Torture, Testimony, and Human Rights: A Semester Long Community Partnership Story

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The accounts below are from survivors of torture conducted by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s police and military. (Warning: Graphic Testimony/Images of Torture in the links.)

Nothing Else But Non-Violence

A Child and A Bird (video)

These testimonies were collected by Syrians for Truth and Justice, a human rights organization that I have been part of creating over the past several years. In addition to collecting testimonies from survivors of human rights abuses by Assad, ISIS, and proliferating militia, STJ also works with a network of human rights activists based in Syria who document on-going human rights abuses, including a recent report on the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun.

Engaging in such work quickly teaches you that Jalal Nofar’s testimony represents just one of many moments of torture and human rights abuse, just one voice among the many that were told to be quiet but continued to speak. It is a lesson I want my students to also learn.

Over the next several months, then, I will be asking students in Syracuse (university and community-based) to join in the work of STJ as well as support high school students in North Africa attempting to work against ISIS recruitment in their community. As a collective, we will be thinking through how to produce print, digital, and performance-based artifacts that can support this important human rights work – work occurring in local moments across the Middle East and North Africa but with resonance for our own communities in Syracuse. Throughout, they will be working at forming a transnational conversation on their responsibilities and role as human rights activists.

It is, perhaps, one of the most challenging community projects I have ever undertaken.

Already, some of the individuals in our network of international partners have faced government repression and threats. Elements of the project has been hampered by our need to have individuals or messages cross international borders in a time of restrictions and travel bans.  And the imagined promise of a fluid digital culture across space and time now seems a bit naïve. My students are already beginning to recognize how such work has real implications, real effects, in spaces to which they may never travel.

And I have had to recognize that the scholarly  work on community partnership and publication on which this course is premised is primarily situated within a certain understanding of U.S. culture. There is a latent faith in the right of individuals to speak, a latent faith in the safety of engaging in such speech, and, perhaps, an optimism that such actions will produce change. The challenges made by movements such as Black Lives Matter have been important interventions in asking all of us to reconsider how we are situated differently to such a faith. Still, with broad brushstrokes, I would argue much of our scholarship swims in such waters.

How, then, to position community literacy paradigms, skills, and practices within contexts that seem to trouble such beliefs? How to provide students with frameworks that do not romanticize the United States (brushing over the marginalization many populations feel) or present individuals in the Middle East/North Africa as victims to be saved? Tentatively, I intend on taking the following disciplinary/pedagogical steps.

1. Create a Complex Historical Narrative

Given the current political debates around the refugees and conflicts emerging from the Middle East and North Africa, I decided to begin my class not with rhetorical theory, but with historical research. I used academic research, online news sources, and current affair blogs, to situate my students popular culture understandings within a history of collective struggle by activists in this region for democracy and human rights. In doing so, I am also indirectly highlighting how such rights have histories outside the context of the United States.

2. Provide Models of Political Change

Within public discussions of the Middle East/North Africa, there are critiques/concerns expressed about a continual failure to establish democratic states. For this reason, I believe that my students need a model of political change, a theory through which they could test how public discussion was framing the situation in a country such as Syria, but also test the theory against their own work. (Here I am latently making the point that many of us inhabit a model of political change of which we are not always fully cognizant.)

3. Understand the Risks Involved

Speaking out always carries risk. Yet often in community publishing contexts that risk is not fully understood, articulated. Perhaps the university is seen as a guarantor of safety for all those involved. After warning about the graphic nature of STJ’s work, I will ask students to explore the site, taking note of the risks each of these individuals faced in their own lives for their public work. We can then discuss how such risks exist for everyone in the United States, though differently situated depending on individual identity. Here I want them to gain an overt understanding of the real-life context of this work and that while I would step in when necessary, they were entering projects where actual risks are involved.

Only then will we turn to the field’s work of community partnership and publishing.

I recognize that discussions of Syria, the Middle East, and human rights might seem far afield from the typical work of our writing classrooms. Yet what I have learned from this “exceptional” class is that any class which engages in community partnership work needs to create a complex historical context of that community, provide a model of social change to frame the work, and enable students to understand the risks being asked of community members. It needs the insights of other disciplines, such as history and political science. Our community writing classes might be about writing, that is, but more than writing theory is necessary to make our work successful.

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