Studentafton on the theme ”We Have A Dream”

The time is 20.40 and the applauses are echoing in the great hall of AF-borgen. 500 people, whom during the past 100 minutes have experienced a storm of emotions, are giving the three guests of honor standing ovations for an evening late to be forgotten. The fascinating and partially heartbreaking stories and discussions about courage, compassion and human rights have left no one untouched, but everyone inspired.

The Thursday night Studentafton on the theme “We Have A Dream – courage, compassion and human rights” commences with a video greeting from one of the guests, Maryam al-Khawaja, who unfortunately couldn’t make it to the evening. Maryam, located in New York, tells that the reason she couldn’t make it is that because of the new US immigration policy she had to travel to USA to try to help some of her colleagues stuck in Bahrain and Egypt who now are facing serious troubles in their home countries because of the inability to travel to the USA.

After the greeting and a short introduction and presentation from the Studentafton chairman Lousie Oscarsson, the stage is entered by the other three main guests, Sakdiyah Ma’ruf, Jan Eliasson, and Yeonmi Park, accompanied by the moderator Catarina Rolfsdotter Jansson and the initiators to the “We Have A Dream” project, Albert Wiking and Oscar Edlund. Oscar, responsible for the interviews and recruiting of participators, and Albert, the gifted photographer, gives the audience the background story of the project that today has become an exhibition, a book and a pedagogical material consisting of over 100 photos and interviews with activists, peace prize laureates, artists, authors and politicians. They say that the project started through the idea of that the world not should be a dark place, but a light place where youth are empowered to stand up for human rights.

. . .

Sakdiyah Ma’ruf, Jan Eliasson, and Yeonmi Park are all participators of the project, and are invited to the evening to tell their personal stories and discuss their experiences and thoughts on the theme of courage, compassion and human rights. After the briefing of the project, Sakdiyah, Jan and Yeonmi are welcomed to give a presentation of themselves, their experiences and work.

Sakdiyah Ma’ruf, Indonesia’s first female Muslim stand-up comedian who grew up in a very conservative Muslim family shaping her comedy routines, wanted to participate in the “We Have A Dream” project to show that everyone can have a dream. She says that growing up in her community, having a dream was a luxury. The one small problem with participating was that she hates to be photographed. “I´d rather get a PhD than to be photographed”, she says humorously.

The standup comedian, whose occupation consistently shines through in her narrating and question answering during the evening, says that she feels proud to address the forum of students. “College was a life changing forum for me, and then I’m not thinking of drinking and sex, but the way I was able to build myself to become who I am today”. She says that when she went to college, her dad wrote her a list of things she was forbidden to do, including the rule of not seeing anyone of the different sex, leaving her thinking that “Wow, dad, I didn’t know you were such a fan of lesbianism!”.

It was through pirated DVD’s, “one of Indonesia’s largest industries” as Sakdiyah describes it,that she fell in love with standup comedy. She realized that she had been “in training” to become a comedian for her whole life. And so, she auditioned for a TV-show, joking about radical Islam and other taboo subjects, and has ever since used comedy as a tool for expressing her thoughts on different matters. “I feel alive on stage. Comedy makes me believe that I am the woman my mother raised me to be. I am finally free, because comedy heals, it teaches me to cope, love and forgive.”, she says.

Jan Eliasson, the Swedish diplomat and politician who among other things used to be the Deputy Secretary General of the UN, tells that he said yes when he was asked to participate in the “We Have A Dream” project because he wanted to make a statement that “difference you make on a micro level, can make an impact on a macro level. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something – and the most important word there is, is “together”.

Jan is concerned about the tendency in the world of nations strengthening borders and people wanting to divide people only caring about those who are the most alike us. He says that “now is the time to stand up for diversity and tolerance, and to fight the forces that want us to put people in different categories. […] We have to mobilize the good forces of the world and strongly fight those who wants to divide us by fear.”, and declares that he himself wants to spend his time in the coming years to “heal democracy”.

Yeonmi Park, a human rights activist from North Korea who escaped the country in 2007 and since then actively has informed the public about the living conditions there, tells the audience about what it was like for her to become a part of the “We Have A Dream” project a couple of years ago: “When I took the photograph for the project I didn’t have a dream, because I never learned what a dream was. But now I have a dream.”

Growing up in North Korea, she was told not to even whisper because the mice and the birds could hear her. When she was a child, her friend’s mother got executed for watching a Hollywood movie – an execution she and her friend were forced to watch. Yeonmi says that what is happening in North Korea has been going on for too long now. The people are suffering but the rest of the world is doing nothing, and a lot of people she meets are just joking about the dictator and forgetting the suffering of the people, leaving her both frustrated and upset. She says that people must understand how bad the situation is for her fellow countrymen and women: “In North Korea I didn´t know that I had rights as a human being, and if you don’t know that you have rights you don’t know what you have to claim.”

Ten years after the escape from the country, she still fears for her life. With a shivering voice and tears coming up her eyes she declares that she is on Kim Jong Un’s list of people to kill, and that she after the assassination of the dictator’s brother in Malaysia now is terrified that she is targeted. She says that she is here today to spread the message about the conditions in the country because she doesn’t know how long she is going to be alive. “I might be dead next month, but I am free, and I love being free”, she says, leaving not a single dry eye in the audience.

 . . .

The individual presentations from each of the three guests is followed by a moderated conversation in which the guests talk about the meaning of compassion in today’s world. The guests are then asked about courage and whether it is something you can develop yourself. On that question, Jan answers that “Courage is maybe too much of a quality word, the word humanity is better. You have one life, what is the purpose of it if not to do things for others”. Sakdiyah says that she is afraid all the time, but that the thing is that there are more important things than fear. Being afraid is only a way for you to be reminded to grow stronger and to overcome the fear. Yeonmi says that she started feeling courage to spread awareness about the situation in North Korea a couple of years ago when she gave her first public speech on the issue, and realized that people actually cared. That gave her courage to continue.

The moderator then asks Jan Eliasson how strong, from a UN perspective, he believes the role of the UN is in the protection of human rights? Jan answers that “I’m a great friend of the UN, but not an uncritical one. I would say that UN is our hope. It was created in one of the darkest times of human history for a reason. We have to agree that we are going through and uphill battle, but we must never give up.”

At last, the three guests are given one final question: “What do you hope for?”. Sakdiyah says that if she could have one dream, it would be that someday a girl would appear from the darkest part of the world, and stand and laugh – because laughing means that we have overcome. Yeonmi hope that she one day will be able to go home, back to a changed North Korea where she can watch movies and visit nightclubs with friends. Jan gives a concise answer, saying “Women! Young people! Knowledge! Science! We need to mobilize the positive powers of the world.” 

In customary order the evening is rounded off with a few questions from the audience. One person asks the two guests growing up in North Korea and in Indonesia what they think of “the western world. Sakdiyah says that “As a good stereotypical Muslim I would say that many of you are infidels, wearing too many miniskirts. Haha, no, but I think that one thing I could say is that never ever take freedom for granted” Yeonmi humorously answers that “You guys are spoiled […] having too much is a problem for you, get some perspective guys!”

Two other questions from the audience concern the possibility for the rest of the world to work for change in North Korea. To this Yeonmi responds by saying that we need to get information to the people of North Korea through the Chinese border in order to get them to know about human rights and to “free their minds”. Also, we need to raise awareness about the situation among both friends and policy makers: “We knew that the holocaust was happening but were ignoring it, now we are doing it again”.

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