Fabianna, reflecting on her connection with human rights defenders



July 25, 2023

Fabianna, reflecting on her connection with human rights defenders

Written by Fabianna Flores Sanchez

Fabianna is 23 years old and though she grew up in the Netherlands, her origins lie in Venezuela and Canada. Following her graduation with a degree in international relations and international law in 2022, she developed an interest in community-based approaches to tackling social justice issues. This led to a 9-month internship with Justice & Peace Netherlands as part of the Human Rights Defenders team working on the Shelter City initiative.

In this blog post, Fabianna reflects on her experience accompanying Shelter City guests participating in the initiative in Shelter Cities all across the Netherlands.

Meeting Ali

I stood by the gate of Schiphol airport, holding a sign that read ‘Ali’, ready to greet the human rights defender that I would be supporting for the next 3 months. When Ali, an LGBTIQ+ rights activist and academic from Turkey came through the gate, I recognized him from a photo I had seen of him. I waved in his direction, he saw my sign and smiled.

On the train ride from the airport to The Hague, I connected with Ali and discovered that he and I had many similar interests. Our first conversation, like the ones that followed, varied from topics like the rise of artificial intelligence to the best places to visit in The Hague. Throughout his stay, I went with Ali to several meetings and cheered him on during a public speaking event and a marathon. During the final capacity-building week, we had fun singing and dancing with the other human rights defenders during a night of karaoke.

The connections I make in Shelter City can continue outside of my internship.

I recently visited Istanbul and was able to see Ali again. It was nearing the elections in Turkey, so Ali took my friend and I to a conversation held by the Green Party and LGBTIQ+ party representatives. It was great to see him again, and it showed me that the connections I make in Shelter City can continue outside of my internship.

Meeting Neyls

Neyls is a Venezuelan civil and political rights defender and Shelter City Utrecht guest in Fall 2022.

I was excited to meet Neyls since he is also from Venezuela, but I also knew of the difficult personal story that led him to become a human rights defender. During the first training week, he shared his story of losing a loved one to state violence during the protests in 2017. Neyls showed us a photo of his son, which hangs around his neck, always close to his heart.

Although it was saddening to hear this, I also thought of how difficult it must be to share such a personal story. I accompanied Neyls to several meetings to support him with simultaneous interpretation when needed. During these meetings, I noticed how important it was to Neyls to tell his own story, so that those listening can understand, from a single story, the impact the situation in Venezuela is having on millions of people.

Retelling the past means we cannot forget what happened.

What I haven’t mentioned is how outside of these meetings and events, Neyls always kept the group’s energy high. Despite the language barrier, he always made everyone laugh and connected with everyone he met.

Raising awareness of the situation in Venezuela was important during Neyls’ stay. This was evident at a documentary screening organized by PBI Netherlands, the coordinating organization hosting Neyls in Shelter City Utrecht. One of the documentaries showed the destruction and loss that enveloped Venezuela in 2017 during mass protests across the country. During the screening, we also listened to the ways state violence has impacted Neyls and his colleagues at ALFAVIC. I often feel that Venezuela is a hidden crisis, moved far beneath other headlines. But this event brought the situation of Venezuela and Neyls’ courageous fight for true justice to the forefront. Because retelling the past means we cannot forget what happened.

My favourite memory with Neyls is of the time we spent in Brussels with the other human rights defenders. We spent the final hours walking through the city with Felix, Honneur-David and Makomborero, trying to see all the tourist attractions before heading back to the Netherlands. Time passed and I realized we only had 20 minutes to get back to the bus station.

After 3 days in Brussels, Neyls suddenly realized he hadn’t tried a Belgian waffle yet, and I told him he couldn’t leave without trying one. So, we quickly went into the nearest shop where Neyls was overwhelmed by choice, so we ordered one with all the possible toppings before rushing across the city to reach the bus on time.

Meeting Sheyla

Sheyla is a Venezuelan journalist and Shelter City Haarlem guest in Spring 2023.

When I met Sheyla, we instantly connected since we both speak Spanish and come from Venezuela. Sheyla shared many stories with me; how she dreamt of being a writer which led her towards journalism, and stories of the people who have come into her life because of the work she does. What I also appreciated about Sheyla was her genuine interest in my life and my dreams.

When it comes to stories that are not our own, we must listen actively and find ways to support people.

We also spent time talking about her journalistic work since I had a deep interest in the topics she covers. Spending time with Sheyla meant I got to learn to see the world through the eyes of a journalist. When she was asked during a meeting what it means to her to work on a podcast with an indigenous community, she said she could best explain it by sharing what a Wayuu woman told her; “a lot of foreigners come and listen to our stories, but they leave just as quickly with them. Instead, you listen and come back every week, and you share not only the bad things that happen to us, but you also celebrate our achievements and our moments of celebration”.

With Neyls I had learned the importance of telling one’s own story. From Sheyla, I learned that when it comes to stories that are not our own, we must listen actively and find ways to support people, particularly those who remain marginalized because of their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and/or social class, in telling their own stories.

During Sheyla’s final week in the Netherlands, she kindly invited me to her goodbye dinner. Around the table sat everyone who supported her during her stay at Shelter City Haarlem. It warmed my heart to know that she too had appreciated the time we spent together. I already miss being able to support her with simple things like going with her to buy thermal clothes because it’s too cold or helping her choose the right lip gloss to get as a present for her daughter.

The past 9 months

My time at Shelter City has been a uniquely eye-opening experience. Sitting in the weeks of trainings, and in many meetings between human rights defenders and organizations, I was able to learn more about how each person tries to make a change in their local community. As support staff, although I was the first point of contact for one human rights defender based in The Hague, I ended up connecting with many other guests in Shelter Cities across the Netherlands. I also got to work with other like-minded interns who made the experience even more enjoyable!

On a personal level, I feel like this experience made me an even better listener. I realized how important this skill is in this type of work; for example, I was able to be a listening ear when someone chose to share a personal story with me. I was glad I was able to support them with this because talking can be healing.

To all the human rights defenders I have met during my internship, thank you for sharing your stories with me, for all the interesting conversations and for the important work you do. I feel honoured that our paths crossed, and I’m glad we now share many memories of Shelter City. 

We at Shelter City thank Fabianna for her tremendous support to the initiative in the Netherlands, and to human rights defenders at risk.

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