European democracies. Tawakkol Karman, Yemeni human rights activist, has called on those present not to victimise people but to “be close to people’s dreams, their aspirations and their suffering.” And she’s issued an order: “you will fight for a society of equal citizenship for men and women."
Five boys, all aged 15, jump over one another to tell me what they found most inspiring when I ask them in the foyer, after the event. They’ve been brought along by their English teacher, Meike Barth, from the Gymnasium an der Gartenstraße. They are curious to learn about human rights struggles in other parts of the world and how they can support them because of what they have learnt in their studies, they explain.
Ahmet says he was especially touched when Shirin Ebadi, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her efforts to promote human rights in Iran, mentioned the Berlin Wall. “She said that the wall Trump wants to build is like the Berlin Wall and we can bring it down,” he recounts. But Ahmet is also struck by her message about breaking down the walls between people ideologically. “It’s not just physical walls but walls in our hearts. People can always find ways to talk across physical walls, but what’s more hard is what she said about solidarity and people, the politicians trying to stop that connection. Actually,” he reflects, “I was thinking of this different metaphor of a different kind of wall we all build together with that hope, like bricks but you also need cement….It’s a metaphor in progress!”
Ahmet is also inspired by Jody Williams' work to erase landmines. “There are still landmines in Vietman”, he tells me, “actually I read about that just last week and I was sat there thinking we need to do something about that.” I ask him what he’s going to do: he’s going to organise a local event and write to politicians.
Sebastian meanwhile tells me what stuck with him was the message, advanced by Northern Irish peace activist and 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laurate Mairead Maguire, to use academic learning to advance the cause of peace, whatever the discipline. He enjoys chemistry, biology and maths and wants to help tackle climate change. He explains, "people think human rights is just a subject but it’s actually about everything, the whole environment. It’s not just politicians saying this and that.” He’s been inspired by the public meeting tonight to organise his own event. Benjamin, another student, wants to get active on social media and says he is going to help him.
I ask the boys if they are feminists and they enthusiastically agree. Is that tough, being a young male feminist in Germany? I ask them.
“Sometimes when I say I’m a feminist people are looking at me like, eh,” jokes Florian, “but I think people have misconceptions about feminism, that’s the problem. It’s common sense. Donald Trump is a big sexist and it’s, well, we don’t want any walls also between men and women. We can’t tolerate it.”
I leave the boys taking pictures with the Nobel laureates, leaning towards them enthusiastically to tell them about their plans to take their messages forward in their city and beyond.
Young feminists from the Gymnasium an der Gartenstraße with Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Maguire. Credit: author.