Students Explore Human Rights in Mershon-Funded Travel Program

August 28, 2016

Students Explore Human Rights in Mershon-Funded Travel Program

(left) Amy Shuman, (right) Wendy Hesford

Mershon affiliates Amy Shuman and Wendy Hesford hosted the first "Human Rights and the Humanities" student summer travel and study program, which included four students (three English majors and one International Studies major) and the assistance of one English graduate student.

Participants of the five-day study program, held June 12-16, 2016, attended film screenings at this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival at the Walter Reed Theatre at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, attended the "Human Rights in the Age of Ambiguity" conference at Fordham University, and explored the archives at Columbia University's Center for Human Rights Documentation and Research.

Among the films that the group screened were "Desperate Journey," about asylum seekers arriving in Europe by sea; "The Crossing," which focused on a group of Syrian refugees; and "The Uncondemned," about the lawyers, activists, and Rwandan women who fought to have rape recognized as a war crime.

Students also attended panels on the Syrian refugee crisis and virtual reality and human rights. At the Fordham University conference, students attended panels on a range of topics, including a debate between Stephen Hopgood and Samuel Moyn about international human rights theory, panels on LGBTQI Rights, and the politics of immigration. They were able to hear a keynote presentation by a former acting UN high commissioner for human rights.

Human Rights Study Abroad

At Columbia University Human Rights Archives, undergraduate Marta Csejtey, who had worked as a volunteer with the Somali community in Columbus, explored a box of archival materials from Human Rights Watch: Africa Watch about Somalia.

She wrote, "As I was looking through the documents, I was impressed with the fullness of the picture provided by them. … I found myself very emotionally impacted by this presentation of information in which I could see the country tugged between disaster and hope. There were articles about killings, ceasefires, food-drops, then violence and theft of food-aid, and continuing famine. Interspersed with the documentation of this terrible cycle were articles representing the moments when people may have felt they were breaking free of it. There was an article on the first soccer game since the conflict had begun, and another on the reopening of a school that housed the last remaining library in the area.

In addition to watching one or two films each evening, students attended panel discussions with the filmmakers for several films. They were also able to attend an exhibition of photographs, "Desperate Journey: Europe’s Refugee Crisis," and a panel discussion about them.

Undergraduate Afnan Isleem wrote, "The refugee crisis is an emotional and a sensitive issue, and I personally connect to it growing up as a refugee in my own country and later as an immigrant to the United States. Telling stories of refugees is important for the refugees themselves and the rest of the world."

The students discussed complex issues ranging from whether virtual reality is useful for informing people about human rights problems to the relationship between LGBTQI activists in Africa and the murders of gay, lesbian and transgender people in Orlando, Fla., the day before the trip.

In addition to attending the conference, exploring documents in the archive, and attending films, students toured New York City to see significant human rights sites, including Stonewall Inn National Monument. The students represented a great diversity of interests and fields of study, and they reported that the group's conversations gave them a greater understanding of the complexity of approaches to understanding human rights.

Human Rights and the Humanities Summer Travel Program is funded by the Ronald and Deborah Ratner Teaching Award, International Studies Program, and Mershon Center for International Security Studies. Applications for next year's program will be available in Spring 2017. Please contact Wendy Hesford ( or Amy Shuman ( for information.

Photo: Professors Wendy Hesford (center left) and Amy Shuman (center right) with students Jayne Van Schaik (bottom left), Cara Clark (bottom right), Afnan Isleem (top left), and Marta Csejtey (top right).