Human rights issues do not discriminate based on continent, nor do they halt in the face of a pandemic – in fact, they are global matters that magnify in times of disaster. Through participation in UW’s Circle of Care for Global Health and Human Rights study abroad program, Angelica Contreras realized human rights violations have no borders. She made connections to her own life as she observed women in Spain, Morocco and Nigeria facing the same struggles that many people experience in America.
Contreras, a rising junior, traveled to Spain, Morocco, and Nigeria remotely, as part of UW’s first ever faculty-led virtual study abroad program. The three-week course, offered by the College of Agricultural & Life Sciences in partnership with International Academic Programs, allowed Contreras her classmates to examine issues of sex-trafficking, human rights, and migration.
The UW group connected with women from Nigeria, some of whom now live in Morocco and Spain, as they shared their journeys, and how they overcame the extreme challenges associated with migration and sex trafficking. The women shared stories through trauma-informed techniques – body movement, sounds, visual art, and collective narratives.
Contreras, an International Studies and Spanish major with a certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies, said that understanding stories from these women was emotional; it was difficult to comprehend at times, because she could not fully realize their experience. But many of the students found common ground with the women on the topic of racism. They exchanged anecdotes – the women shared moments from their time in both Africa and Europe, and asked students about George Floyd and the anti-racism movement happening in America.
“I think the big similarity is that they feel their voices aren’t being heard, and that they aren’t being given the same opportunities as others, and I think that’s something that is still very, very prevalent in the United States,” Contreras said. “It’s interesting to see how we live on such different continents and we’re all facing the same issue of racism.”
Typically, not much talking occurs between students and the victims and survivors; instead, they communicate through art. This year was different, said Dr. Araceli Alonso, Distinguished Senior Lecturer and Co-Director of UNESCO Chair on Gender, Wellbeing and Culture of Peace. To Alonso and the other coordinators’ surprise, the women began to ask students questions about their experiences in America. A few of the women included “Black Lives Matter” in their collages.
“[Black Lives Matter] started in the U.S., so it was really powerful for all of us to see that connection being made,” Alonso said. “Students made the association between the importance of anti-racism, anti-human trafficking, and anti-human rights violations.”
For Contreras, an aspiring international and immigration lawyer, processing the relationship between these topics came through her own encounters with human rights violations. She noted the many differences between her own story, and the stories of the victims and survivors of sex-trafficking, but said she felt empowered by their determination to overcome immense hardships.
Amidst an anti-racism movement and a global pandemic, the course was more pertinent than ever, said Alonso, who is also the Director for Gender, Health and Clinical Practice of the UW’s research-to-action and local-to-global 4W-STREETS programs.
“Given any type of disaster, inequalities of all types are escalated, and more than ever the rights of vulnerable individuals are violated,” Alonso said. “In these circumstances it was really important to me and my international partners to try to find ways to make this work. Sometimes waiting for the challenge to stop makes sense, and sometimes we need to change ourselves and try to be greater than the circumstances.”
This summer marked the Global Health and Human Rights program’s sixth year. This was the first year students did not travel to Spain and Morocco. At first Contreras wasn’t sure what to expect, but she adapted quickly – perhaps more quickly than she would have abroad, transitioning between time zones, climates, and cultures in a condensed period of time. Even without familiarity of the countries, she said she felt a strong connection between her classmates and professors, and especially the survivors they worked with.
The women shared their stories through new methods. In one collective narrative performance, they used only sounds from homemade instruments – an empty bag of chips, an aluminum can with seeds inside. With only those tools, they led the group through the Sahara Desert.
“We felt the steps; we felt the loneliness; we felt the empty geographical space,” Alonso said. “We felt the sun burning our skin. We felt the fear of the night. We felt how the moon was the only light we had.”
These moments forged a powerful connection between the two groups, separated by thousands of miles and geographical borders.
“Sometimes we understand better our own challenges when we confront challenges outside,” Alonso said. “This is very normal in our study abroad courses that students come home and say ‘because I went out and came back I was able to make sense of these circumstances in my own life, my own community.’ Sometimes we have to go through experiences outside, and put ourselves in the shoes of others, to come back home and understand these issues.”
Through each collective narrative, each collage, and each song, Contreras and her classmates gained a stronger understanding of the women’s stories. Though the students had not visited through the Sahara Desert themselves, they could feel the sand beneath them. They could apply their newfound empathy at home, in a different context.