Asha’s photo hangs proudly on my wall

Blog by Nikki Buijse

My name is Nikki Buijse. I am a 28-year old anthropologist and intersectional feminist living in Rotterdam. In late 2018 I was doing my Master’s research on the life stories of trafficked African queer womxn* who were sheltered in a safehouse of Stichting Humanitas in Rotterdam. There I was asked to play a role in setting up Rotterdam as a new Shelter City together with Regina Klein, who became the Shelter City Rotterdam coordinator. When I was approached with this offer, of course I could not decline; I knew this would be a tremendous and exciting opportunity. Since its start in 2019, with the help of a group of enthusiastic volunteers, we have welcomed six human rights defenders to Shelter City Rotterdam. All the defenders we have hosted are unique human beings, bravely fighting for social justice, equity, and liberation in their own way.

In the spring of 2019 we received our first guest Asha, a Dalit womxn’s rights defender from India. Having to navigate intersecting systems of oppression (such as casteism, sexism and colourism), Asha strongly led a new generation of Dalit womxn in their fight against intersectional discrimination as the General Secretary of the All India Dalit Women’s Forum. What intrigued me the most about Asha was her bold activism on the one hand, and her intuitive compassion on the other. These assets combined give Asha the qualities of a wise leader. Asha is a true inspiration to me, and since her stay in Shelter City Rotterdam we have become good friends. We have even been speaking about creating projects together in the future, which would be a dream come true for me!

In this photo you see Asha and I at Story House Belvedere, where Asha shared stories about her work and, together with volunteers, cooked a delicious Indian meal for all the guests. The photo of Asha that I’m holding currently hangs in my house and reminds me of her every day.

I am not exaggerating when I say that working for Shelter City Rotterdam has changed my life.

In the autumn of 2019 we welcomed Tama, a trans (and sex worker’s) rights defender from Indonesia. Tama inspired me greatly with his view that as a trans person, loving himself and being happy is his strongest form of resistance in a country (and world) that generally does not want trans people to love themselves. This attitude was reflected throughout Tama’s stay in Shelter City Rotterdam. His focus for his three-month stay was self-care and a big part of this was granting himself a good time. He made lots of new friends, took voguing dance classes, played his guitar, cooked delicious meals for himself and for others, ate a lot of cheese and collaborated with Dutch trans people on the Trans Day of Remembrance.

Tama with his happy face in front of his beloved… cheese.

In 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic we were able to receive two guests in Shelter City Rotterdam – Génesis from Venezuela and Czarina from the Philippines. Both of them are human rights lawyers, and both are working to protect their people against the dictatorial regimes in their countries. Czarina was born in a family of lawyers, and the people she defends are indigenous groups, farmers and families in rural areas, and victims of state violence under President Duterte’s murderous regime. Her work places her under a constant threat since human rights activists have been specifically targeted by the government of the Philippines and are ‘red-tagged’ as being part of communist and terrorist groups. On International Human Rights Day, Czarina gave a speech about her work at Arminius Rotterdam, where she shared about the murders of her colleagues. Her courage, strength and positive attitude has stayed with me, and the slogan she used – ‘MAKIBAKA! WAG MATAKOT!’ meaning ‘STRUGGLE! DON’T BE AFRAID!’ – still buzzes in my head.

This photo was taken at Arminius Rotterdam on International Human Rights Day 2020 where Czarina shared about the rampant police violence in the Philippines against poor, marginalized and indigenous citizens, at an event hosted by Dona Daria in collaboration with Asian Voices Europe.

Currently, Juli, a trans and sex worker rights activist from Colombia, is staying with us. Juli and I are the same age. It is amazing to realize what Juli has already achieved at her age, with her team at the trans and sex worker led organization Red Comunitaria Trans in Bogotá. At the beginning of her stay I took Juli to Amsterdam where we met with Papaya Kuir, a Dutch collective for and by Trans & Queer Latinx Asylum seekers and Migrants in the Netherlands, many of whom engage in sex work to make ends meet. This proved to be a great connection. It did not take much time before I was lost in the fast and enthusiastic Spanish chatter. Juli grew close to them during her stay, and together they organized a fundraiser for, amongst others, the establishment of a safe trans house in Bogotá.

Getting to know these different human rights defenders has made me even more aware of the fact that all our struggles for social justice and human rights are interconnected and must be viewed through a wider lens.

To support our guest human rights defenders in Shelter City Rotterdam, we have set up a network of partners in different fields. During their stay here, defenders get the chance to connect with students and follow courses at the Erasmus University Law Faculty or the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. We also organize events together with Amnesty Rotterdam at local venues such as ‘Story House Belvedere’ (Verhalenhuis Belvedere) or the Arminius debate centre, where defenders can share about their work. The program we offer is always tailormade. Some defenders come to the Netherlands to rest and work on their mental and emotional health and wellbeing. Others come to work in a safe environment or to expand their network. For most of them, self-care, having some fun, creating new experiences, and gaining fresh energy to continue their work back home are important aspects during their stay.

Juli and I with the famous statue of sex worker Belle in the red light district in Amsterdam, a tribute to sex workers all over the world.

I am not exaggerating when I say that working for Shelter City Rotterdam has changed my life. Getting to know these different human rights defenders has made me even more aware of the fact that all our struggles for social justice and human rights are interconnected and must be viewed through a wider lens. No form of oppression stands or can be solved on its own. The fight for Dalit womxn’s rights in India is connected to the fight for trans and sex workers rights in Indonesia and Colombia, as well as the fight for justice for indigenous groups and victims of state violence in the Philippines. When we recognize the intersection of universal systems of oppression around gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, ability, caste, class, age, profession and so forth, we understand that to move forward, we must unite in our struggle for liberation. We must learn from each other, support each other, lift each other up and amplify each other’s voices. These valuable lessons learned I take with me every day.

Last year in March 2020 I was on my way to visit my dear friend Asha when India closed its borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This obstacle to our reunion has only intensified my longing to visit and hug her. Until this is possible, I remain in Rotterdam, where I am spending time and learning with and from inspirational human rights defenders, while Asha’s photo hangs proudly on my wall.

*Trans women are women (full stop!). However, in dominant discourse trans and other woman-identifying people are often not perceived as women. Therefore, I have chosen to use the term womxn to signal the inclusion of all humans identifying as female, woman, femme, girl, lady or queen.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the author’s. Such views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Shelter City, Justice & Peace Netherlands, its staff, and/or other contributors on this site.