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    Armenian-Turkish Reconnections and Human Rights

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    Armenian Genocide Memorial Monument in Yerevan

    Armenian Genocide Memorial Monument in Yerevan

    History continues to divide Armenian and Turkish officialdom, but there are many civil society, cultural and academic initiatives aiming to reconnect the two societies. April 24 marks the centennial of the beginning of the mass killings, deportations and dispossession of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, which resulted in the near-total elimination of Armenians from Anatolia. These massive human rights violations and their painful legacy left a major rift between two societies, which has crystallised around the issue of their political and legal designation as genocide. However, it is heartening to see that today many people are seeking to overcome this difficult legacy and to promote mutual understanding, reconciliation and the reconstruction of a shared history, demonstrating a true human rights ethos.

    The Emergence of a Thaw

    Discussion in Turkey of what was sometimes euphemistically called the “1915 Events” was long taboo or even subject to criminal prosecution under the offense of “insulting Turkishness”. In recent years, prosecutions under this article have become more infrequent and a space for discussion has emerged. This space has been created by a number of concurrent developments, particularly increased contacts between Turks and Armenians and domestic Turkish political and cultural evolution.

    Though the land border remains closed, nationals of both countries have enjoyed relatively free travel to the neighbouring country.  As a result, the number of Armenian nationals entering Turkey increased from less than 5,500 in 2000 to more than 73,000 in 2013. In 2011 the Turkish authorities even granted special permission for migrant children of Armenian nationality to attend the schools of the Turkish Armenian minority. While many Armenians seek informal work in the Turkish economy, others (from both Armenia and the diaspora) have increasingly travelled to Turkey to reconnect with their roots by visiting their ancestors’ places of origin and the descendants of family members who stayed during and after World War I.

    At the same time, the debate within Turkey about the past has evolved considerably. While an academic conference in Istanbul was a watershed in 2005, since then, a plethora of scholarly work about the Armenian legacy in Turkey has been published. A turning point in the Turkish debate appeared to come with the tragic assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007, which led to further calls for a reassessment of the past, more open public discussion and a more compassionate tone of discourse. In a sign of this new tone, intellectuals in Turkey organised a petition campaign in 2008, in which thousands signed an apology to Armenians for the “Great Catastrophe”.

    Recent Civil Society Initiatives

    In recent years, a host of civil society initiatives have been implemented, suggesting that people-to-people diplomacy has far outstripped official relations, which remain deadlocked. Starting in 2009, the Hrant Dink Foundation in Turkey began to organise journalistic exchanges to foster better coverage of issues affecting the neighbouring country. On the Armenian side, early initiatives sought to document, acknowledge and publicise the role of “righteous Turks” who saved the lives of Armenians.

    In early 2014 a consortium of 8 NGOs from Turkey and Armenia launched a programme entitled “Support to the Armenia-Turkey normalisation process” with support from the European Union. The programme includes exchanges and study visits of journalists, artists and environmental activists, summer schools for teachers, oral history projects, exhibitions, support for a joint Turkish-Armenian youth orchestra, and academic talks. The private sector is also seeking to foster business ties, which now take place primarily in a circuitous manner via Georgia or Iran, and to promote bilateral economic partnerships.

    These are encouraging steps which, if continued, could form the basis for effectively dealing with a painful past and addressing the legacy of 1915. They have already contributed to an evolution within Turkish society, from opposing the suffering of the ancestors of the majority population during the fall of the Ottoman Empire against that of the Armenians, towards an acknowledgement of the suffering of the other side and its integration into the collective consciousness. Dealing with the past requires empathy and mutual understanding, and these initiatives are precisely furthering that aim.  This could then in turn serve as a basis for an evolution of the position of the national authorities.  The latter should refrain from impeding or seeking to gain political advantage from such initiatives and seek to support those actors aiming at seeking the truth and fostering contacts and understanding.

    A Human Rights Framework?

    The deportation and massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman authorities was a massive violation of human rights. The first rule of international human rights might be summarised as “no impunity for perpetrators.” However, since the tragedy took place 100 years ago, the perpetrators are no longer among the living and cannot be held to account. One indicator of progress in dealing with the past in Turkey will be the evolution of the official stance towards these past human rights violations. By official stance, I mean not only political statements by Turkey’s leaders, but also the institutional stance as reflected notably in officially approved school history textbooks, state-funded museum exhibitions and other cultural output. Are perpetrators condemned and crimes acknowledged? Or are they ignored, downplayed, justified, or even glorified?

    A second element of a human rights approach might be summarised as “address the needs of victims and their families.”  While few survivors are still with us after 100 years, many of their descendants also suffered from what happened. A human rights approach foresees various ways to provide redress and reparation to victims of human rights violations.  One of these ways is the recognition of the tragedy through commemorative dates, rituals and monuments.  There have been instances where property was returned to Armenians in Turkey and some parts of the Armenian cultural heritage in Turkey have been rehabilitated, such as the Surp Giragos church in Diyarbakir and the Surp Khach church on Akdamar Island. The significance of these initiatives, including for Turkish society, should not be underestimated. Recently, the Van municipal council also restored Armenian (and Kurdish) toponyms. However, much more could be done in this area.

    Commemorations and Solidarity

    In Armenia, the centennial will be marked on April 24 with solemn ceremonies and a major international conference on genocide. Twice during recent visits I paid homage to the victims at the Armenian Genocide Memorial Monument in Yerevan. As the centennial approaches, my thoughts and solidarity are again with the victims and their descendants, but also with the civil society activists, scholars, journalists and artists from both Armenia and Turkey who are seeking to promote mutual understanding and foster an honest reckoning with a heavy historical legacy.

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    Nils Muižnieks was elected Commissioner for Human Rights with the Council of Europe on 24 January 2012 by the Parliamentary Assembly and took up his position on 1 April 2012. He is also a graduate from the University of California at Berkeley and Princeton University.

    Global

    Trigger Warning: A Chinese Father Saved More Than 300 People at Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge

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    “I understand these people. I know they are tired of living here. They have had difficulties. They have no one to help them.” – Chen Si

    Since the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge was first built in 1968, an estimated 2,000 people have died from suicide involving the bridge. According to data from 1995-99, in China’s first national survey in 2002, death from suicide accounted for 3.6 percent of the country’s total deaths. During that period of time, 287,000 Chinese people died from suicide every year, putting the average suicide rate at 23 per 100,000 people.

    Chen Si, also known as The Angel of Nanjing, has been patrolling this bridge every Saturday for more than 20 years and has managed to save more than 300 people from death by suicide. He is a 52-year-old father from Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province of the People’s Republic of China. Following the loss of a close relative to suicide, Chen Si has taken up this cause because someone needs to.

    A Long History

    The relationship between mental illness and suicide is controversial in China. Those who follow traditional Chinese philosophy are not encouraged to express their feelings, nor are they encouraged to expect their environment to change to suit their needs. Therefore, intense misery and feelings of despair may go unrecognized, and suicidal symptoms are not easily detected by Chinese medical professionals. In fact, many doctors working in rural areas do not understand the symptoms of depression and often receive low salaries, which discourages more doctors from entering the mental-health field.

    Gender Differences

    According to the World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, China’s suicide rate in the 1990s was 20 per 100,000 people. In the 1990s, female suicides were higher than male suicides by a factor of three. While China remains one of the few countries with a higher suicide rate among women than men, recent data shows that these disparities have evened out. In 2016, suicide rates among Chinese men and women came up almost even at 9.1 per 100,000 men and 10.3 per 100,000 women. Overall, China’s suicide rate in 2016 was 9.7 per 100,000 people, which was among the lowest globally.

    A 2002 survey also revealed that 88 percent of females who died from suicide used agricultural pesticides or rat poison. Although China initially eliminated highly toxic pesticides to improve the safety of its farm produce, the elimination also had a substantial impact on the reduction of deaths from suicide among women. Research shows that men tend to attempt suicide through violent means such as hanging, whereas women tend to attempt suicide with medication. Overall, most studies indicate a decline in suicide rates among all gender and regional categories in China. The studies also recommended targeted suicide prevention programs, particularly for people in rural areas.

    Shifting Tide

    Women’s freedom, urbanization, and decreased access to toxic pesticides are key reasons behind the decline in suicide rates. According to Jing Jun, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, “female independence has saved a lot of women.” The founding of New China in 1949 in combination with the opening-up policy in the late 1970s and the continuous growth of China’s economy has led to more equitable opportunities for women. Additionally, urbanization removed certain social constraints leading to more freedom for women. For instance, escaping an abusive partner or household may be easier in a city than in a small village.

    Despite a decline in death by suicide rates in China, this is an area that we should pay more attention to. Chen Si acts as an angel, but he cannot do this work alone. He hopes that officials consider building a net across the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge to prevent deaths by suicide. 

    Resources Available

    The Crisis Intervention Centre, the first of its kind in China, was established by Nanjing Brain Hospital to provide psychological advice and support to Chinese people. The Centre also has a hotline, which can be reached at 862583712977.

    The Lifeline Shanghai at (400) 821 1215 is a free, confidential, and anonymous support service that is open 365 days a year from 10am-10pm GMT+8. 

    Facebook and other social media platforms also offer many virtual support groups for individuals experiencing hardship. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 is a 27/4, free and confidential resource to support people in distress, prevention, or in an active crisis. Users should utilize the translate function on these web pages to adjust for language barriers, if necessary.

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    A 10-Year-Old Girl in Kenya Learns Coding in Milwaukee–Virtually.

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    The pandemic and a year of virtual schooling had an unexpected benefit for a little girl in Kenya who connected with Girls Who Code at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

    “I use the computer for school, and I wanted to understand more about how they work,” said Elsie Maingi, who is 10 years old and lives in Nairobi.

    However, computer classes in Kenya were geared to high school students and business people and were usually quite expensive, said her mother, Lilian Wangechi.

    So in the fall of 2020, they turned to Google and found the free Girls Who Code program at UWM. Because of the time difference, Elsie got up at 2 a.m. for every class during that semester and the spring 2021 semester.

    Encouraging young women

    The national Girls Who Code program encourages young women of middle and high school age to get involved with computer sciences, according to Christine Cheng, an associate professor of computer science who launched UWM’s program in 2016.

    “When we knew we were going to be online in the fall of 2020, it was a blessing in disguise because it allowed many people who were not living near UWM to attend classes,” she said, “but Elsie was the only one from a different country.”

    Sammie Omranian, a graduate student and teaching assistant who manages UWM’s program, said she was amazed at Elsie’s persistence. “It was so surprising for me. I knew that she was from Kenya, but never thought about the time difference until her teacher, Anahita, told me.”

    Anahita Qashqai, a graduate student who is one of the program’s teachers, also encouraged Elsie to overcome her shyness about using her English. Qashqai told her that English was also her second language since she grew up speaking Farsi. Another student piped up that her first language was Spanish. By the next class, Elsie had turned on the camera, unmuted, and was chatting away with her new friends and classmates from across the world.

    “After that she felt more involved and engaged,” Omranian said. After falling a little behind for the first session because of the language concerns, Elsie quickly caught up. “Elsie was the only student who completed everything 100%,” Omranian said.

    ‘Awe for the amazing opportunity’

    When the second class finished in the spring of 2021, Omranian sent Elsie the certificate and tote bag that all the students received. It took a few months to get to Kenya, but Elsie and her mom were so excited to get it that they sent a photo and a thank-you note.

    “Today Elsie received her certificate from GWC and I can tell that it’s one of her best days,” Wangechi wrote in an email to Omranian. “I look back at the year 2020 and am at awe for the amazing opportunity my daughter got at your program. She had always wanted to understand how computers work and her dream came true.”

    The UWM program was the perfect answer to their needs, she added, with the only requirements being an internet connection and the ability to go to class early in the morning.

    “The program has opened a new frontier for Elsie that is boundless and she knows that her wildest dreams can come true. This is an experience as a parent that I could never have replicated,” Wangechi wrote. “We say AHSANTE (THANK YOU) to everyone who made this possible – the tutors, program coordinators and the donors.”

    What is Girls Who Code?

    Girls Who Code is a national program designed to encourage young women to enter computer sciences and other STEM fields.

    In 1995, 37% of computer scientists were women. Today, it’s only 24%, according to Christine Cheng, an associate professor of computer science who launched UWM’s Girls Who Code program in 2016. The percentage will continue to decline if we do nothing, she told NPR station WUWM in an interview. “We know that the biggest drop-off of girls in computer science is between the ages of 13 and 17.”

    UWM’s program attracts between 50 to 60 girls each semester, and offers three levels, depending on the students’ previous experience. The program is open to young women in middle and high school, though the majority are middle school age.

    Graduate students in computer science and engineering are the teachers, along with some volunteers. Several young women who have competed the program have returned as volunteers, Cheng said.

    While the program hasn’t had the resources to do a formal assessment of its impact, organizers do hear success stories from former students and their families. Makenzie Johnson completed the program in 2019, taking classes from the middle of her sophomore year to high school graduation.

    Her mother, Tanika Davis, saw the national founder of Girls Who Code on MSNBC several years ago, but there were no chapters in Wisconsin at the time. She kept checking and eventually found UWM and Marquette had started chapters.

    “Makenzie has autism and ADHD, but she was always good with computers and I knew that coding would expose her to see if that was something she was interested in and would do well in. It worked out really well,” Davis said.

    Makenzie is now studying IT and software development at Milwaukee Area Technical College, with an eventual goal of becoming a graphic designer. She is also part of a program called Islands of Brilliance that helps people with developmental disabilities.

    “Her mentors at Girls Who Code were great and really helped her thrive,” Davis said. “She felt like she was one of the gang. It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience with a diverse group of girls.”

    Emma Maertz, a former student who is coming back as a volunteer in the program, said Girls Who Code is where she explored her love for coding and the program gave her the confidence to learn more elsewhere.

    “I learned the basics of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and dove in a little deeper into Python. Girls Who Code taught me to not give up and to debug instead – problem-solve before you abandon hope. I will forever remember my GWC experiences and am planning on volunteering this year to help out the next generation of young girls who code,” Maertz said.

    For this coming fall, Cheng and Omranian have decided to offer a combination of online and in-person classes.

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    Education

    Easy Strategies and Accommodations for Behavioral and Mental Health Needs in Learning Enviorments

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    The numerous accommodations and modifications that teachers make for students often amount to a lengthy list. These adjustments can involve altering not only instruction but also lesson materials, which tend to exhaust much of a teacher’s planning time. While circumstances, symptoms, and needs vary from student to student, there are some of the best “universal” practices that teachers can employ when a student is impacted by a medical condition, without causing a disproportional amount of stress to the teacher.

    Symptom: Inattentiveness

    Strategies Considerations
    • Verbal/non-verbal prompting or cueing
    • Checklists or sticky notes for work completion; a checkmark or small sticky on the desk indicating strong/prolonged focus
    • Offer preferential seating
    • Proximity while giving instructions/directions
    • Brain breaks for lengthy texts or multi-step tasks
    • Brisk transitions between tasks/activities to build attentive momentum
    • Prompting and cueing could be as subtle as tapping on the desk to regain focus, and could be as direct as asking which number the student is on and encouraging further progress
    • Checklists or sticky notes would typically be paired with a weekly/monthly incentive to track student’s attention goal (504/IEP)
    • Preferential seating doesn’t necessarily mean in the front of the classroom; this could mean near the teacher’s desk, away from the window or hallway, or in the quieter back corner of the room

    Symptom: Vision issues

    Strategies Considerations
    • Offer preferential seating
    • Provide larger text/font size on handouts
    • Limit screen time or allow frequent breaks during prolonged screen use
    • Provide highlighted and/or condensed teacher notes
    • Suggest colored overlays for students whose vision issues are exacerbated by bright white paper (often seen with PANDAS)
    • Highlighted/condensed teacher notes allow students to follow along with notes/outlines without straining their eyes to copy from the board
    • Notes also ensure that only vital information is visually presented, avoiding extraneous details
    • Colored overlays are inexpensive plastic sheets that students can lay over a textbook, worksheet, or even computer screen to dull the brightness of the white background

    Symptom: Working memory/memory processing difficulties

    Strategies Considerations
    • Allow extended time for assessments and lengthier assignments, including a reduced workload when necessary
    • Provide wordbanks, multiple-choice options, and true/false for exam questions that involve more memory recall or fact-based knowledge
    • Allow use of a calculator for math assessments not hinging on mental math skills
    • Provide sentence starters or transition wordbanks for essays or timed writing tasks
    • Extended time should account for the fact that the student likely required twice as much time to review and memorize info prior to the assessment
    • When possible, reduce the exam questions to account for mastery of the skill, not the number of questions answered
    • Quiz and test modifications, such as word banks, assist students with recall by providing examples
    • True/false questions still assess the student’s knowledge of the concept but reduce unnecessary memorization
    • If a math quiz is not based solely on the student’s knowledge of multiplication/division facts, the use of a calculator removes the mental math and memorization barrier

    Symptom: Executive functioning difficulties

    Strategies Considerations
    • Give checklists for multi-step assignments or complex tasks, making sure to model how to order multiple tasks and check off to-dos as students finish sections
    • Maintain consistent routines
    • Provide approximate, suggested lengths of time for homework and/or classwork
    • Provide brisk transitions between tasks/activities to build attentive momentum
    • Model organizational strategies
    • Check in frequently
    • Simplify written instructions and verbally review instructions for clarity
    • Review daily and/or weekly agenda; highlight due dates
    • Allow students to write directly on assessments; avoid bubble sheets
    • Consistent routines ensure that students know the basic procedural expectations and can execute them independently
    • Students may need to be explicitly shown how to place papers in organized sections of a binder
    • Students may need extra time at the end of class to organize papers, materials, etc. in designated places to maintain organization
    • Allowing students to respond directly on test booklets avoids the confusion of bubble sheets and/or the likelihood of them losing their place or skipping questions.

    Symptom: Fine motor issues

    Strategies Considerations
    • Enable use of a word processor for written assignments
    • Provide teacher notes; modified note-taking
    • Utilize multiple-choice, true/false, matching, or short answer opportunities to allow students to demonstrate mastery
    • Provide the student with a larger or slanted work surface
    • Use larger lines, boxes, or spaces for written responses
    • Allow the student to use bulleted responses when appropriate
    • Encourage the use of a mouse instead of a touchpad
    • Utilize speech to text technology if available, or a human scribe if not
    • Offer pencil grips for writing and wrist supports for typing
    • Allow verbal responses
    • If providing teacher notes, encourage students to participate by highlighting or starring essential material; have them include labels or symbols while following along.
    • For lengthy assignments, consider other methods for demonstrating understanding:
      • Put story events in order using event cards instead of writing a summary
      • Match pictured steps/photo cards of a science lab to written steps, then put them in order
      • Use Scrabble letters or alphabet cards to take a spelling quiz, instead of writing out the list

    Symptom: Behavioral issues

    Strategies Considerations
    • Utilize verbal/non-verbal prompting or cueing
    • Use positive reinforcement when procedures/behavioral expectations are followed
    • Offer preferential seating
    • Give instructions/directions in closer proximity to the student
    • Allow frequent breaks for lengthy texts or multi-step tasks
    • Utilize brisk transitions between tasks/activities to deter off-task behavior
    • Use data tracking sheets and hold a weekly conference with the student, possibly providing incentives
    • Utilize the 2 X 10 strategy to build positive relationships between adults and students. In this technique, teachers engage a student in a meaningful, genuine, 2-minute conversation, unrelated to academics, over a span of 10 days.
    • Prompting and cueing could be as subtle as tapping on the desk to deter off-task behavior.
    • Prompting could also be as direct as reminding a student of behavioral expectations
    • Checklists or sticky notes would typically be paired with a weekly/monthly incentive to track a student’s behavior goal (504/IEP)
    • Preferential seating doesn’t necessarily mean in the front of the classroom; this could mean near the teacher’s desk, away from the window or hallway, or in the quieter back corner of the room.
    • Moving closer (proximity) or sustaining eye contact can often deter misbehavior.
    • The 2 X 10 strategy is proven to build rapport in difficult classrooms. It encourages a positive outlook regarding school and adults in schools.

    The classroom environment is filled with a countless array of personalities, abilities, and levels of motivation. Add to that the various medical considerations or chronic illnesses that students might experience and teachers no doubt feel stressed about making sure every learner receives what he or she needs in order to be academically successful. To ensure that students’ accommodations are met, every student must be provided with differentiated, personalized learning experiences to foster intrinsic motivation and appropriate levels of challenge.

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