Rohingya Vision

Amnesty supporters gather in Waterloo to write for rights

Amnesty supporters gather in Waterloo to write for rights
December 07
11:35 2015

WATERLOO — International Human Rights Day, which was marked Saturday, has special meaning for Anwar Arkani.

After his father was murdered in 1978, Arkani fled through the jungles of Burma (now called Myanmar) along with his mother and 300,000 other refugees to Bangladesh. It was a two-day walk, and only the beginning of a 24-year-long journey that ended in Canada.

“My father was killed by the Burmese Junta,” Arkani said. “I had no idea where I was going, what I was going to do, how I was going to survive. I was a kid.”

Arkani is a Rohingya Muslim and suffered all manner of persecution at the hands of the Buddhist majority in Burma. When it looked like conditions were going to improve for the Rohingya, Arkani sneaked back into the country.

But his hopes were dashed in 1982 when the military junta stripped Rohingya Muslims of citizenship. He was declared an “illegal” in his own country, and could not even attend school.

“After I finished my Grade 8 exam I was not permitted to go to Grade 9,” Arkani said.

So Arkani spent 30 days travelling secretly across Burma — in boats, on foot, riding in vehicles — to reach Thailand. He was 14 years old and terrified.

He lived in Thailand for 10 years, working as a street pedlar on the crowded sidewalks of Bangkok, and finally landed in Canada in 2002 as a refugee.

“I can’t tell you how good it is, to be honest,” Arkani said. “This is a country where you can grow up to your full potential.”

He now works for a Waterloo technology company, and joined a group of Amnesty International volunteers at the Seven Shores Café in downtown Waterloo for a letter-writing blitz Saturday.

Amnesty chapters around the world hold these meetings on International Human Rights Day to raise awareness of violations, highlight selected cases and write letters on behalf of people jailed for political or religious beliefs.

“They are very effective,” Arkani said.

Margaret Jackson co-chairs one of the two Amnesty International groups in Kitchener-

Waterloo. Her group raises awareness, and the other writes letters. The Saturday event was called Write for Rights.

“It is the premier event for Amnesty International all around the world,” Jackson said. “Last year in this event we were able to send out over three million letters.”

Among the 10 issues highlighted by Jackson’s group Saturday are three in Canada: a dam on the Peace River in northern B.C. that will destroy First Nation trap lines and hunting grounds; keeping Canada’s immigration doors open to Syrian refugees; and the actions of Canadian mining and oil companies operating abroad.

“What we are asking for is an ombudsman to facilitate cases in the courts going forward to look into what’s been happening,” Jackson said of the actions of Canadian mining and oil companies.

Some of the more than a dozen people who turned out wrote letters on behalf of an African American man kept in solitary confinement for 43 years in the U.S. for a murder conviction that was overturned three times.

“We consider that to be torture,” Jackson said.

They also wrote letters on behalf of students jailed in Myanmar, a lawyer in jail in Saudi Arabia and in protest against the practice of allowing adult men to marry girls as young as 11 in the African country of Burkina Faso.

Andrew Thompson, the chair of Amnesty International’s Canadian board, said between Saturday and Thursday, about 124 school groups across the country will take part in Write for Rights, alongside 77 Amnesty chapters, 66 church groups, 17 workplace and hundreds of individuals.

“On Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. there is going to be a Twitter party, so a big, online event,” Thompson said.

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