Since 1998 Colby has had 23 Oak Institute for Human Rights Fellows from 19 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. The institute was created at then-President William R. Cotter’s request and made possible with a generous grant from the Oak Foundation.

Twenty-three fellows, 19 countries. Where are they now? Select an activist’s name to read more.


2019

Jamila Bargach Morocco

Activism with roots in education

2019 Oak Fellow Jamila Bargach

“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.”

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 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 Syria

As bombs fell, he took photographs

2018 Oak Human Rights Fellow Bassam Khabieh

Photo by Mohammad Badra

“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.”

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.

“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 ZengChina

Individuals can make social change

Photo by Haitao Huang

“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.”

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.

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 AlbaihSudan

A solitary cartoonist finds a global network of support

2016 Oak Human Rights Fellow Khalid Albaih

Photo by Agata Xavier for the Open Society Foundation

“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.”

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.

“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 KoberinskiCanada

For food activist, seeds planted at Colby are still growing

2014 Oak Human Rights Fellow Jodi Koberinski

Photo by Girl Crimson

“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.

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.

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 ByarugabaUganda

Solidarity—and a precious car—for an LGBT activist

Photo by Aquil Virani

“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.”

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 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 AungMyanmar

From prison to freedom 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.”

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.”

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 NhlengetwaSouth Africa

Teaching whites, for the first time

2012 Zandile Nhlengetwa

Photo by Institute of Peace and Justice,
University of San Diego

“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.”

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.”

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 BurnadIndia

Finding common ground in human rights

2011 Oak Fellow Fatima Burnad

“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.”

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.”

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 MukokoZimbabwe

For a brief time, a house without a wall or gate

2010 Oak Fellow Jestina Mukoko

Photo by Tatenda Chiriseri

“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.”

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.”

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 Israel

Seeing America—and its issues—like never before

2009 Oak Fellow Hadas Ziv

“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.”

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.”

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 Bangladesh

Finding the company of other angry, idealistic people

2009 Oak Fellow Afsan Chowdhury

Photo by Md. Fatius Fahmid

“I’m still an idealist,” he said. “Colby was a place where everyone was very idealistic.”

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.”

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 Colombia

After activist friends killed, a needed respite

2008 Oak Fellow Nancy Sanchez

Photo by Leonel Morales Narváez

“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.”

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 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 Philippines

As burnout loomed, students offered encouragement

2006 Oak Fellow Joan Omaming Carling

“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.”

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.

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 Zimbabwe

Debating torture, in Zimbabwe and the United States

2005 Oak Fellow Frances Lovemore

“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.”

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.

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 Cambodia

Attacked from all sides at home, validated at Colby

2004 Oak Fellow Chanthol Oung

“While at Colby, they gave a great motivation to my job. They really appreciated what I was doing.”

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.

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 Palestine

They sent us to the Middle Ages

2003 Oak Fellow Raji Sourani

“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.”

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.”

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 Sudan

Standing up for children

2002 Oak Fellow Ushari Mahmud

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 Kosovo

A life dedicated to victims of war

2001 Oak Fellow Sevdije Ahmeti

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 Colombia

At Colby, a moment to breathe. At home, chased by threats of death

2000 Oak Fellow Hector Hernan Mondragon Baez

“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.”

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).

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 Congo

In solidarity with victims of violence

1999 Oak Fellow Didier Kamandu Batundi

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 Pakistan

After the fellowship, asylum granted

1998 Oak Fellow Zafaryab Ahmed

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.