December 1, 2023
Written in Dutch by Clasien Vermeer
Translated to English by Sam Hofman
Clasien Vermeer was the coordinator of Shelter City Tilburg. She retired this year and continues to be involved as a volunteer with the coordinating organization, ContourdeTwern. In this story, she shares with us her experience coordinating Shelter City Tilburg and what it means to her to work with human rights defenders. She recently got a Human Rights Tattoo to celebrate her commitment to the Shelter City movement.
Tilburg became a Shelter City in 2016, and I had the privilege of coordinating it for the city until 2023. It’s wonderful that a colleague, previously involved as a volunteer, has taken over, and I now remain involved as a volunteer. We’ve essentially switched roles. How beautiful is that?
Working with a completely different person each year has been very special. Yet, all of them are individuals with a passion for what they do; advocating for the rights of others in their countries, often at great personal risk. In my work at ContourdeTwern/Switch, I focused on sustainability, international issues, and the Sustainable Development Goals, primarily through campaigns and educational projects with schools. Shelter City aligns well with SDG 16 (peace and security) and human rights.
Providing both, a safe space for human rights defenders and giving school presentations, work effectively. Direct contact with someone doing such crucial work, often for others and at great personal risk, leaves a profound impression, making it personal and not just a distant issue.
I’ve had great experiences with all the guests in Tilburg. One activity stood out: in 2021, there was a meeting with regional education centre (regionaal opleiding centrum – ROC) students, Shelter City guest Mojalifa, Tilburg’s alderman for global awareness Esmah Lahlah, and the former Dutch ambassador for human rights Bahia Tahzib-Lie. They engaged with students whose well-prepared questions deeply touched the guests’ hearts. Questions about acceptance, tolerance, being who you want to be, discrimination, and exclusion were very personal, warm, and sincere, with even a few tears here and there. It was quite a special experience.
In 2017, we hosted June, a lawyer from Thailand. A young woman for whom we had an apartment outside the city centre, quite rudimentarily furnished for three months, which I now feel a bit ashamed of. She didn’t feel very comfortable there. Fortunately, during her stay, she connected with a Thai student studying at the university in Tilburg. They vaguely knew each other in Thailand, and he had kept his distance for safety reasons. Now, they are married!
Human rights defenders in their own countries are under immense pressure, often facing severe threats and immediate danger. It’s challenging for us to comprehend.
Lessons learned and challenges
The biggest challenge, each time, was ensuring good accommodation. It has been successful every year, but always challenging. Psychological support is crucial but challenging to realize. In my opinion, it could be more centrally addressed and offered by Justice & Peace Netherlands. Having an intern for daily and practical matters is very pleasant. Still, volunteers who organize social activities are indispensable in making it enjoyable for the Shelter City guests. Fortunately, we have a great team in Tilburg that we can rely on.
Why it’s important
Human rights defenders in their own countries are under immense pressure, often facing severe threats and immediate danger. It’s challenging for us to comprehend. I have immense respect and admiration for their courage, energy, motivation, and perseverance. By providing them a temporary place to rest, work on expanding their network, and rejuvenate, we can help them sustain and continue their crucial work. We must continue doing this! Respect and admiration for these courageous human rights defenders! It was truly an honour to shape Shelter City in Tilburg for so many years.
I find it very special to now be part of this global movement of human rights defenders, alongside Christopher, Moja, and 6770 others.
At my farewell, I was able to choose a personal gift. I chose letter 5066 from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. One square centimetre of my skin for human rights. Human Rights Tattoo is a unique project by the Tilburg artist Sander van Bussel, a good friend of Shelter City. I find it very special to now be a part of this global movement of human rights defenders, alongside Christopher, Moja, and 6770 others.
We thank Clasien for her long-term commitment to the Shelter City movement and for sharing her story.