Human Rights, Climate Refugees and Third-Culture Child! Key words from the FFT with Yasmin Abdel-Hak

Article by Ouafa Zaidi, cultural reporter intern Crossing borders 

As our world becomes more globalized, identity becomes a very urgent issue. and who better than a human rights lawyer, from a very long line of migrants going back at least five generations, could answer the various questions about the interplay between identity, interculturality, human relationships and interactions, and human rights through their stagnations, regressions, and evolutions, both at “home” and abroad.

On February 10, 2022, at the respective offices of the NGO Crossing Borders, highlighting their collaboration with the Anna Lindh Foundation, for the first launch of the Food For Thought event in 2022: Yasmin Abdel-Hak, a human rights lawyer and founder and CEO of Global Migration and Politics, shared her personal and professional reflections and experiences, both as a human rights lawyer and as an intercultural person, surrounded by people from all over the world; under the blessing of a delicious Syrian meal neatly prepared by the very devoted Youssra Asmi. 

We asked Yasmin some questions about her childhood, human rights, and politics, and these were her answers! Enjoy reading the interview.

How was your childhood and how did that help shape the person you are now?

I would most likely describe myself as a cross-cultural child growing up in two different Cultures and a biracial child as well. Growing up in Denmark with an Egyptian dad and a Danish mum but also with strong ties to our family in Egypt and our family in the United States. I grew up in a very diverse and very multicultural family, and I think that’s what made me curious and what gave me a more open outlook on the world.

What kind of child you were and what kind of adults did you turn to?

I think growing up in a multicolored cultural family made me curious as to how people live their lives. As a child and as a grown-up, I think I was a good listener and I think I still am.
I took that into my professional life as well. When I worked with asylum seekers, a very important part of the job is to hear people’s stories.

You are the so-called third culture child, as well as your children. Can you explain this characteristic?

That’s cultural. My children were raised in Portugal, and they have me as their mom and their dad is Danish. So, we speak Danish in our home, but they speak English and Portuguese during their school day. As a result, they speak three different languages. And they are, in essence, children of the third culture. This characteristic is a strength, not a weakness. Even if it can sometimes be a challenge in terms of identity, it gives a curious and global vision of so many things.

Tell us about your career as a human rights lawyer.

When I decided to study law, I realized that the only thing that made sense to me was to study human rights. And so, once I graduated, I started in the Danish Immigration Service, the Asylum Department, which I thought was the most interesting and exciting department to work in because I got to meet people from all over the world who would seek asylum in Denmark, and you have to remember when you are meeting asylum seekers they are at the most vulnerable point in their life. And they have been in a waiting position quite often for a very long time, so it’s the interview you have with them is probably the most defining and the most crucial interview in their life, so you really have to be prepared and show respect for the situation and their story. That’s very important. But also, as a civil servant you are there to serve the law, you are sort of making sure that the law, the requirements of the law are met. You have to make sure that you ask the right questions, the relevant questions to get their story enlightened as much as possible so that you can make an academically correct and right decision in accordance with the law and that means that sometimes you have to ask people difficult questions and to elaborate that they are actually in need of protection in accordance with the international criteria set for asylum.

How would you define human and civil rights, especially today with the impact of the COVID situation and climate change?

I think human rights and civil rights are in many ways have been challenged these recent years, especially in authoritarian states. And Covid has become a very convenient way to inhibit freedom and clearly gives a very practical excuse model to say, you know, you can’t go out after 8:00 p.m. And in countries that are already authoritarian, I don’t see any improvement.

In terms of climate change, many people are already experiencing it. Such as islands in the Pacific that have completely disappeared and are completely flooded, as well as the deforestation of the Sahel; and as a result, people are losing their homes, their farms, and their land. And I think we need to understand that the way our climate is being challenged these years, goes hand in hand with our human rights and I think we have to revise the way we see human rights because we are by now facing climate refugees. So, this is definitely something we need to incorporate into our tools of human rights and into our conventions of human rights.

What do you think are the biggest civil and human rights issues facing this generation?

I think identity is a big challenge and I often see that in connection with the Internet and social media. The power of social media, and how easily you give away all your personal data, and how that is being misused on so many different social platforms. I think it can really make and/or break a lot of people. And I think by giving away lots of personal data, we are not setting up boundaries for social media enough. Like, what is the point of getting access to this? Why is nobody questioning that and even if you can decline every time there is this warning about the use of cookies, how many actually do that? And why do young people uncritically accept it? How many of these platforms are using the gullibility of young people? Why is there no law? Why are we not protected?
I think it’s also a generational thing. This generation has totally embraced social media. It’s a big part of social life to be on social media, and I think it’s a tragedy in many ways because real life doesn’t happen on social media.

Tell me, what is the biggest challenge you faced in your career?

The biggest challenge I faced in my career was when I was a civil servant selecting UNHCR recognized human refugees for resettlement. So, a lot of these people were living in refugee camps for years. And when I came to interview them, I would select them for resettlement in Denmark. And unfortunately, some of these refugees were old. And even though they went from the time they were recognized to be accepted for resettlement in Denmark, and from that time until the actual flight would take them to Denmark, some of them died. And these elderly men I remember I had them for interviews that were very lovely people, and I was really excited for them, that maybe they could finally enjoy a new life, but this did not happen, which is really so deeply sad and unfair. And unfortunately, they represent so many other people with the same tragic fate.

Have your goals changed since you started your career?

My goals have sort of evolved. I started as a civil servant and I did that for many years, and then I started my own business, and obviously, I couldn’t get the same kind of assignments that I had when I was in the ministry. As a single woman with her own consultancy, you start from scratch, and you start all over again. No one knew about my company “Global Migration and Politics”, so obviously I wouldn’t be given any work. I have to fight for every assignment I get. Going to a one-person business is a very challenging transition. So, in this term, my goals have changed, and have also been defined very specifically by the fact that there is a need for qualified speakers and better explanations. We need to explain things in a more informed way than the mainstream media does today, such as not giving a complete picture of the situation. I want to bring more to the table. I want people to have a clearer picture and I want them to understand the nuances of each story because there are so many more layers, it’s never black and white. There’s so much in-between. And we don’t see those in-betweens in the mainstream media, which is a big problem and a big challenge to overcome. 

R: This reminds me of this sentence on your website:

 “There is power in knowing which is always the first step towards progress.” 

Y: Yes. We need to understand. We need to really know each other. Once we know better, we do better. So, yes, there’s a lot of power in knowing. 

What is your number one piece of advice?

To absolutely believe in yourself. And if you are interested in working with human rights, civic empowerment, global citizenship, and the migration issue, it will be necessary to believe in yourself and your abilities. I think that’s also super important to be aware and to keep in mind that we have to protect human rights, and we need to understand how sustainability and climate changes are also part of it. And to understand that this can never be taken for granted. Because sometimes, like when we have a crisis, we allow our human rights to be challenged. 

The importance of taking seriously human rights and having some critical thinking, adding nuances to the discussions is a really big challenge. But observing cultures and sort of highlighting what can we do better and how can we reach out to each other, can only bring us together. Human rights can make a huge difference in people’s lives, and it is in this perspective that Crossing Borders sees itself, in order to lead to an understanding of how the world works and how people live.

As our world globalizes, and the Internet in its role of supposedly connecting us ends up not only depriving us of our rights but also of our interconnection with people. That is in many ways may seem like a pretty scary concept, one that upends our identity in such a way that one comes to wonder why I have to have an opinion about the whole of global society? why I couldn’t just focus on my side of the world. We certainly have to go beyond these ideas, because we need to participate in the world, we need to have an opinion and be engaged in, at least in some of these matters. That’s an issue that concerns all of us, and so that is also part of global citizenship. 

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