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West campus conference examines human, refugee rights


November 21, 2008

It’s never too late to learn.  Never too late to understand, never too late to act.

Sixty years following the United Nations’ drafting of “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR),” Arizona State University’s M.A. in Social Justice and Human Rights will present a daylong exploration of refugee rights.

The conference, “Refugee Rights: 60 Years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” is co-sponsored by the Light of Hope Institute and will take place Dec. 3 at the university’s West campus, La Sala A and B, from 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m.

A pair of panel discussions are planned, featuring roundtable conversations among practitioners, experts and aid organizations.  The events keynote speaker is Magda Herzberger, one of the few remaining survivors of the Jewish Holocaust.  She is a distinguished poet, lecturer, and the author of several books, including “Survival,” the compelling autobiography of her childhood and suffering in three Nazi death camps during World War II.

“Such a noted Holocaust survivor will be able to show the intimate connection between refugee rights and the Universal Declaration of Rights,” says William Simmons, director of the new Master’s of Social Justice and Human Rights at ASU’s West campus.

“The UDHR was drafted in large part as a response to the Holocaust and other horrors of World War II,” says Simmons.  “Not only were millions killed, but millions were displaced and were unable to find refuge in other countries.  In response, the UN drafted the UDHR, which guaranteed rights to all, including the right for refugees to seek asylum.”

The declaration, listed by the “Guinness Book of Records” as the most translated document in the world, marked the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.  Its purpose was to define the meaning of the words “fundamental freedoms” and “human rights,” which appear in the UN Charter, which is binding on all member states.

The December 3 conference will feature refugees from several countries, who will speak about their experiences, including their triumphs and tribulations in resettling in Arizona.  Additionally, many of the leading local refugee rights organizations will attend to share with conference-goers the wide range of refugees who settle in the state and the diversity of their needs, as well as the work being done to assist those seeking assistance.

Elizabeth Miller, a student in the graduate program who is on the conference committee, says the day will be a learning experience for all who attend.

“There is so much to learn about the issues we will be discussing involving refugee rights at the conference,” says Miller, who joined the committee to gain a greater understanding of the issue.  “Most importantly, students and the public will learn about the various organizations in the area, such as the Light of Hope Institute, that are doing amazing things to promote refugee rights and human rights locally and beyond.

“I’m honored that these people on the panel and our keynote speaker, Magda Herzberger, are willing to share stories of their lives with us.”

Workshops will be presented by the Arizona Lost Boys Center, the International Rescue Committee, Washington Elementary School District, and Amnesty International at the West campus.

“I believe a society can be judged by the way it treats those who land on its shores with nowhere else to turn,” says Simmons.  “We hope this daylong event will spur the attendees to take action – to work with the refugees who arrive in Phoenix as they adjust to a new home and a new life, often after undergoing much trauma.”

Simmons says the conference is a natural fit for the innovative degree program.

“The program strives to be community-embedded, and events such as this help to connect the university to the community and build lasting relationships with community groups.  We expect that afterwards, students will seek internships or volunteer with these agencies and perhaps ultimately find a career working with refugee populations.”

For more information about “Refugee Rights: 60 Years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” contact Simmons at william.simmons@asu.edu, or call (602) 543-6089.