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Guest Blog: Refugee Writers, Embry Human Rights Program inspires, connects us to compelling struggles

by Anne Bothwell 13 Oct 2011 2:04 PM

The new Embry Human Rights Program at SMU has started a new lecture series. Guest blogger William Holston attended last week and was blown away. He shares highlights and provides details about the next program, featuring Holocaust survivor Philip Bialowitz, tonight.


Guest blogger Bill Holston  is a business lawyer with the Dallas law firm Sullivan & Holston. He and his wife Jill have lived in Dallas for over 25 years, and have two adult sons. Bill became active in the local music and arts community through his son Fred, who is a local photographer and musician. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Art Conspiracy, a local non-profit, that promotes local artists and raises money for charity, and he is is a frequent commentator on 90.1 FM, KERA. Bill is privileged to provide pro bono legal services to political and religious refugees to our country through local non-profit Human Rights Initiative, and writes a nature column called Law Man Walking for DMagazine’s blog, Front Burner.

“Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as gentle as doves. Perhaps, then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear amid the uproar of empires and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Some will say that this hope lies in a nation, others, in a man. I believe rather that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and words every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history. As a result, there shines forth fleetingly the ever-threatened truth that each and every man, on the foundations of his own sufferings and joys, builds for them all.”

–Albert Camus, Create Dangerously, as quoted by Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership.

Holocaust survivor Philip Bialowitz speaks tonight. Details below. Photo: BBC

Last Thursday eve, I attended the inaugural event of a small start up non profit, Refugee Writers. The event  perfectly illustrated the concept of the power of word and individual ideas.  This is a non-profit started by a brother and sister team, Lauren and Justin Banta. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it is young people like this that make me hopeful about the future. Justin has a Masters in Divinity from Princeton and has been working with refugees in Dallas for years. Lauren works for North Texas Food Bank. See what I mean?  I defy you to maintain your cynicism after spending some time with them.

Thursday’s event was part of a series of lectures at the brand spanking new Embry Human Rights Program at SMU, Rick Halperin has been a warrior for human rights for decades, a former director of Amnesty Internationsal.  This program is the BEST THING, SMU has ever done and is one of a handful of human rights programs in the United States. Rick is the director of this program. The event was part of the UNSETTLED TEXT PROJECT, which is the REFUGEE WRITERS program ‘to empower refugees to tell and find readership for their own stories and views by connecting them with writers and translators.’ I can’t remember an evening that was more uplifting than this one. Each refugee recounted a story about their experience.

I cannot do justice to these remarkable stories, the writers all do a better job than I could. Sirak, is from Ethiopia. He had a degree from an Electrical Technology Institute in Addis Ababa. He won the immigration lottery and traveled here to America. Now he works the night shift at a convenience store in a bad neighborhood, saying he’s ‘scared every moment of my life.’

Suaad from Iraq wrote a letter to her grandchildren which she read. It was a very moving account of her father, who had been a political activist before the era of Sadaam Hussein. She obviously adored her father, a supporter of women’s rights. She talked about her children now successful here in the US. At the end, she was beaming. Obviously, she was so very happy to be empowered to tell her story and honor her family.

Dabib is a US citizen from the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. He talked about the violence that has torn Sudan apart and driven him here to America. He met his wife where they worked together for a hotel. He’s very involved in the Community of people from the Nuba Mountains. Now they have beautiful children and are safe here. I loved watching him smile and nod his head as several of the speakers expressed gratitude for what it is like to live here.

Zarah is from Iraq also, she used a pseudonym and had a translator read her words, because she has family in Iraq and still does not feel secure. Alla, from Russia, was a political activist and recited her amusing poem in Russian and English. The final speaker was Gorethy, from Congo. She was a lawyer in Congo and talked about the plight of women and orphans. Congo has become infamous as a place of rape as a political weapon. She illustrated the fact that we so often have a simplistic view of refugees. She said, “I spoke five languages, but one of them was not English.’ So, this strong woman moved to start a new life in America. She has 6 children, 5 of them in Universities, the 6th a high school quarterback. She said her children are “living the American Dream.” However, this is not her dream. Her dream is to return to Congo, for as she said, “Congo needs me more than America.” Well, giving our current state of politics and malaise, I’m not sure that’s true.

Jill and I left the program totally uplifted. I don’t know how other people cope with life without these reminders about the rest of the world.  Think about that, next time you complain about traffic.

Tonight, the program at SMU Embry is

McCord Auditorium (306 Dallas Hall)

7:00 pm

Philip Bialowitz is one of eight living survivors of the infamous Nazi death camp, Sobibor, where an estimated 250,000 people perished between 1942 and 1943.  There, Mr. Bialowitz joined a small group of Jewish prisoners who overpowered their captors and freed approximately 200 of the camp’s 600 slave laborers.  Over the past 20 years, Mr. Bialowitz has lectuerd frequently to diverse audiences in North America and Europe about both his experiences at Sobibor and the continued importance of mutual respect among people of different beliefs.  He has testified at several war crimes trials.  Mr. Bialowitz’s memoir, A Promise at Sobibor: A Jewish Boy’s Story of Revolt and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland has been published in English and will be available for purchase.  The program is free and open to the public.