Cassandra DeFreitas

Cassandra DeFreitas

In Cassandra’s Own Words:

    In my first year of university I decided that I wanted to get involved in school clubs and find out what I was truly passionate about, as there were not many opportunities to do so in my home town. Entering my first year of social work, I knew that I wanted to help people; but that was very broad. Before the annual club’s fair at my university, I spent a Sunday afternoon reading through all 500+ clubs York has and made a list of which organizations I wanted to go talk to and find out more information about.

    Amnesty made my list, along with many other ‘helping’ organizations. After the fair, I had joined 4 clubs all with different focuses; one on youth mentoring, one on governance, my student association, and Amnesty. After seeing the first-year representative executive application open for Amnesty, I decided I wanted to apply- and if I did not get the position, I would stay a general member and also get more involved in the other clubs I joined.

    I had gotten an interview with two executives that I still stay in touch with today. I showed up in a blazer, dress pants, and flats, had woken up extra early to do my hair and makeup and printed off my resume. I was a first-year student in my second or third week at a university that had more students than my entire town, I really did not know what to expect. Upon walking into the Amnesty office, I knew two things. One, I was overdressed, and two, that this would be a space I would make memories in for the rest of my university career. The posters up on the wall of protests, messages of solidarity, placards on the floor, and two outspoken women sitting across from me conducting my interview; I knew this was the place I wanted to be, not in my stuffy blazer and mascaraed eyes.

    Throughout the interview, I had an amazing conversation about the issues with modern approaches to concerns over missing and murdered indigenous women. I was successful with my first-year representative position and hit the ground running. By the end of my first year, I was co- coordinating events with directors and was already employing the Amnesty way of thinking in my studies and daily life.

    From here, I ran for a director position in my second year. I was originally set on becoming the director of events and campaigns, but unfortunately lost to an amazing candidate who I still have the pleasure of working alongside today, and became the administration director (secretary). This position was a blessing in disguise and really helped me in understanding the behind the scenes aspects of advocacy and aided my in learning to navigate bureaucratic spaces, especially when fighting for ‘radical’ causes. My third year would be my final year in classes before moving onto field study. It is common that presidents are in their fourth/ final year and have been with the club for longer than two years. However, I knew that I needed to run because I would forever regret it if I was not able to finish off my last full year on the York campus without carrying the Amnesty name on my back. I went out on a limb and ran for the position and was successful; which has brought me to where I am today.

    Today, I am the president of Amnesty International at York University’s chapter. In my second year, a staff from Amnesty Toronto and I had a discussion about me getting more involved in Amnesty as an organization outside of the University community. I then became the co- chair (president) for Amnesty International’s Action Network on Women’s Human Rights where I work with amazing people in the GTA around issues directly affecting women and support/ creating local events around similar topics. Most recently, I was chosen as one of 8 other youth in Canada to serve on Amnesty International’s National Youth Action and Advisory Committee to work towards implementing the Youth Strategy nationally and internationally to better equip youth to conduct these important conversations around human rights.

    Now, I have been asked to declare ‘one experience’ that really inspired me as an activist with Amnesty International, and I honestly do not think that I can answer this question. Amnesty consistently amazes me at how they are able to conduct themselves on a global scale. Time and time again I have been reading a textbook and I see Amnesty quoted up and down the page and I am inspired. I read their reports, articles, petitions and I am inspired. When politicians do something awful for human rights development, I think, “how is Amnesty going to tackle this one?”. They have always amazed me with their publications.

    I will say, however, I do not really know if 2016 Cassandra knew what she was getting herself into until I attended my first Write for Rights event. I had heard the current president, executives, directors, and team talk about how it was the biggest and most important event of the year. However, I do not think I realized how large and important this event or Amnesty was until I attended my first Write for Rights in November of 2016. Sitting beside someone else who was writing for the same case as me and getting to know why that person decided to take 5 minutes out of their busy university day to write a letter for someone they had never met, and will probably never met, really meant something to me and made me realize the beauty of human rights defending.

    Before attending Write for Rights, I was questioning whether or not human rights advocacy was for me. Would I ever even be able to make any sort of impact? Should I just go into something that would make me money? I was also feeling a little low at that point because I was now in midterms and finishing final case studies and papers for my social work and human rights classes. We never covered any ‘happy’ topics because there always is some sort of injustice going on. I was discouraged that not as many people cared and that there were people dying and suffering and there was virtually nothing I could do about it. After going home that November night of Write for Rights, I had done more research on Amnesty, on Write for Rights, on some of their campaigns like No More Stolen Sisters and I Welcome and had a restored amount of faith in the future, and knew that my future included me in the scene fighting for human rights.

THANK YOU, CASSANDRA!

Roshni Khemraj

Roshni Khemraj

In Roshni’s Own Words:

roshni holds a small white board with the words      I got involved with Amnesty in my first year at York University. I remember walking past the Amnesty International at York (AIY) table in the major hub of campus several times and often pausing to sign a petition, hear more about their current campaigns and events and chat with the executive members. However, it wasn’t until my second year that I got more involved with AIY as an Events and Campaigns Ambassador. The warm welcome I received and the empowering feeling of support and believe in my ability to advocate for human rights helped me find my place on campus, discover a lifelong passion for human rights and build my confidence. 

    In the years since I became involved with Amnesty, I went on to be the Promotions Director and later, the President of my campus chapter. During this time, I’ve had the honour and privilege of seeing AIY grow to new heights; from a small, grassroots club, to one of the largest and most recognizable clubs on campus. In a commuter campus of 55 000 undergraduate students, it can often be hard for clubs to establish a strong presence and successful outreach to the broader student population. However, in the 3 years that I’ve been involved in Amnesty, I can’t count how many people have seen us running an event, or even just putting up a display, and instantly messaged or sought me out to say ‘I just saw Amnesty again, you all do such great work on campus!’ From the bold yellow displays to our open-door meetings and proudly wearing our lit candles on sweaters, t-shirts, lanyards, stress balls and phone wallets, AIY has truly become a symbol of hope, strength, and friendship in a world that can sometimes seem too big to fix.

Roshni Khemraj stands infront of an Amensty International booth holding a sign-up form.

As I’ve since graduated from my undergraduate degree and am now in law school, I’ve built upon my passion for human rights advocacy and my knowledge about the work that Amnesty does globally, and I now sit on the National Youth Action and Advisory Committee (NYAAC) for Amnesty Canada along with eight other passionate and dedicated youth across the country. I look forward to the working for the next two years to expand Amnesty Canada’s sustainable youth engagement projects and build a stronger youth base for human rights activism in Canada.

When I started volunteering with Amnesty, I remember reading about the case of a woman from El Salvador named Maria Theresa Rivera who was sentenced to forty years in prison for simply suffering from a miscarriage and being charged with having an abortion. In El Salvador, abortion is banned under all circumstances – even when the pregnancy is a result of rape, incest or when the life of the woman is at risk. However, with Amnesty’s coordinated global action in the form of petitions, letters and spreading awareness, she was released in May 2016. The case of Maria Theresa is the one I think of most when discussing why I care about human rights and why I continue to do the activist work I do. Human rights advocacy, at face value, can appear to be disheartening when you consider the magnitude of injustice you’re taking on. I can’t count how many times I’ve been challenged by critics attempting to point out the apparent naivety of human rights work –

“You honestly don’t think you can rid the world of child labour, do you?”,

“Do these letters actually work?”,

“One signature doesn’t matter”  

Roshni Khemraj is sitting on the floor with a group of other volunteers while laughing and speaking. To all the critics, I say, yes. Yes, I do believe we can rid the world of injustice. Yes, these letters work. And yes, every single signature matters and plays a significant part in Amnesty’s global advocacy. The work we do undoubtedly has an impact, and it is cases like Maria Theresa’s that keep me motivated to take on large injustices faced by millions around the world- with a determined and optimistic mindset.

Joining AIY over three years ago was the best decision I made as an undergrad at York. It was at the beginning of my second year and I still had that lingering feeling of being a bit lost and feeling so small in such a big campus. With AIY, I found my voice, my best friends and most importantly, a sense of purpose. It is so empowering to know that every single day, I am a part of something bigger than myself and every day I spend collecting signatures and spreading awareness is part of a worldwide movement advocating for positive change and ensuring that everyone in the world can have their basic human rights granted. For me, AIY, and eventually Amnesty Toronto and Amnesty Canada, has become more than just a club and an organization I volunteer for. It has become a family full of passionate and unrelenting activists.

THANK YOU, ROSHNI!

Feerass Ellid

Feerass Ellid

In Feerass’ Own Words:

Picture of Feerass infront of two monitors with the AITO website on them.I have been learning about human rights since I was a young child and continued to develop my knowledge while in university as a drama student. Many of the plays I studied were concerned with the humanity of people, often depicted against a political backdrop marred by human rights violations.

After university, I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in technology. In 2017, I completed a course on modern website development. I wanted to find a way to bridge my passion for human rights and my tech skills, so I emailed Amnesty International Toronto to see if I could help with their website.  I am now a member of the AITO Web Team and in that capacity I regularly update the site with new information as well as perform site maintenance as needed.

I participated in the 2018 AITO Regional Meeting and found it particularly inspiring. A researcher and an activist specializing in web technologies were speakers at the event. They stressed the problems of internet security and privacy for human rights activists. I believe that the dissemination of information on an increasingly closed internet will be a growing concern for human rights organizations. To see both activists and researchers speaking about this topic left me feeling more informed as well as more hopeful.

I thoroughly enjoy my time volunteering with Amnesty International as it exposes me to human rights issues not just in faraway countries but right here in Canada. I highly encourage anyone to volunteer!

THANK YOU, FEERASS!

Corey Smith

Corey Smith

In Corey’s Own Words:

Corey is standing at a podium, smiling and speaking into a microphone.I was inspired to become involved Amnesty International after attending the protests at the Toronto G20 conference in the summer of 2010. At these protests, I witnessed the violation of civil and human rights that occurred on that day. When a violation like that can happen in a country like Canada, where we take for granted that our rights will be protected, it became all too clear to me how fragile the concept of “fundamental rights” is, and how easily they could be taken away. This inspired me to learn more about human rights issues and opened my eyes to the egregious abuses happening with impunity around the world. As the world’s most prominent human rights organization, I learned more about Amnesty International. I was inspired to get involved to help give a voice to people who suffer these abuses for simply standing up for what’s right. 

Corey Smith and two other Amnesty activists holding sings with pictures of imprisoned journalists and activists.

 

I initially joined the Reel Awareness Film Team, as it seemed like a great way to marry my love of documentary film with activism in support of human rights. I have since assumed a leadership role on the team, as well as a Director-At-Large position on the AITO board. In the past, I have also volunteered in-office supporting the activism team, the fundraising team, and at various events such as Hot Docs and Pedestrian Sundays in Kensington Market.

 

Corey Smith with four other Amnesty activists smiling at the camera in a group photo.Volunteering with Amnesty International has opened my eyes to a much bigger world, and helped me to think more critically about global events. It is inspiring to work with such committed people to further a cause you believe in. It has helped me to understand that when individual people work together, they can create significant change and act as a voice for the voiceless. On a practical level, it has also allowed me to develop my leadership skills within a non-profit environment, which recently helped to shift my career from the private sector into a more fulfilling one; supporting an incredible local charity.

 

I would recommend anyone who has an interest in global issues and human rights to volunteer with Amnesty International. It does make a difference in the lives of others around the world. In a world that is increasingly volatile, Amnesty International provides an outlet for concerned citizens to take action and truly have an impact.

THANK YOU, COREY!

Nisa Aliyeva

Nisa Aliyeva

In Nisa’s Own Words:

Picture of Nisa Aliyeva sitting at table smiling with two other Amnesty activistsI am a first-year student at the University of Toronto, St. George Campus, with a great passion for human rights. My interest in Amnesty International and community involvement was inspired by my mother. She worked with the UNHCR for many years and would bring home stories about refugees and their path to finding safety. Those stories had a huge impact on my life, and I developed a desire to help those who are in need of justice and safety.

I am currently a Youth Organizer with Amnesty International Canada and have volunteered with Amnesty in the GTA for over three years now. With every event and meeting I attend at Amnesty, I learn a lot about global issues and also meet inspiring people.

Nisa with fellow activists holding up signs with Human Rights solgans.For the past 3 years, I raised awareness in my high school about what is happening in the world, inspiring them to learn and to help bring justice to those in need. Due to my involvement with Amnesty, I helped get my school involved in different campaigns. One of the biggest one was the Butterflies for Mexico Campaign in support of the families of over 27,000 missing people in Mexico. For this campaign, I had the school students and staff draw over a hundred butterflies with messages of support for the families affected.

I have taken part in a number of Amnesty events and initiatives such as Pride Toronto, Women’s Marches, street actions in Kensington Market and represented the organization at the annual Volunteer Youth Expo Toronto. Currently, I am part of The Matchstick Newspaper Team (newly created AI youth newspaper) and recently joined the Amnesty Club at UofT.  

The community work I have done has affected me positively and motivated me to do more! Amnesty International Canada has helped me develop my experience and knowledge of human rights and taught me life-long skills – which I am sure I will use in the future. I hope to continue volunteering with AI and possibly take on a research role (which is a dream goal of mine). I want to become a Human Rights Lawyer and work for the United Nations. I want to defend victims of human rights abuses and become an advocate for social justice. I strongly recommend others to join Amnesty, to help those in need, and possibly grow a career path in the field of human rights.

THANK YOU, NISA!

Maha Asad

Maha Asad

Youth Leader, National Youth Advisory and Action Committee, AI Canada

In Maha’s words:

Maha at a protest holding a sign that has the Amnesty International logo on it.

I first found Amnesty International through an online posting for a youth council in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). I was 15, had never heard of AI before, and was just looking for a worthwhile place to get my volunteer hours for high school. I was always passionate about social justice.

However, AI gave me the opportunity to meet the most supportive and incredible student activists and staff and learn much more about human rights issues. Knowing my work could save lives couldn’t have been more worthwhile!

Maha with fellow activist holding signs about Mexico and Canada solidarity.

I started out with simple campaign actions – petitioning, going to AITO events, letter-writing and meeting with the GTA youth council. In 2017, I went to the Human Rights College and AGM in Calgary, which was a really great training event that enabled me to do a lot more as a youth activist. I was happy to find out about a small AI section in my hometown. However, after I attended a meeting in Ajax I was concerned as everyone else was probably three times my age. To counter this, I contacted one of the leaders and worked with her that summer to create a youth group for the Durham region. A few other girls from the GTA group and I were also working on a project called The Matchstick, a human rights newspaper by youth, for youth. I moved to Montreal in the fall for University and joined AI’s chapter at McGill. In May 2018, I had the privilege of representing AI Canada at AI’s first international youth summit in Nairobi, Kenya. Now, I’m working on re-establishing NYAAC, the National Youth Action and Advisory Committee. Young activists have a spark-like energy and unwavering persistence that I find so uplifting – I couldn’t be more content working to make sure they’re effectively included in AI’s human rights movement.

Maha smiling in group photo with other Amnesty activists.

Maha at a protest holding a sign saying

It can sometimes feel very overwhelming and disheartening to keep hearing news of human rights violations despite all the effort you’re putting in. So when you read about the small success stories, it can make a huge difference! A prisoner of conscience finally being released, a change to a discriminatory law being made, or seeing that the letters you wrote made someone feel safer and heard. They’re a reminder that my volunteer work can have a real and meaningful impact. It teaches you so much more than being globally informed; joining AI has taught me (and is still teaching me) to be a more humble, empathetic, and resilient person.

THANK YOU, MAHA!

Sharmila Setaram

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

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AI Canada Fieldworker

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

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AI Canada EC Board member

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

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Former Activism Coordinator, AI Canada

THANK YOU, SHARMILA!

Shayan Edalati

Shayan Edalati

The kind of person you want to have in your team

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

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Former Iran Campaigner, AI Canada

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

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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.”

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

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AI Toronto Iran Action Circle

THANK YOU, SHAYAN!

Ellen Shifrin

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

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Former 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

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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

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member AI Group 1, Hamilton

THANK YOU, ELLEN!

Duncan Garrow

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

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Former 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.

In 2013 I joined the AITO Executive as a Director-At-Large and became 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

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Former AITO Chair

THANK YOU, DUNCAN!