Voices for Human Rights: Celebrating our Volunteer Activists
YOU ARE VITAL to the success Amnesty International enjoys in its protection of human rights. Our wonderful members make Amnesty's efforts effective. Our researchers check the allegations and create the actions. Our staff distribute them and facilitate action. But it's not until OUR MEMBERS ACT that we raise our voices in a cry for justice. And it's membership that makes Amnesty International an organization that differs from most. We witness, we report, but we also act. Thank you for all you do.

Parisa Samet – wonderful team-player

photoparisaIn her own words: “I started volunteering with Amnesty International because I felt it was my duty as a free person to help those who do not enjoy the same rights and freedoms as I do. After searching through organizations for a good fit I went to AI Iran action circle EID event three years ago and felt like I was in the right place.
Everyone at the AITO location has been nothing but inspiring and warm to me and I’m grateful all the time to be a part of this team. We’ve seen our actions for Nasrin Sotoudeh and Hamid Ghassemi pay off in huge ways. These are some examples of moments that keep me going. IMG_4671Attending the AI Canada Human Rights College was also a point in which I understood how much activism changed the face of our world and how working together can save lives.  Knowing that we are all working as a community in standing in solidarity is incredibly rewarding. All in all I find that I’ve been truly privileged in getting the opportunity to work with such wonderful inspiring people.”

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“Parisa joined our group three years ago. Ever since I’ve had the pleasure to know her both as a fellow volunteer and as a friend. Her commitment and passion is truly impressive. As the secretary of the Iran Action Circle she keeps our group running by diligently writing and sending out meeting minutes. As a volunteer she brings forth new ideas and accomplishes tasks with great enthusiasm.

One of the most memorable moments that I have of her is from our last Yalda poetry event. For this event attendees were encouraged to find and recite poetry on human rights. Many came with poems that they had found; Parisa came with a poem that she herself had wrote. The emotion with which she recited those beautiful verses made her dedication as a human rights activist all the more evident to me.”

Shayan Edalati, chair AI Toronto Iran Action Circle

IMG_4673“Parisa is not only a delight to work with but also a kind-hearted individual. A wonderful team-player, she is ready to lend a hand where it’s needed even when she already has enough on her plate. Parisa brings energy and professionalism to the team and is undeniably a valuable member of Iran Action Circle in Toronto. ”

Nazila Nik, AI Toronto Iran Action Circle

 

THANK YOU PARISA!

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Todd Barsanti – Genuine intent + great talent = well-applied creativity

untitled“I met Todd a decade – and several posters, flyers, ads, postcards, displays – ago! A few mocha’s had, some seriously good creative collaboration, juggling tight timelines – all of it enjoyable when you’re working with a genuinely nice guy. A common interest to help, made most of the projects feel much less – and much more – than work. As part of AITO’s graphic support team – often leading it – he’s produced countless pieces of great design over the years. Genuine intent + great talent = well-applied creativity. Take a look at Todd’s work for Amnesty – you’ll see his heart is in the right place – it’s excellent – ALL of it!  AITO is lucky to have him!”                                                                       Susanne Brunetzky, graphic designer speakdesign inc and member of AITO Art in Action Team

In Todd’s words: “I never really considered myself an activist in the traditional sense, but I have always felt that Amnesty International’s work to help prevent and end human rights violations around the world is important. I first approached the Toronto Organization (AITO) in 2001 and offered my graphic design services as a way in which I might be comfortable giving of my time. Twelve years on, I contribute where I can and I am honoured that the folks at AITO keep coming back for more.

In 2001, I began doing flyers for an ongoing event we called Amnesty Café.  In 2003, we started an annual silent auction of photography and art, called View.

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In 2005, I created a t-shirt design for Stop Violence Against Women.

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And over the years, there have been plenty of poster designs commemorating and promoting events.

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But perhaps the work I am most proud of, are the posters and collateral materials I have worked to develop Amnesty International Reel Awareness Human Rights Film Festival which has grown in popularity every year, and is now about to happen for the eighth consecutive year.

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Thank you to Elena Dumitru at the Amnesty International Toronto Organization for all of your support over the years and for not being shy to ask for help when you need it. I consider you to be a good friend and a kind soul and you’ve made my interactions with Amnesty International  such a positive experience over the years.”

“Todd is a behind-the-scenes volunteer who has become an essential partner of the Reel Awareness team. Since the festival’s inception in 2006, Todd has created beautiful, eye-catching and frame-worthy posters. In earlier years, he graciously incorporated our suggestions, even though we had little expertise in understanding graphic design. With each year, our appreciation of the art form, and of his creativity and talent has grown.

Thank you Todd, for all that you have contributed. I’m already looking forward to the 2014 Reel Awareness poster.”

Renee Saviour, AI Canada (ES) Board

 

THANK YOU TODD!

 

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Marjorie Sheridan – if laughter could sweep away repression Marjorie’s will lead the charge

“Could there be anyone who more solidly typifies the very essence of what it is to be an Amnesty International activist, fully and selflessly committed to the cause of human rights, than Marjorie Sheridan. My first introduction to Marjorie was when she hosted a sumptuous reception for released Malawian prisoner of conscience Vera Chirwa some twenty years ago. Against the backdrop of fine food, lovely company and resplendent surroundings there was no mistaking Marjorie’s fiery resolve. marjorie

I knew that I would encounter her energy and fine spirit on many more occasions. And that I did. And always it has been Marjorie’s tireless willingness to set up the display table, promote the petition, give drives to other volunteers, help with the planning and so much more that has been at the heart of some of our best activism in Toronto for years. But above all else it is, of course, all about Marjorie’s laugh. If laughter could sweep away the walls of repression, Marjorie’s would lead the charge. Maybe with a martini or two thrown in for good measure! We all love you for who you are and what you do Marjorie. Thank you.”

Alex Neve , Secretary General Amnesty International Canada

“I have known Marjorie for a long time – probably since the late 1980’s or early 90’s when she used to organized big outreach opportunities throughout the city including downtown bank plazas, Yorkdale and Fairview malls and some conventions . She was running the merchandise programme and would load her van to full capacity with information literature, action items and lots and lots of merchandise. I helped at these tables on many of these occasions and it was a great pleasure to work with her. These events were very successful but we did get frustrated at one stage as all the T-shirts from Ottawa came only in large and extra large sizes which limited our sales. So we sent a petition to the Ottawa office in standard Amnesty language stating that the human rights of small and medium sized people were being abused and “urging” them to take immediate action. We did get a humorous reply in kind from  AI board member Ian Heide.

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With Group 74 Marjorie organized AI’s Afrofest booth for many years as well as other interesting events. I know too that she did an amazing amount of work helping sponsor refugees through her church.”

Nora Kerr, member AI Toronto Group 18

“Marjorie was her usual quirky, peppy self at her 80th birthday party. She looked great! I was honoured to celebrate the birthday of such a long-term, dedicated and very special volunteer. Way, way back in the early 80s, when I first joined Amnesty’s Group 74, I had the pleasure of meeting her. When she introduced herself to me, she said “I’m a nobody”. She’s always been oblivious to hierarchies or political power. She has never been a president, chair, vice-chair or coordinator, hence calling herself “a nobody”. But in reality Marjorie is a Spectacular Somebody! She was always too busy doing the work to hold a position! Every time I went to a fundraiser, picnic, protest rally or celebration, there was Marjorie, year after year after year, patiently sitting at a table selling AI cards, books, crafts or T-shirts. And, by the way, if you ever want to know how to coordinate a committee, chair a group or organize a protest, ask Marjorie! She’ll steer you in the right direction.”

Jayne Patterson, AI Toronto “Dance for Justice” Chair

THANK YOU MARJORIE!

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Shayan Edalati – the kind of person you want to have in your team

shayan 3“Shayan faithfully showed up at the AI Toronto Iran Action Circle meetings from the beginning in 2010.  In July 2010 he volunteered to be secretary for the group. It was great.  I’m always delighted when someone willingly volunteers to take on a leadership role, and no arm twisting is involved.  For the next two years the group always had a reminder and agenda for upcoming meetings; and minutes posted promptly after the meeting.  It may not seem like a big deal, but the regular communication to all members of the group was one of the things that helped the group stay on track.  Everyone was included and informed. In 2012 Shayan agreed to be chairperson of the group; no arm twisting necessary.   While Shayan came to Amnesty in order to help promote human rights in Iran, he has shown a passion for human rights across the board.   He has taken advantage of opportunities to learn and contribute to activities within AITO, eventually leading to the position of director at large for AITO. Shayan brings good common sense, reliability, warmth and a passion for human rights to Amnesty International.  I know he will help us keep the candle burning for many years to come!”

Gloria Nafziger, Iran Campaigner, AICS (ES)

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“Shayan is the kind of person you want to have in your team. He is dependable and through. He faces challenges with a positive attitude and accomplishes task after task while making it all look so easy. It is great pleasure to work with him.”

Nazila Nik, Iran Country Coordinator, AICS (ES)

In Shayan’s words:

I became involved with Amnesty in 2010. In March of that year I attended a celebration for the Iranian New Year (Nowruz) hosted by AITO and the Iran Action Circle. The event combined human rights actions with entertainment and cultural presentations. I was very impressed by it and when presented with the opportunity of joining the Iran Action Circle’s membership list, I immediately signed up and began to attend their monthly meetings. Soon after joining, an opening became available in the Iran Action Circle’s executive and I became the secretary of the group. Two years, and many group events and actions later, I became the chair.

However, my path to joining Amnesty began much earlier and stems from my childhood experiences. I emigrated from Iran with my family when I was three. Though I left that country at a young age, the thought of Iran was never far from the minds of my family and I. Our exile from Iran was not an easy decision for my parents and was the result of various social and political conditions that made that country inhospitable for us. We left Iran without any real desire of leaving; we departed with the ardent hope of returning. Therefore, talk of Iran and its politics, its upheavals, and its human rights abuses were quite common in our household. shayan2As a result of this, I began to realize what violations of human rights were at a young age. Yet more importantly, I began to understand their positive manifestation– the ideals of inalienable human rights.

But with my newfound understanding came another realization¬– that these atrocities are not confined to Iran. They are present in Canada and around the world. Because of this realization I began to learn more about global human rights abuses. Through this I became aware of organizations such as Amnesty International. I came to admire the work of Amnesty, its global presence, and the grassroots campaigning of its members. If we are to overcome global human rights abuses we need organizations that are international in scope and inclusive in membership. Amnesty International is built on these principles. It is because of this that I am active in Amnesty.

With all of this in mind, my impulsive decision to join Amnesty in 2010 makes logical sense. Fate brought me to this organization but the support of its activists compels me to be active. The volunteers and staff of Amnesty are supportive, attentive, and accommodating. The organization is run in such a democratic fashion that allows even the newest of volunteers to get involved and coordinate actions. Today I am very glad that I took the decision to join Amnesty International. By becoming involved not only have I taken part in great campaigns, but I have also met many dedicated and enthusiastic activists who I consider my friends.

Being chair of the Iran Action Circle hasn’t been easy. As a relative novice to Amnesty, there are many things that I have had to learn and do for the first time. Nevertheless, I never doubt my decision to take on this role, as the challenges it has brought have been rewarding and satisfying. I have gained valuable experience and most importantly, done great work. In July of this year I joined the AITO Board of Directors as a Director at large. I look forward to contributing to the organization and meeting more volunteers from throughout Toronto.

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“Shayan is a passionate young man whom I came to know a few years ago. Since he joined our AI Toronto Iran Action Circle he proved to be a great asset for our group and a wonderful promoter of human rights in Iran.

His passion for human rights inspired him to also join the AI Toronto Indigenous Peoples Rights Team. He is an inspiring leader, hard working and an incredible human rights activist. It is a pleasure to know him and to work with him.”

Mehri Malakouti, AI Toronto Iran Action Circle

THANK YOU SHAYAN!

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Aubrey Harris – being a human rights activist is a way of life

“Aubrey is an extremely passionate and hard-working human rights activist who has become an incredible resource and expert in the anti-death penalty movement.  Aubrey is also an invaluable member of our Amnesty International family in Toronto who takes on very important leadership roles but is also willing to roll up his sleeves and pitch in wherever help is needed.  I have had the pleasure of working alongside Aubrey for over a decade and continue to appreciate his intelligence, warmth, humor and dedication.  Aubrey’s dedication to Amnesty International is inspiring and I look forward to working with him for many years to come. ”

Bridgette Clark, member AI Toronto Indigenous Rights Action Circle

In Aubrey’s words:

“One November evening in 2000 I was approached by a young canvasser asking if I would support Amnesty International. I had been coming from a Remembrance Day ceremony and hadn’t expected to stop but when I heard “Amnesty” it struck a chord – I knew of Amnesty International and had for a number of years been doing my own research on the death penalty around the question of free will, justice and determinism. This was something I did on my own, stemming from interest in determinism when I was studying philosophy at university.

“Of course!” I said. I wasn’t making a lot of money in my job then, but I still signed-up as a monthly donor, giving a small amount each month and I signed-up for the Urgent Action Network. I specifically asked for death penalty related actions because of my interest.

When I joined I was ‘teamed-up’ with an experienced Amnesty member to help me with my first few letters. Susan Hoch mentored my letters and had one very good question for me to think about: What were my five main arguments against the death penalty? I wrote back about a page or two as I recall.

In 2004 I volunteered to help with the Toronto Regional meeting and had my first experience with Amnesty’s membership. I helped to organise a session on the death penalty with Iris Nowell. When the next regional conference came about I decided to try and run a session myself, which I tongue in cheek titled ‘Pro Patria Mori’ but while researching that session I found the Amnesty Canada listing for a new Coordinator on the Campaign to Abolish the Death Penalty. I applied, competed, and I’m still doing it!

It is a way of life to be a human rights activist. There is a lot that inspires me in Amnesty International. I know that we are working for an undeniably good cause and joined by so many inspiring other members. I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to represent Amnesty International as a Coordinator and to help within the senior volunteer levels on the Coordination Council of AICES. I am also privileged to be directly involved with some death penalty cases with worldwide attention.


I have sometimes said that as a coordinator, I feel like I am “Standing on the shoulders of giants” – but maybe a better metaphor is to be riding the crest of a wave in which we are all an equal part. When I represent Amnesty and speak on our behalf, I do so with the authority and reputation of the world’s largest human rights organisation and it is made up of people like you and me.

Amnesty International commands great respect. A couple of years ago I was asked to speak briefly at a special event for the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. There was a panel of experts and specialists at the event and until I rose to speak, few knew who I was. At the first break several people from the panel came straight to me to talk about Amnesty.

As a coordinator, I have been able to work with great staff, colleagues and other members. Each AGM, coordinator meeting, group talk, event, AITO or Branch Office visit I find invigorating because I can see that same enthusiasm for human rights in other people and it gives me great hope.

In my spare time, I work full time as a provincial civil servant and I find the time to play Australian Football for the Broadview Hawks Australian Football Club. I have in the past been involved with Team Canada for AFL, “Northwind” and I’ve had the advantage of many opportunities in my youth to learn leadership, teamwork and make friends all around Canada from when I was a Sea Cadet. I believe that experience has greatly helped my public outreach work with Amnesty International as a coordinator.”

 

“I don’t often work closely with Aubrey, but I have found him to be the type of person who will be there for you in a pinch. Even if he’s not supposed to be helping at an Amnesty event, he will gladly assist when asked to lend a hand. It’s nice to know that there are people like Aubrey who you can turn to in last minute ‘emergency’ situations.”

Renee Saviour, AI Canada Board member

 

THANK YOU AUBREY!

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Duncan Garrow – thoughtful reflections and hands-on support

“I don’t remember when I first met Duncan. I have a vague memory of him hanging out during coffee time at Church of the Redeemer in downtown Toronto. I know for sure that when Amnesty International member Susanna Jacobs suggested we start an Amnesty Action Circle at Redeemer, Duncan was there from the beginning. He has been a faithful presence in the group; always asking probing questions, wanting to know more, about Indigenous people, refugees, Iran, corporate responsibility and other human rights issues. Susanna suggested Redeemer send a representative from our group to the AI Toronto monthly meetings and Duncan was quick to volunteer. The summer he began attending the AI TO meetings was the same summer that he had a landscaping job in Mississauga. He would be up at 4:30 in the morning to catch buses to get to the Mississauga job, and once a month somehow managed to also get to AI Toronto meetings… most of the time. I remember his disappointment one evening after rushing through the two cities and catching multiple buses and subways, the door to the AI Toronto office was locked. What impressed me most was that he was so disappointed at missing the AI meeting. I know that if I had been up at 4:30 am, I would have been heading to my bed, not a meeting.
And Duncan continues to impress me. In the two or more years the Redeemer group has been meeting, I don’t think Duncan has missed a single meeting. I know I can count on him. His commitment extends to AITO. In the past two years he has leaped from attending a monthly meeting to being an active member of the executive, a willing, keen, and talented member of the speakers’ bureau, with a willingness to attend any meeting and help in any way that he can. It is rare for me to attend an Amnesty event in Toronto when Duncan is not present. But it is more than simply being reliable and present. Duncan is a gracious, gentle and inquiring person. Amnesty International is privileged to have Duncan as a part of our team.”

Gloria Nafziger, AI Canada Refugee Coordinator

In Duncan’s words:

Little squeeks. My association with Amnesty started in a church basement two and a half years ago, first by signing petitions and writing letters. I’d always considered myself somewhat well informed and certainly well intentioned when it came to world events. But it took the formation of an action circle at my church to inspire me to take the plunge and get involved. Or should I say to dip my toe in. It was small and hesitant at first, just an hour a month. Looking back, I often wonder what took me so long. How did I spend this much of my life, thinking, caring, and talking about human rights but never taking action. In the end, I think it might have had to do with little squeeks.

At various times, many of us are defeated by a feeling that our lonely, solitary voices when raised will simply be lost in the wind. But there is a trap in that way of thinking. A big trap. A trap more powerful than any dictator and more destructive than chronic indifference or ignorance. It is the crushing belief that we’ll never be heard amidst the din and cacophony of oppression, hate, and intolerance.

Amnesty has been an amazing organization for me. It has encouraged me to develop strengths that I never knew I had, to find my own special niche, and with gentle, steady encouragement and mentoring, to gradually take on more responsibility. For me, that began to take shape by expanding on my hour a month letter writing in the church basement to becoming the bad penny that just kept showing up at the AITO monthly meetings. From there it evolved to being present at as many Amnesty events as possible, learning the issues, and eventually to taking on more of a leadership role.

This past year I’ve joined the AITO Executive as a Director-At-Large, and I’m also now a member of the Speaker’s Bureau. Both roles have come with a learning curve that has been both humbling and exhilarating. As part of the Executive, I’ve had the privilege  of meeting and working with many of our volunteers in groups and action circles throughout the city. I am forever inspired by their commitment and dedication to people from around the world and around the block.

With the Speaker’s Bureau, I’ve been invited to speak in schools. A lot of schools. I’ve spoken to large and small classes, to students that are engaged and to some who are secretly trying to tweet the time away. But what inspires me most is that in virtually every class I go to, there is at least one student sitting quietly, not speaking or raising their hand. Some will muster the courage to respond as the session gets going, but many will come to me only after it is over to ask how they can get involved, while many will wait to ask their teacher long after I’ve left.

Perhaps I relate to them most because these small, gentle, and nervous voices are very much like my own not so long ago. They may be little squeeks, but together they, and we, can change the world.

 

“It is with great pleasure over the past few years that I have observed Duncan Garrow growing into an AI leader in Toronto. He first began participating in AITO in 2010. He consistently attended AITO meetings and AI events in the GTA- enthusiastic, eager to learn, and always helpful. I often think he has the template down for how to become an active volunteer for Amnesty International: as with many things in life, intentions will only get you so far – you have to show up. Duncan shows up, and when he does he always has a warm smile and some quick wit at the ready!

In a very short period of time Duncan has become one of the most reliable AI volunteers in the GTA, actively taking on leadership roles and becoming an invaluable member of our Speaker’s Bureau and the AITO Board of Directors. He continues to find his own voice as a human rights activist and in doing so, he promotes human rights for those who are voiceless.

I can’t say exactly when it happened, but it feels like Duncan has always been a part of the AITO family and now I cannot imagine AITO without his thoughtful reflections and hands-on-support.

Congratulations Duncan, I expect to continue to see more great things from you in the future!”

Shanaaz Gokool, AITO Chair

THANK YOU DUNCAN!

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Donald Payne – facing the darkness of humanity with the deepest courage

 “I can’t recall when I first met Don Payne. He was already an essential part of Amnesty when I came to Toronto in 1985. He was also instrumental at the time in helping to set up the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, a worthy organization to which he still contributes his skills. In more recent years, we have worked closely together to deliver health-related actions to the Health Network.

Don has played a critical role, not only as the stalwart coordinator of the Health Network in Canada, but as a highly regarded professional at the international level as well. And in his career as a psychiatrist, he has helped many a survivor deal with their traumatic experiences. I have also treasured Don’s penchant for photography. We have profited from many a photo taken at Amnesty events through the years.

One of my favourite memories is of Don and me beetling it down the 401 to an AGM in his Volkswagen van. Topping that, perhaps, is his countless deliveries of homemade cookies on special occasions.”

Marilyn McKim, AI Canada Urgent Action Network Coordinator

In Don’s words: 

“I had been donating to Amnesty for several years before joining the Health Network (then the Medical Network) in 1979 when it was formed in Toronto. At that time, the Network centered on the assessment and treatment of torture victims. In 1982, I was appointed coordinator of the Network and expanded it to a national network with members across Canada.

Shortly after that, torture treatment centres opened in Toronto and later in other cities. They took over the torture victim work, leaving the Health Network to carry on with the core Amnesty issues such as opposing torture and the death penalty, and on health related issues.

Over the years I have lived though many changes in the Amnesty organization, many political changes in the world and changes in Amnesty’s style of functioning. I have attended AGMs with very heated discussions, one of the most heated being the 1989 AGM in Vancouver arguing over whether Amnesty should purchase a computer.

I have had the privilege of attending three international meeting of Amnesty Health Networks at the International Secretariat. I have continued my work as a psychiatrist with torture victims, providing assessments and treatment. I served a three year term as the elected Canadian representative to the international organization of torture victims, IRCT, in Denmark. I was proposed by Amnesty to provide expert testimony on torture at the Royal Commission regarding Mahar Arar. I have testified in Federal Court, and endured harsh cross-examination, in the cases of individuals on security certificates.

A highlight was meeting and photographing the Dalai Lama in 2003, and receiving a stole  from him. My camera has been my companion at Amnesty AGMs and other Amnesty events. I have enjoyed seeing some of the pictures published.

I have a love for East Africa and have been active in visiting and supporting its development work there through Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief (CPAR), with a focus on helping people help themselves. In the manageable weather I relax and exercise on my bicycle and in my kayak. I have been an active member of AI Group 123 – the Beaches where I am known for my homemade cookies. No admission without them.”

 

“I have had the pleasure to know Dr Don Payne for the last thirty years within the Amnesty International Health Professions Network.  This was about the time that Don, a psychiatrist, took over the national leadership of our group.  Over these years, Don has sensitively guided the Medical Network’s configuration on the world’s stage, in a wider evolving Amnesty movement.

Don has a disarmingly gentle, kind skilful heartfelt way of communicating. The ability to listen and hear what is actually being said is his enormous power.   To create a listening conversation anywhere, is a major feat when you realize that Don has faced the darkness of humanity with the deepest courage; he had a full-time practice, helped over one thousand survivors of torture along the way, as well as testified at a number of national and international highly politicized forums; speaking loudly and bravely for those who have been silenced, among many, many other initiatives.

It is with my deepest conviction I say that Don Payne is my hero.”

Ken Agar-Newman, AI Canada Health Network

“Of course many people know about Don’s experience and expertise in helping victims of torture recover from PTSD. Upon meeting him, you can’t help but be struck by his calm and caring demeanor.  But arguably, what Group 123 values most about him are not his knowledge or his gentle nature, but his baking skills! Don’s cookies are so good that even author Marina Nemat mentioned them in her memoir After Tehran. Sometimes, I wonder if the group would be so active if each monthly meeting wasn’t fueled by such cinnamon infused goodness.

Don is also an avid photographer. Over the years he has amassed an invaluable photographic history of AICES AGMs.”

Renee Saviour, AICS(ES) Board  and AI Toronto Group 123

 THANK YOU DON!

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Sharmila Setaram – super human rights activist

“I first met Sharmila at the 2000 AI Annual General Meeting during an icebreaker which she attended as a youth delegate. She made an impression on me immediately with her wonderful smile and friendly demeanour. Since that time, I have had the privilege of working Sharmila in the Fieldworker program and making a dear friend.  Her strength of character, passion, commitment and determination make her a great Fieldworker, Vice-President of the Executive Committee and most importantly a super human rights activist. “.

                                           Corinne de Reland – AI Canada Fieldworker

In Sharmila’s words:

I became involved with Amnesty International in high school – and I remember my first trip to the Toronto Office. I was nervous and overwhelmed but successfully managed to get a photo collection that documented the abuse of street kids in India.  It was a cool experience. I put these posters up in my social science class and gave a presentation as part of a school project. At the time I was very interested in the rights of women and children and beginning to learn about female genital mutilation which I continue to find very disturbing. I was honoured with a Humanitarian Award in high school for my involvement with Amnesty International. I didn’t make the award show because I was busy having a life changing experience at Amnesty’s first Human Rights College.  It was amazing to be surrounded by other youth from across Canada who were passionate and knowledgeable about human rights issues – I had never felt this kind of connectedness.

Fast forward 15+ years and I’ve taken on many roles from being involved with my group at the University of Waterloo; to becoming a Fieldworker and enabling and supporting the activism of others’; to an elected delegate to the International Council Meeting and now as a board member responsible for the overall governance of the organization. I don’t always have the chance but I love getting out to the schools and community to deliver workshops to help inspire others to take action towards a better world.

I have had the privilege to meet several human rights defenders over the years and I cannot fathom the courage it takes to fight for what is right in an environment where their lives and the lives of their family and community are often at risk. This renews and drives my passion and commitment to support whatever education, campaigns, and leadership I can to collectively have the greatest impact possible in securing human rights for all.

To keep balanced I have guilty pleasures like waiting in line to meet Hulk Hogan – that seemed to be hit on facebook from my friends and Amnesty family.  I love travelling and climbing up mountains no matter how slow”.

“I first met Sharmila in 1999, at Amnesty’s first Human Rights College (HRC) for youth. At that time, Sharmila was a student leader of the Amnesty club in her high school. I was really impressed with the passionate way that she approached social justice issues. At the time, I was just starting to work on our Branch’s diversity program. I noticed that Sharmila had volunteered to facilitate a discussion on diversity and human rights with her fellow HRC students, and I decided to sit in. I was blown away by her facilitation skills, her commitment towards cultural diversity, and her courage in challenging discriminatory attitudes. I remember thinking: “I wish I could insert Sharmila into various programs and structures in Amnesty, so that she can continue to challenge us as we carry out our diversity work.”

Well, my wish became true. Sharmila was involved in the HRC Planning Committee the following year and led sessions at subsequent HRCs. She joined the Fieldworker Program, and became the Chair of the Fieldworker Coordinating Committee from 2003-2005. I had the pleasure of working directly with Sharmila during that time. I was impressed with her leadership skills, with her ability to handle all the things thrown at her (including dealing with conflicts), and her analytical skills in helping us transition the Fieldworker program into the vibrant program that it is today. Sharmila chaired a number of working groups, including a working group that proposed many changes that helped AI Canada to fully value and include youth at all levels of the organization. This model has now expanded into the international levels of Amnesty.

Sharmila was elected by our membership to represent our Branch at two International Council Meetings (2007 ICM held in Mexico and the 2009 ICM held in Turkey). Now that she is on the EC, she is a member of our Diversity Committee as the EC rep; and I feel that we have come full circle.

My fondest memories of Sharmila include the time that the two of us were chosen to attend an Amnesty meeting on activism in Paris. This was the first time that Sharmila had travelled overseas, so I wanted to make sure that I could help her make her way from the airport to our meeting place. My flight from Ottawa arrived a couple of hours before her flight from Toronto; so we had arranged to meet at the airport. When Sharmila emerged from passport control, the breadth of her smile was matched by her ginormous red suitcase! We managed to lug that suitcase through the Paris subway system, to the Amnesty office in Paris, onto the train to Marly le Roi, and on our return, throughout Paris.

When I think of Shamila, I always see her with a big smile and a glint in her eyes; ready to take on the world in the cause of human rights for all.”

Lily Mah-Sen - Activism Coordinator: Community Activism, Fieldworkers, Diversity

 

“Sharmila’s commitment to and knowledge of human rights issues, and of the Amnesty movement,  continues to inspire me.  She is a creative, insightful thinker.   She is a strong leader, an extremely supportive team member, and a great planner.  I am very glad to have had the opportunity to get to know her through her work at AITO and on the Executive Committee!”.

Margaret Flynn, AI Canada EC Board member

 

THANK YOU SHARMILA!

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Patricia Grenier – as a volunteer you are a tour de force!

In Patricia’s words:

I joined Amnesty International in 1988. If I reflect on why I believe in Amnesty International and what has kept me here year after year is that I never want to be complacent about the liberties and freedoms that I enjoy living in this country. It is so basic to me that I can vote, join, protest peacefully, travel safely, hold my political beliefs and sign a petition without fear of detention, torture, coercion, physical or psychological abuse, even death. These are things that I can easily take for granted. These are things not enjoyed by many people across the world.

I went to my first community group meeting (AI Gr. 18) with very little knowledge of AI except that it was a human rights organization and my ex-husband donated to it. I had moved to Toronto and wanted to get involved in some meaningful volunteer work. I had decided to investigate both Amnesty and the local Distress Centre phone line service. I went to both organizations and Amnesty stuck. At my first meeting I recall that the then Chair, William Deacon, was pleading with someone, anyone, from the group to take over as Chair. Apparently he had been telling the group for a few months that he had to step down.
He wasn’t getting any takers. I timidly asked what would be required of a Chair and of course all 28 people in that room leaned forward eagerly and said “not much”.
William was profoundly relieved and I privately thought: “what have I gotten into!”

There is one truism: taking on tasks immediately forces you to learn very quickly. I attended the AGM in Montreal that year, clueless about what an AGM entailed and overwhelmed by the resolutions. I remember on the first day Michael Bossin, one of the lawyers in the group, told me that I had to get our group together to caucus urgently about some resolution of great import. Talk about being out of my depth! The Gr. 18 contingent at that time included not only Michael, a future AI President, Faye Sims, the AI Refugee Coordinator, the immediate Past President of AI Canada, Michael Schelew, the-to-be President of AI Canada, Paul Bentley, elected at that very AGM, and a team of very experienced members, and then there was naïve me. I spent all the plenary sessions sitting beside Michael S. whom I peppered with questions throughout the entire proceedings. It was a very raucous AGM as I recall.

The next year I traveled to the Vancouver AGM where Paul B. and Michael B. talked me into running for the AI Canada Board. I spent three years on the Executive as a Director. I remained as Chair of AI Gr. 18, and also was part of a group of members in Toronto who were trying to organize a dying Toronto umbrella group which eventually became AITO and which has been going strong ever since.

My role in AITO at that time was as the National Board representative and of course the rep. from Gr. 18. In those early years, AI undertook two international mandate reviews. I chaired both of the Toronto teams. The mandate statement drafted by the Toronto team was adopted by AI Canada and then served as the basis at the international level for a revised Mandate statement. Once I had left the National Board I became very active at the local level. I found and find this personally very satisfying.
I stepped down as Chair of my group and became treasurer, and because no one wants to be treasurer, I was talked into taking over as AITO treasurer when the treasurer at the time wanted to step down. Luckily an AI member who was a bookkeeper partnered with me and automated the accounting. Alas, when after a few years she too wanted to step down as bookkeeper and we couldn’t find a replacement, I was cajoled into assuming that role. Well thank you Martha Huska for being a good teacher and for holding my hand all those years as I tried to wrap my non-mathematical brain around the mysteries of accounting!

There is a pattern here. Soon the Merchandising coordinator wanted to step down along with her right hand people. Nancy Cameron convinced me I could do this and she would help me. I have since then learned to say “No” many times.

I can’t thank enough, nor sing the praises too highly, of all the wonderful volunteers and staff I work with on virtually a daily basis. What makes Amnesty International very strong and very viable is the enormous dedication of its members and staff. I am the luckiest person to have worked with and to continue to work with people like: Paul Santamaura, Martha Huska, Wayne Smith, Andy Buxton, Patrick Furey, Richard Elliott, Richard Steinke, Nancy Cameron, Elena Dumitru, Shanaaz Gokool, Lisa Swainston, Nora Kerr, Michael Bossin, Paul Bentley, Michael Wilkshire, Ian Heide, Margaret John, Rosemary Oliver, Cheryl Rooney, Grace Wu, Gloria Nafziger, Ravi Sreedharan, Beth Berton-Hunter, and many, many more.

I am humbled by the dedicated –Alex Neve – and the strong – Antonella Mega- people I have been privileged to meet through Amnesty. (To name only two.)

“Patricia Grenier is an Amnesty International Toronto Organization firecracker! She works tirelessly as the AITO Treasurer and Merchandiser for AITO products. Her volunteer commitment is critical in ensuring that AITO is a self-sustaining volunteer-run organization in the GTA committed to supporting AITO volunteers. Thank you so much Patricia for your dedication and commitment, as a volunteer you are a tour de force!”

Shanaaz Gokool, AITO Chair

 

“Patricia does a tremendous amount of work as Treasurer for both Group 18 and AITO, and that just scratches the surface of her dedication and commitment to the work of Amnesty. She’s also the force behind AITO’s wonderfully successful merchandise program. Every year she searches out new merchandise designs and ideas that are both creative and inspiring. Having been fortunate enough to work alongside Patricia at the AITO merchandise table at several AGMs, I’ve witnessed her awesome sales techniques. You can ask anyone – she knows what she’s doing and she’ s good at it!

Patricia was one of the first people I met when I joined Group 18. She was very welcoming and gave me a lot of guidance and support on ways to get involved with Amnesty and what it meant to be a member. And, she’s not only enriched my AI life, but also my cultural life with her extensive knowledge of literature, theater, and traveling!”

Lisa Swainston, AI Group 18 and AI Toronto Action Network for Women’s Human Rights

THANK YOU PATRICIA!

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Ellen Shifrin – a sense of social justice

“Every volunteer organization needs to have cornerstones: key volunteers who are instrumental in shaping volunteerism within the organization, who work tirelessly to support the goals of the organization and who provide leadership in critical areas. Ellen Shifrin is one of our long-standing cornerstones for Amnesty International in the Greater Toronto Area. She is an active member of our Speaker’s Bureau, one of the leads of the Business and Human Rights Team and a passionate defender of human rights. She is also a dear friend and mentor. Well done and deserved Ellen!”

Shanaaz Gokool, AITO Chair

In Ellen’s words:

“I grew up in a middle class Anglo neighbourhood in Montreal. The only remarkable thing about it was that my parents instilled in me a sense of social justice. Recently a cousin said that I was like my parents on steroids. They found a way to live their beliefs, have a family, contribute to “culture” (classical music, theatre, dance, art), and do some travelling. I haven’t yet found that balance, as now everything seems to clash; travel = not good for the environment, classical anything seems colonial, and beliefs are urgent top priorities.

Amnesty International rose into view for me soon after I left a so-called spiritual community. As an Indiaphile, I had always wanted to find out what had happened with the Bhopal disaster, and contribute to that. I had travelled in India on meditation retreats; now I turned my attention to the work that really needs to be done. 2004 was the 20th anniversary of that disaster, and AI came out with a report that remains one of the important writings on Bhopal, almost 10 years later.

After exploring other issues and learning more about AI, I realized that Bhopal falls under the “Business & Human Rights” category, and so joined the BHR group. However, I found that unlike other issues, there was, it seemed, only I who wanted to work on Bhopal. To satisfy that inquiry, I joined the North American wing of International Coalition for Justice in Bhopal, and became part of the Advisory Committee. For the AI December 10th 2006 event, I helped organize the making of a solidarity banner for Bhopal. Three months later I presented it in Bhopal to a group of survivors and activists. There I met some of the amazing people who work on this issue, and resolved to return.

I finally got that opportunity in the winter of 2010. After a month in Andhra Pradesh on a team writing for an ESL curriculum, I headed up to Bhopal for the annual meeting of all the organizations working in various ways on the effects of the disaster. I was to spend the next 6 weeks there as a volunteer.

Enter the twist: on the evening of the second day I was walking back to the Sambhavna Clinic, an internationally funded clinic and research centre that provides health care free to all gas and water-affected people. In spite of the fact that I had been in India for almost 3 years off and on, and that I’m good at crossing streets there (it’s almost fun), I looked the wrong way and got hit by a motorcycle. Poor chap, he really didn’t have an opportunity to stop – I just walked out right in front of him. I heard a shout, and the next thing I knew I was down on the ground with a horrible pain in my left foot. A crowd of young men gathered around me, looking. Eventually a couple of the fellows got me up, asked me where I was staying, and helped me to an autorickshaw. They rode with me to Sambhavna, ensured that people were there, and left. They wouldn’t even let me give them some rupees for the auto. Satyu, one of the leaders of the clinic and Bhopal movement, smilingly said that I had insulted his countrymen by offering money.

Since then my other human rights work – teaching children with dyslexia – has taken priority. This means that my eco-destroying trips to India haven’t resumed, although my heart is often there, and I enjoy listening to others’ experiences. I’m more involved with the current work of the AI BHR group, Corporate Accountability for Canadian mining abroad. My lens remains Human Rights, and each day I work to provide others with the means by which they can make informed decisions to participate in our eroding “democracy”. I am always grateful to AI for its vision, leadership, and opportunities to make a difference.”

“There are many stories to tell since I met Ellen during my first B&HR group in Toronto. However, more than a story about Ellen, I would like to highlight her commitment to solve human unkindness. She always keeps our perspective clear: we do what we do in order to alleviate and prevent harm done when we loose perspective of the impact our actions have on other humans. Her kindness extends beyond the work we do to make for a compassionate, strong, humble and wonderful human being.

If it’s someone profiting from cutting costs on maintenance from the Bhopal disaster, or a company that don’t want to clean oil spills in Nigeria or companies disregarding impact of mining in Latin America, Ellen is there to remind us all the very human suffering that we are causing each other in order to maintain a particular way of life.”

Freddy Osorio-Ramirez, member AI B&HRs Team

“One of the marks of a caring and compassionate organization is in how it treats those with special needs.  A task that Ellen cheerfully and ably took on as Toronto hosted the 2008 and 2010 AI Annual General Meetings was to serve as our special needs coordinator.  This behind the scenes work at the Toronto AGMs was in addition to the many things Ellen was also doing out front in campaigning for human rights – but working towards a fairer world also requires quiet behind the scenes efforts too.”

Andy Buxton – member AI Group 1, Hamilton

 

THANK YOU ELLEN!

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