Every year, thousands of scholars and educators around the world face imprisonment, torture, persecution and silencing because they raise their voices for human rights and against oppressive political regimes. Scholars at Risk (SAR) is a network of higher education institutions whose mission it is to assist scholars in such situations, working together with experts, students, and others involved in higher education.
MCI | The Entrepreneurial School® joined the SAR Network in 2021, and students from the master program “Social Work” were the first group to be involved in MCI’s inaugural Student Advocacy Seminar as part of their course “Human Rights & Inclusion”, led by MCI Professor and Social Work Head of Studies Belachew Gebrewold. Student Advocacy Seminars are opportunities for students to get involved in advocacy work on behalf of persecuted scholars, with cases as well as background materials and input being provided by SAR.
In this project, students from the program Social Work took on the case of Ahmed Samir Santawy, a master student from Egypt studying at the Central European University in Vienna. Santawy was doing work on women’s reproductive rights as part of his studies when he was detained in Egypt during a visit in 2021 and has been wrongfully detained since then. After an introduction to SAR and the case through a guest lecture delivered by SAR’s Adam Braver, the students carried out research on the case and identified the human rights violations against Santawy. They then developed advocacy strategies and an action plan for future advocacy work.
On 16 May, the students presented the results of their work to several stakeholders. The presentation was part of the “European Student Advocacy Days” program and streamed online. The presenters first provided background information about the political situation and human rights situation in Egypt and the Arab Charter of Human Rights. The students had identified relevant articles from the Arab Charter, such as those referring to academic freedom, civil rights on liberty, integrity of the person and treatment of people in prison or custody, with relate directly to the case of Ahmed Samir Santawy. They then reported on the specific case, relating the circumstances of Ahmed Samir Santawy’s arrest and wrongful detention since February 2021, his trial, which resulted in a four-year prison sentence that was subsequently squashed, and the recent developments for a retrial.
The students stressed the importance of advocacy work to keep public interests for the case alive, and thus to continue putting pressure on the Egyptian authorities to release Santawy. Based on their research, the students created a petition on Change.org and used social media to communicate the petition. They are now working on a stakeholder report, which will further raise awareness. They also created a short video about their definition of freedom, an action plan for future campaigns, including ideas such as a big banner on the university building and a “Dance for Freedom” video campaign on social media.
The SAR Advocacy Seminar helped the students learn about what advocacy work is and what they could do in practice to help Ahmed Samir Santawy. They stressed that this is not just about the enthusiasm of a group of students but the whole world, and emphasised the importance of creating awareness and action to put pressure on authorities and to set people free.
Supported by MCI’s Center for Responsible Management & Social Impact and led by engaged faculty, Student Advocacy Seminars will continue to be offered at MCI in the next academic year. Helping and advocating for scholars at risk is an important part of MCI’s positive societal impact activities and creates opportunities and impetus for students to get engaged in work and studies with real impact.
Excerpt from the petition "Freedom for Ahmed Samir Santawy" with QR code to the petition ©MCI/student advocacy seminar project group
“Through the seminar, I was confronted with human rights violations and suddenly felt personally affected. That was really important for me, because now I know better how to deal with committed human rights violations which we can see so often and how WE can do something: Raise awareness and do advocacy work.”
Katrin Braun, Student
“I was inspired by the fact that this was not a fictional case. The idea that my work has a real impact on a person was a great motivation while working on it.”
Lara Krüger, Student
“To me it was inspiring to get to know the SAR Initiative and to get in contact with international students and organisations. It was my first time ever working on a campaign / advocacy strategy and submitting a petition, but I enjoyed it and I think I learned a lot through these tasks.”
Dominique Mertens, Student
“I would advise other students that their advocacy task is very important and has a real impact. Even by arguing a case, you are supporting the person affected.”
Christine Peer, Student
“SAR is a very relevant initiative for social work and social policy studies and campaigns as civil and political rights are being increasingly denied around the world. Strongmen politics has been undermining human rights at an alarming rate. We will do more, not less, to raise the awareness of the global community about this worrying development. To materialize this we need such committed and dedicated students like ours here at MCI. Thank you, our dear students! Let us keep in mind the saying of the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, 'Nobody's free until everybody's free'."
Belachew Gebrewold, Head of Department and Study Programs Social Work
“I would like to congratulate the students on achieving great results in a short period of time by exploring a range of advocacy strategies and coming up with creative ideas on how to raise awareness for Ahmed Samir Santawy. As the first group to engage in a Student Advocacy Seminar, they have also paved the way for future MCI seminar participants, who will be able to build on their learnings. A big thank you to Belachew Gebrewold for taking on the challenge and starting us at MCI in getting active in this important work.”
Regina Obexer, Head of MCI Center for Responsible Management & Social Impact