Inspiring Leaders programme 2015.

Hello all,

You may remember from a recent post that near the end of October, I was informed that I was successful in applying for a place on the Inspiring Leaders programme organised by my university’s Volunteering department. I was so excited to receive the official confirmation email that evening coming home from university, because it was a programme which I dearly wanted to get on and learn from. I felt compelled to apply to this unique and rewarding interactive programme as I enjoy participating on campus life, working with others to secure a common goal and giving back to the community. Volunteering and leading have been highlights of my time at Queen’s, and I believe that to volunteer is to serve the community.

A little reminder about the programme: the Inspiring Leaders programme has been developed by Queen’s SU, and is supported by the William J. Clinton Leadership Institute and Careers, Employability and Skills department. The programme seeks to support current student volunteers in positions of leadership and aims to support the selected participants by increasing their understanding of themselves as a leader, to strengthen leadership skills, to enhance their personal development and increase their ability to lead others. Furthermore, the programme aims to demonstrate to the participants how to translate their volunteering and leadership experiences into employability skills and understand how these skills assist in the workplace upon their graduate entry.

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I attended the one day intensive training course on the 14th November, and had a marvellous time. Having just submitted my journal entries (which are a requirement to do in order to pass the programme) I wanted to share the day with you with this post.

The day was the perfect mix of seminars, workshops and interactive sessions. This meant that not only were we taught about leadership, the different styles of leadership and to to be a leader, we had ample opportunities to put our knowledge and understanding into practical application. I particularly enjoyed being placed into teams based on the tables we had been assigned to sit in for the day. There was a lovely display of friendship and camaraderie around the whole room for the day, as everyone genuinely wished to be there, and to learn with their peers.

The day-long course was broken down into four main topics of teaching:

  1. Leadership, What it is and Why it matters,
  2. How I become a Leader,
  3. Leading Teams, and
  4. Leading Others

We had a wonderful opportunity to learn about leadership through holding individual  interviews with local leaders in Belfast, from a student activist to a Director, from a Belfast City Councillor and youth worker to a Development Officer with Fighting Words Belfast.

My team was asked to interview the leaders on the topic of what makes a successful/unsuccessful leader, before presenting back to the rest of the group. I really enjoyed hearing their answers, all of which emphasised the need for a leader to be authentic, a life-long learner and resilient. Everyone interviewed reiterated how a successful leader motivates and engages with their team, is professional, leads by example and is genuine. Unsuccessful leaders were those who dictate, who manipulate and coerce their teams. I particularly appreciated the messages of the importance of honesty and openness with your team, as these are values I hold dear. Words from the student activist also resonated: that a successful leader is inclusive and upholds equality and reconciliation of different sides.

The day comprised of workshops and seminars, which required us to work within our table teams, but also work with others. We had to present to our peers, work in teams to provide information such as our experiences working as leaders or being lead by leaders, and what we have come to expect from leaders. These were very informative and interesting sessions, and I thought it was invaluable to hear the experiences of my peers.

There was a session centred on determining our own leadership styles – mine is apparently people-focused, in that I like to ensure all feel comfortable, respected and confident to express their opinions. There was also an exercise ran in conjunction with the QUB Red Cross society, whereby we had to respond to an emergency health crisis ‘on the ground’. Not only was this a fun and stimulating exercise, it was a good character and team building exercise, too.

There was an exercise focusing on motivation: we were asked to consider what motivated us, and could we determine four personal values. I recently came across my four selected personal values as I was researching miscarriages of justices cases, and I am still pleased with my choices.

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I enjoyed the session on leading others, as it reinforced that anyone has the potential to be a leader, it is not an exclusive position to be occupied by an elite. Moreover, I feel that leadership starts from within, in that it helps you understand yourself, and I was pleased to see that this was mentioned during this session.

So, I had a wonderful day meeting new people, learning alongside my peers and feeling inspired and motivated to make a difference. What is next? Well, I have completed my journal entries, and logged all my volunteer hours to date this semester for submission. A requirement to pass the programme is to have recorded a minimum of 50 hours; as I am working across three volunteering postions, from activism to charity and student society work, I have managed to record 95.5 hours. (I am definitely hoping to hit 100 before the semester concludes.)

Should you now ask me my views on the programme, and why learning to be an effective leader matters, I would answer that essentially, leadership itself matters.

Leaders are an important element in the group dynamic. Leadership matters as leaders act as a ‘rallying-point’ for innovation and ideas generation within a team structure. This is such because leaders know and understand their team as a collective in terms of potential, and know the team members individually in terms of their specific abilities and skills. The job of a leader therefore is to ensure the unique skills of each member are harnessed for the team, and that the team members can thus realise their potential and develop. Consequentially, team members will want to work, and will want to succeed. Leaders therefore inspire and encourage the team so that work is completed and challenges are overcome.

What I have discovered through personal experience but what was also reiterated during the day-course was the importance of leadership in challenging both the leaders as well as the team members. Leaders will take risks and therefore ensure innovation in the quest to find the best solution or answer to a given problem. Such risk taking allows for ideas to flourish, and as such organisations can grow.

Leadership matters, as an inspiring leader can make others come together to achieve a collective aim. Leadership is important in creating team relations and developing trust.

I am involved in student organisations, student activism and volunteering on campus and consequentially I often find myself taking on a leadership role within team structures. This is because there are occasions when I feel that a designated leader is required to generate discussion, ensure communication and organisation and thus ensure that progress is achieved.

To me, leadership is about service. It is about helping others realise their potential. This belief is something which I act upon, thus I contribute by assuming responsibilities myself but also involving all within the group.

I know that through my volunteering experiences and my own experiences of being a leader, I would not ask others to do something I would not do myself. I feel that it is important as a leader to emphasise that everything undertaken is a team-effort, and for the benefit of all in the team – not for the benefit of the leader. A leader is not one who benefits from the work of the team, but actively works themselves and for the team, and I feel that this is something I can contribute to leadership.

I like to hear from everyone involved in the group, to know and understand their thoughts and opinions. I feel that as a leader, it should a process of democracy and not autocracy. Therefore a strength of mine is to ensure everyone has their voice heard, and feels that their voice is respected.

I do not wish to be a leader for the purposes of a title and careerism. I do not wish to be a leader so that I can sit behind a desk, and tell others what to do and how to do it whilst I do not contribute to the task completion. I want to be a leader, so that I can challenge and encourage, and help others grow. It is thanks to the Inspiring Leaders programme that I feel I may be able to go out, and do just that.

Watch this space.

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Advent Appeal 2015: A Present for the Future.

Yesterday saw me brace myself, flanked as I was with lists and ideas. A deep breath, and an annual time-restricted research programme commenced once more.

Yesterday marked the commencement of my Christmas shopping.

Yes, it is that time of year again when we find ourselves searching online, fighting crowds in the city centre and hunting high and low inside shops to find the right size, or correct series. We search for the ‘right gift’ for our loved ones, something that they would like or desperately want, before we take great delight in wrapping it up, ready for giving.

I personally adore Christmas present-giving. I love being able to find different, unique gifts for my friends and family, tailored to their interests or our shared experiences and inside jokes. I love being able to say thank you, and express my appreciation for their advice, support and friendship through presenting them with wrapped gifts.

Christmas morning in  my house tends to involve us all sneaking into the living room, attempting to hide our bags behind us (and normally failing) to tuck them beneath the tree. A while later, we are tucking into chocolates and surrounded by wrapping paper, laughing and merry, with our chorus of ‘thank yous’ and ‘you shouldn’t have’ filling the room. Last year was particularly memorable, as my sister and I travelled home for Christmas to be with our family – her from Scotland, and myself from America. I think that my greatest present was simply being able to see my family again after many months apart. It was a lovely occasion, and one I am truly thank for. Christmas therefore to me is a time for family and friends, of friendship and love. It is not about receiving as much as it is about giving.

For many of us, Christmas is about celebration, relaxation and fun. It is a time for presents, festive feasts and family celebration. But not for everyone. And this is the very reason for my writing this post today.

For others, Christmas is a time of suffering. In the most deprived areas of the world, Christmas is simply another time in the year when they endure hardship and a struggle to keep going. This year, there will be parents who are unable to feed their children due to famine and drought. There will be sick children who unable to receive medical care and attention. There will be children and young people who cannot access education. It will be simply another month of lacking clean, safe water and shelter.

But Children in Crossfire seeks to help those less fortunate, by helping to provide food, water and medical care through working with local communities. Advent Appeal 2015 is here, and provides a means for you to play a charitable part this Christmas by giving a present for the future.

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The Advent Appeal is simply a way to make Christmas special for all. By donating to Children in Crossfire, you can help the charity work with local communities to ensure there is clean water, schools and the opportunities to provide for families.

To read about a case study in Tanzania, involving a lady and her family who were helped by Children in Crossfire and how you can help out this Christmas, please visit the relevant website page here.

I am the Secretary and committee member for the student society of Children in Crossfire at Queen’s University Belfast, and I cannot wait to help out with our Christmas fundraising events. Christmas, as I have previously mentioned, is about giving. I can think of no better way to give this festive season than donating to the Advent Appeal. It is not just a gift for the moment – it is a step towards helping others have what we take for granted, such as water and food.

If I can make Christmas a special occasion for those less fortunate than myself, I will do so. This Christmas, I hope to be able to give a present for the future. Why not consider giving such a wonderful gift too?

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Divestment: fuel for student activism.

Who said student activism is dead?

I remember being in primary school, and learning for the first time about the horrific damage wreaked upon the planet in our endless quest for fuel and power. I was around nine years old, and my teacher showed photographs (ah, the days of chalkboards and overhead projectors) of environmental carnage: ravaged rainforests, dusty quarries, belching chimneys and poisoned oceans, thick and black and sticky with oil. We learnt about global warming, and climate change – how countries will suffer in terms of erratic weather and flooding, and how the Arctic was melting, slowly but surely. I listened to my teacher, stared at the photographs, and vowed to do what I could to protect the environment. I went home that day with the three ‘rs’ on my lips.

It had hit home then, that humans were slowly poisoning and destroying the world simply to make profits. I suppose I had always known that the heat in our house came from oil, which had to be drilled from the ground. I knew that other family members used oil, and my parents had grown up in coal households. I just was never truly aware of the damage caused by our dependency on fossil fuels.

Growing up, I probably plagued my family with my constant nagging about the importance of recycling, the need to reuse items such as paper, boxes and bags and the quest to reduce what we bought and used. We happily installed insulation in our roofspace and loft to reduce our oil consumption, and jumped on the energy-efficient lightbulbs. But we cannot deny that we still rely on oil, for all that we try to use it sparingly.

But at least we realise the need to reduce our consumption. At least we understand the importance of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. We recognise that renewable energy is cleaner, and more beneficial to the environment. Myself, and my family are not the only ones who understand this.

A pity, then, that my university apparently does not. A pity that it continues to benefit financially from investing in fossil fuels.

My university has accepted around £13,207 in donations from BP and Exxon Mobil in the past five years, according to research conducted by Greenpeace. This may not seem like a vast sum, but in my eyes it is £13,207 too much. For a university which is actively promoting ‘going green’ on campus – for example installing bikes for hire, ensuring waste can be categorised to assist in recycling and urging students to consider their printing purchases – it sadly appears to be contradicting itself in terms of its investment options. You cannot encourage staff and students alike to go green, whilst investing in and accepting donations from the fossil fuel industry. Moreover, consider this scenario: student scientists researching the serious effects of climate change, in a university which receives money from fossil fuel companies. The irony.

Scientific reports illustrate how the fossil fuel industry has approximately five times more carbon in their reserves than what we can actually burn, and still manage to restrict global warming to below 2°C.  Five times more. That’s a staggering statistic, and one which should alarm us all. Climate change is a real, true threat, and yet regardless of the evidence around us of its consequences, we still persist in utilising the earth’s resources for our own benefit and (financial) interests. Investing in fossil fuels may be profitable, but such a profit comes with a price which will extract a heavy debt in the future.

Divestment the answer. The greater the scale of divestment, the greater the pressure to abandon fossil fuels as energy sources. But QUB has thus far refused to consider divestment. It is a sad case of affairs when a highly-regarded university with renowned research capabilities cannot see the non-refutable evidence before it.

But there are students will do their utmost to make divestment at QUB a reality. And today they made their voices heard in a wonderful display of student activism.

Fossil Free QUB  is a group of like-minded individuals, comprising students, staff and alumni who are committed to encouraging QUB to withdraw all investments from fossil fuel corporations, and to also establish and follow a renewable energy agenda on campus. In their own words:

‘…we are proud to fight to ensure that Queen’s University leads by example, as a progressive institution of cultural and social importance to Belfast and Northern Ireland generally, and plays its part in securing a safe, clean and sustainable future for us all.’

Fossil Free QUB in the local link in a global campaign chain. The global movement for fossil fuel divestment is actually one of the fastest growing grassroots campaigns. It has already met with success – in September 2014, $50 billion was the total amount institutions across the planet had divested from fossil fuel corporations. By September 2015, the impressive figure stood at $2.5 trillion.

Within the context of university divestment in the British Isles, Fossil Fuel QUB is not alone, either. They were inspired by the success of Scottish activists: after a long campaign, in 2014 Glasgow University became the first academic institution in Europe to divest from the fossil fuel industry, ultimately removing some £18m in shares and endowments into other funds. The Glaswegian activists arrived in Belfast to discuss their activism at QUB, and sparked the proverbial flame. The campaign for divestment at QUB had begun.

I was in America at the time (and one of my modules happened to be US Environmental Law, funnily enough) but I watched the embers of activism burst into flame from afar, and with avid interest. It was obviously the beginning of a -as it swiftly becoming evident – long battle.

Fossil Free QUB had to firstly undergo organisation, and then the arduous task of tracking down and analysing public data pertaining to QUB investment options. Yet, this public data is very limited, hence the submission of a Freedom of Information request. This was rejected by the university, but an appeal process was undertaken. Facilitated by the Information Commissioners Office, and lasting almost 10 months, the activists were successful in obtaining information which revealed significant insights into investment options.

Next came the lengthy wait to be recognised by the university. During this time, the group sought the acceptance of the student body on campus. A referendum was organised, framed around the question, ‘Should QUB divest from fossil fuels?’ I remember watching the vibrant and informed campaign, and I realised the sincerity of the group, given their dedicated presence on campus. On the 13th of October 2015, 827 of the student body voted. 83.2% (688 students) voted in favour of the referendum, and I am happy to say I was one of those students. Whilst we did not have the required quorum, it was still a statement of intent from students. Sadly, this referendum, this exercise in democracy was not recognised by the university.

The following day, Fossil Free QUB submitted a 47 page academic proposal on the economic and ethical imperatives behind fossil fuel divestment to the Investment Committee. This paper was however ignored. The university proposed a resolution: QUB will review its ethical investment policy. This however is a process which will last between six to nine months. The University reaffirmed its position that indirect investments in fossil fuels absolved them of all moral responsibility, and thus considered the matter closed.

Spoiler alert: the matter isn’t closed.

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Today, Fossil Free QUB reinforced the fact that student activism isn’t dead. They utilised their right to protest, in a dignified and respectful manner.

The group occupied a room reserved for the QUB Senate meeting. After requesting the opportunity to discuss their concerns with QUB investments with the Senate, seeking an affirmation that there will be a review of ethical investment policy, the group refused to move when demanded to do so after their requests were declined. Eventually, the Senate decided to hold their meeting elsewhere – only to be followed by the group and their supporters to another building. It was here that the students met with a heavy security presence – but determined students are not swayed easily. The group has promised this will not be the last occupation, should QUB continue to invest in fossil fuel corporations.

Frustratingly, the local bus service conspired against me and thus I could not be present on campus to offer my support. But this is an important struggle, and a worthy campaign which is not merely confined to Northern Ireland, or even Europe. This is an issue on a global scale. Climate change is a key issue which urgently needs addressed, and I am only too willing to lend my voice to the battle.

My own thoughts on the subject of QUB divestment? I believe that this is the time for the university I admire and love to be on the right side of history. The global movement for divestment has already met with success, and this is a growing movement. Surely it is only right for my university to join this global movement. It is time to divest from fossil fuel corporations, and to support a clean-energy future. Promote sustainability not only on campus to students, but through financial aspects, too. Furthermore, to invest in fossil fuels is essentially to invest in the decline of the health of not only the planet, but of global citizens. It is to deprive future generations of a clean, flourishing planet. It is to simply pass on the burden of tackling climate change to another generation, because it is not in your (financial) interests to do so now. And this I find unacceptable.

There is also a global justice/human rights element. Persistant QUB fossil fuel investment challenges the university’s commitment to human rights and dignity. Fossil fuel extraction, production and use results in death and illness every year, notably in poorer, deprived regions. Climate change threatens the enjoyment of fundamental human rights: the right to a home, to a family, – the very right to life can be threatened, considering the increase in droughts, famine, flooding and environment destruction. Given that the effects of climate change are unfairly spread – poorer countries tend to suffer the effects – QUB should not be profiting from the deprivation of others. To quote Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson:

“Climate change is a matter of justice. The richest countries caused the problem, but it is the world’s poorest who are already suffering from its effects.”

A low-carbon future therefore is a safe, clean and promising future for all. QUB has the option, and the authority to help create that future. So-called ‘indirect investment’ is still investment. It does not absolve moral responsibility.

To paraphrase The Smiths: carbon assets are dead, boys. And it’s so lonely on a limb, when you persist in fossil fuel investment.

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Interested in the Fossil Free QUB campaign? Why not read about their campaign thus far, visit their Twitter  and check out their Facebook page?

Also: why not sign this petition, ‘SET QUB FOSSIL FUEL FREE‘? 

A political tale in exploitation and opportunism.

Being an avid follower of current affairs, and having studied abroad in America, these two neatly combine to result in my  following of American politics.

I will follow American news stations and publications online and via social media. If uni work causes me to be a night owl, I will flick through American news stations. I receive daily emails from news publications, providing me with round-ups from the day before and an analysis of the current political scene.

So naturally, I was aware of the recent events in the House of Representatives this Thursday. On the 19th November, lawmakers were to vote on the recently proposed bill, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act. This bill, introduced to the floor in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris on the 13th November seeks to postpone the entry of Syrian refugees into the US, and calls for an increase in the vetting process prior to gaining entry. The bill passed the floor vote, 289 in favour compared to 137 votes against.

Having went to bed thinking about the vote, I realised I already knew what the result would be. And on reading the result the next morning, I sighed. Not in surprise, no – more in exasperation.

What a sad showing of political expediency. What an obvious exercise in political exploitation of the Paris attacks.

What a display of political opportunism.

The Republican party control Congress, courtesy of their collective acquired victories in the November 2014 midterms. It is no secret that when Congress is controlled by the party in opposition to the President, partisan politics will run rampant. In sum, political opportunism is seized by many US politicians, hoping to exploit current affairs and issues in such a way as to present their party and de facto themselves in a positive light, whilst arguing the President’s actions have been wrong, weak, ineffective and so on. This is readily evident in the clash over immigration and the US plan, spearheaded by Obama, to accept Syrian refugees.

During the summer, when the migrant crisis was realised for what it is – an exodus of desperate souls fleeing destruction and death in Syria and neighbouring countries – the US announced plans to accept around 10,000 migrants. Obama stated his intent to accept these migrants, and also immediately the backlash from the Republican party commenced. This backlash, having been present since the summer, has now taken a new turn and increased following the attacks in Paris last week. The vote in favour to pass the bill on Thursday was therefore essentially a vote in favour of stopping Obama’s planned programme to resettle Syrian refugees.

We could argue Obama was seizing upon political opportunism in the summer in his announcement of the US acceptance of Syrian refugees. Consider his position: he is essentially a lame-duck President, serving out his last term.  In under a year, Americans will vote for a new President and Vice-President. Obama, like many politicians about to leave office, must surely be considering his legacy, and wants to seize every opportunity available to carry out his personal political plans before he must exit the White House. What better way to validate his Democrat credentials in an important year by portraying himself as the man who help save fleeing refugees? Moreover, the Democrat Presidential candidate (whomever they may be – my money is on one Hillary Clinton) can utilise this immigration platform for themselves, promising to continue accepting those wishing to embark on the infamous ‘American Dream’. This will certainly make the Democratic party more favourable to Hispanic voters, that all-important, consistently growing section of the US electorate.

Conversely, we could argue that the recent actions of the Republican party are examples of blatant political opportunism. They know Obama is serving out his last term, thinking about his political legacy. They know too that to be in such a position is restrictive, made even more so by the fact that the Republicans dominate Congress. Republicans are aware that this is an important year, in the lead-up to November 2016. Their Presidential candidates will be seeking to exploit any decision from the White House pertaining to immigration to argue against ‘illegals’, those who take US jobs and who fail to assimilate into the US way of life.

One such candidate, a certain Donald Trump, has made controversial statements regarding immigration. He has been accused of sweeping generalisation and stereotypes: stating that many Mexican ‘illegals’ commit criminal acts when in the US. He has also advocated the building of a ‘great, great wall’ on the Mexican-US border, and argued that Mexico does not send ‘the right people’ into the US. Whilst he has been criticised by many within the Hispanic community, no doubt he has support among some within the electorate.

But he recently has turned his attention away from Hispanics, and now focuses instead on refugees, and even American Muslims. He has openly called for increased surveillance of American Muslims, and seems to be open for faith-based identification, such as the use of ID cards. Talk about jumping on the political bandwagon. And he is not the only one.

Obama’s resettlement plan has been subject to political opportunism from Sen. Ted Cruz, who recently criticised Obama’s plans to still go ahead with acceptance of Syrian refugees post-Paris as ‘utter lunacy‘. He went on to say:

“At a time when ISIS has declared war, at a time when radical Islamic terrorists want to murder as many Americans as possible, at a time when the Obama administration admits it can’t vet these refugees… it is the essence of reasonableness and common sense to say we shouldn’t be bringing in tens of thousands of refugees who may include ISIS terrorists…

“And yet Obama, instead of defending this nation, just attacks you and me and every American who wants to keep this nation safe…”

Cruz advocated a system of prioritisation, whereby Christian refugees would be permitted to resettle within the US whilst their Muslim counterparts would be denied until thoroughly vetted – a move supported by another GOP hopeful, Jeb Bush. Note that Bush is having trouble in his Presidential campaign, facing criticism for his advocacy of his brother, President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. His decision to wade into the furore over Obama’s resettlement programme is evidently his means of clawing back into the 2016 race, proving his leadership credentials – and tapping into the Christian electorate, who are expected to support Cruz.

Sen. Rand Paul, the libertarian, believes the US should not accept immigrants, visitors and students from countries facing homegrown terrorism threats. The full requirements in Sen. Paul’s proposed bill includes a 30-day waiting period on ‘all entries to the U.S. in order for background checks to be completed, unless the traveller has been approved through the Global Entry program.’ This proposal would include countries on the visa-waiver programme. This means that countries such as Ireland, the UK, Germany and even France would have their citizens subjected to increased vetting. America will close its country to Europe, in a move that would affect tourists and students.

This wave of anti-immigration and anti-refugee acceptance was did not just come from the GOP 2016 Presidential hopefuls. There was a backlash at state level, too. Political opportunism was seized upon by various state governors. Over the weekend, as the Presidential hopefuls engaged in live television debates, the governors of Alabama and Michigan announced their states would no longer settle refugees due to security concerns. They were joined by the governors of Texas and Arkansas on the very Monday after the Paris attacks. By Tuesday, their ranks had swollen: 30 state governors in total, including Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire (the sole Democrat) had publicly declared their state would not accept Syrian refugees under Obama’s plan.

Obama knew that his resettlement programme was being subject to political exploitation. He addressed the calls for refusing entry to Syrian refugees the same Monday, stating that ‘slamming the door in [refugees’ faces] would be a betrayal of our values’. He showed his disapproval of the prioritisation scheme proposed by Cruz and endorsed by Bush, proclaiming it to be ‘unAmerican’:

“When I heard political leaders suggest that there would be a religious test for which a person who’s fleeing a warn-torn country is admitted…that’s shameful. That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”

The attacks in Paris were tragic. Terrifying to me as a European, highlighting as it did that the concerns about homegrown terrorism were valid, and that such attacks can happen in Europe. Our way of life was under attack that night. Yet European countries have rallied around France, and have come together in unity to show that our way of life will flourish and continue. We will not let ISIS, or other terrorists, destroy or break us. ISIS want to see us divided, want to see us turn on each other – turn against our fellow citizens, simply because they are Muslim, or of ethnic origin. This we will fight to prevent, as demonstrated by President Hollande’s recent announcement that France will continue to accept Syrian refugees. Hollande stated France would honour the pledge made originally made in September: France will resettle 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years.

American politicians are exploiting the Paris attacks to suit their own political interests. Those who already advocated restricted immigration are seizing on the moment to actively block proposals to resettle Syrian refugees, as evidenced not only through the comments and proposals put forth over the past weekend, but the passing of the House bill on Thursday night. That the attackers were mostly born and raised in Europe apparently does not matter: facts can easily be ignored.

Whilst the bill has passed the House, it is unlikely to be voted upon in the Senate, and Obama has threatened that he will veto it, should it reach the White House. So why propose it in the first place, if it has such an unlikely chance to become law? Simple. Lawmakers can demonstrate to the electorate that they are listening to them, and that they are doing something. Moreover, it in turn makes the public focus on the issue of immigration – rhetoric, such as that deployed by Trump and Ben Carson, and the proposed actions from Cruz and Paul create an atmosphere of fear. Fear that America is under attack, fear that what happened in Paris will happen again in America. Fear of homegrown terrorists, fear of imported terrorists – fear of Muslims, generally.

The Guardian reported on the comments of Iowa Congressman Steve King, who commented the bill “brings the public’s attention to this”, and that increased public attention would make it harder for Obama to veto the bill. It may even make it likely that an Obama veto could be overridden by Congress.

In his speech on Monday, Obama mentioned that Syrian refugees themselves are fleeing terrorism, and are simply seeking a safe haven for themselves and their families. Moreover, he warned against political exploitation of the Paris attacks, trying to utilise the attacks as a means to block immigration into the US:

“It’s very important for us right now—particularly those who are in leadership, particularly those who have a platform and can be heard—not to fall into that trap, not to feed that dark impulse inside of us…”

If anything, the events of the past week have illustrated that politics comes before people, at least in the political realm. Politicians, and the media too, paid only lip-service to respective grief and shock. It was easier to exploit the attacks, to seize upon political opportunism. The victims of the Paris attacks are seemingly forgotten. The plight of desperate refugees conveniently politicised. The fact that the vast majority of practising Muslims decry ISIS is ignored. Politicians, lest we forget, have their ow agendas, especially in campaign season. It’s easier, and more beneficial for their campaigns, to stoke fear and create scapegoats.

I studied in America last year. I was one of many international students at my American college, which kindly hosted us and provided us with many opportunities and memories. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in America, that wonderfully unique country which holds many people from different backgrounds, faiths, races – but unites all as ‘American.’ The irony is that the current diatribes from US politicians actually shatters my view, in that they refuse shelter to the desperate, single out their own citizens due to their religion and seemingly wish to prevent international visitors from entering the country.

As I noted in my scholarship application regarding my motivation to study in the US:

Understanding the historical background of the programme and its continuing relevance of issues still prevalent in NI, I want to witness first-hand the cultural integration and diversity of the US. I am curious to see how people from all walks of life and multiple backgrounds could come together under the banner of a shared American nationality and identity. I believe I will return home an enlightened person, having not only witnessed but also lived in a thriving and diverse community where students from a variety of backgrounds can study, live and grow together.

Thus I read of Sen. Paul’s proposals with a heavy heart. He would deny American students with the opportunity to study alongside their international peers, to learn more about the world and expand their horizons. He would deny non-Americans with the opportunity to work and study in the country oft-described as ‘the land of the free’. I had signed up to receive notifications from his campaign team whilst studying abroad, so to receive emails this week describing that in order to protect America, visitors must be rigorously vetted and restricted, I felt shocked – and humiliated.

Moreover, the State Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad (R) is one of the many Governors calling to reject Obama’s resettlement plans. Iowa was my adopted state, and I remember watching the midterm results which re-elected Branstad come through. Whilst he seeks to reject Syrian refugees, in my eyes he is rejecting the desperate and the needy. He would probably be happy enough to take me in – a white, Christian European – and such prioritisation saddens me further.

I leave you with this: there are no words to fully articulate how I feel at the blatant political exploitation and opportunism witnessed this week. This is not the America I know and love, the America which welcomed me and my fellow international students so kindly and readily. Apparently, in times of terror and suffering, it is better to weigh up political pros and cons in lieu of addressing the safety and care of refugees fleeing death and destruction. It is better to propose sealing your country off from the world, and deny your citizens the chance to meet new people and develop their outlook.

The photograph below is of the International Students’ Club at my host US college. I met many wonderful, interesting people from around the world, and I know that the American students made many a friend from among our ranks. According to Sen. Paul, according to the majority of the House, it would be better for the security of America that we were not permitted to enter – or at least, subject to increased vetting and having to prove we are not terrorists, or terrorist sympathisers.

Politics before people indeed.

Of immigration and generalisation.

It is no secret that I avidly follow the news and current affairs. Not just locally, or even nationally. I like to keep a tab on the political scene across mainland Europe, and not to mention the US too. (Studying there for a year was quite the dream come true, in terms of being immersed in American local and national news and politics for the year – especially when the mid-terms rolled around in November 2014.)

So, naturally I watch the news, read newspapers, follow news channels and newspaper publications on social media and merrily avail of daily emails from a variety of publications, including POLITICO, POLITICO EU, and The Telegraph. I like to be kept involved, to see what is unfolding in the world.

Today, I received the daily email from The Washington Examiner, bearing the subject line, ‘Obama gets really angry… At Americans.’ This was in relation to Obama feeling frustrated at the calls to deny asylum seekers entry and subsequent refuge in the US. According to The Washington Examiner, Obama is not listening to the American people, who apparently widely oppose his plans to accept and settle Syrian refugees.

All of which makes more grating Obama’s denunciation of Americans critical of his call to admit 10,000 refugees here. In Antalya he accused them of closing their hearts to victims of violence and of being “not American” in suggesting prioritization of the Christian refugees who have been singled out for torture and murder.

He could have acknowledged people’s qualms as legitimate and argued at greater length, as former Ambassador to Iraq and Syria Ryan Crocker did in the Wall Street Journal, that we have processes in place that would effectively screen out terrorists. Or he could have proposed, like Speaker Paul Ryan, a pause before accepting any.

But that would have meant not taking cheap shots against the political opposition at home — the people who really make him angry.

(Of course, the publication can happily make cheap shots instead against Obama for his continued message regarding acceptance of asylum seekers.)

The Washington Examiner also shared a report that at least a third of Middle Eastern refugees ‘lie about being Syrian to gain admission to sympathetic European nations’.

When I watched the news this morning prior to getting ready to attend uni, it is still dominated by Paris – but the media are fixated on discussing the attackers, discussing how they were born into Western lifestyles and over time became radicalised. There was also discussion on American news channels pertaining to whether or not Syrian refugees should be accepted into the US, considering the recent events in Paris.

Upon arriving at uni and pulling my books and papers out in the library, I scrolled through my twitter feed to find this excellent article from Der Spiegel which covered the events in Paris, and discussed the attackers:

As of Tuesday, five of the seven perpetrators killed in Paris had been identified as citizens of the European Union. They were French or Belgian, homegrown in Western Europe… If the French now have an interest in emphasizing that the attacks of Black Friday were steered from Syria, it also serves the purpose of disguising the fact that the attackers were ultimately locals who apparently hated their home countries so much that they trained in Syria to become killers.

Every perpetrator in Friday’s attacks who has thus far been identified had at some point in time been identified by intelligence services or the police as a potential danger. And all had fallen off the authorities’ radar, which fits in well with recent patterns in international terrorism. Some perpetrators go underground entirely before their attacks, while others pose as inconspicuous, normal citizens…

With those paragraphs, this article addresses the issue that thus far other media outlets and indeed politicians, mostly American, (yet let us not forget Marine Le Pen’s anti-Islam/anti-immigration stance, and Nigel Farage’s claim that British Muslims have ‘spilt loyalties‘ ) have failed to grasp: these terrorists were not asylum seekers. They were not refugees. This was a case of so-called ‘homegrown terrorism’. Europe, perhaps, is coming to terms with this. But America has not. America simply views this as a dangerous consequence of immigration.

Since the horrific attacks in Paris on Friday 13th November, I have noticed a prevalent theme in the media the world over. And it is not just professional media, no. Social media users are actively promoting their views, too.

No matter where I look, be it on Facebook, Twitter or whilst skipping through news channels, I keep seeing the same stance regarding immigration. I have read so many posts in favour of the recent GOP-dominant call to prevent asylum seekers from entering the US. I keep reading that you ‘cannot trust these immigrants’. I keep reading about how ‘no Muslims should be taken in’ -because apparently if you are a Muslim, you de facto are terrorist too. Even aspiring Republican Presidential candidate Rand Paul (the junior-Senator for Kentucky), one whom I respect for his libertarian stance, believes the US should not accept immigrants, visitors and students from countries that are attempting to deal with homegrown terrorism. The full requirements in Sen. Paul’s proposed bill includes a 30-day waiting period on ‘all entries to the U.S. in order for background checks to be completed, unless the traveller has been approved through the Global Entry program.’ According to Sen. Paul, that would include even French citizens who would like to study in the United States. European students, visitors, workers – general citizens, all painted with one brush.

 I think that out of all the proposals and statements and soundbites which have been spouted from various American politicians, this one hurt me the most. It is such a sweeping statement, from a man I thought would not tread the same, weary pathway of the other Republican candidates on the issue of immigration. 

Stereotypes. Sweeping generalisations. Fear-mongering. Prejudice. Hyperbole. I’m beyond fed-up with it, because this is not the America I was privileged to live and study in last year. America welcomed me, embraced me, and provided many fond memories and exciting opportunities.

But I am reminded of a time in my PR class there, when we were talking about the PR communications adopted by both the pro- and anti-immigration camps.

My PR professor mentioned the sanctuary cities and the increasing use of the words ‘illegals’ and ‘aliens’. She discussed how people of Hispanic origin and descent may feel discriminated against. She then turned to me, and said, ‘Leah is an international student. She’s not American. But we were happy enough to take her in, right?”

The class nodded, albeit with confused smiles. I slunk slightly in my chair. I knew what was coming.

“Why was that? Maybe it’s because she has a nice accent, she speaks English – and she’s white. She doesn’t look foreign. She looks like us.”

(If there ever were a time for a real-life mic drop, that would have been it.)

This is not just a problem in the US. It’s here in Ireland and the UK too. Comments about closing our borders to keep us safe, and prevent what occurred in Paris to happen in our own communities. But the comments from America make me feel particularly saddened, because a country I know to be so welcoming, so friendly and full of culture may turn its back on desperate souls fleeing death who have nothing.

Obviously, safety and security measures are important. Of course national security is important. The well-being of citizens is a priority. We all desire a safe, stable and peaceful country to reside in. But we have that. These refugees do not. Not anymore, since civil war and ISIS started to destroy Syria and other countries in the Middle East, and destroy homes, families and hope.

America says terrorists blend in with refugees, ergo the refugees must be kept out. Asylum seekers cannot be trusted. But, to anyone who says that these asylum seekers are terrorists in disguise, I have news for you. Of the 750,000 immigrants from the Middle Eastern countries who have moved to the US post-9/11, exactly none have been arrested/charged for terrorist offences. *

Giving testimony to Congress in June 2015, Seth Jones, the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, stated:

“The threat to the U.S. homeland from refugees has been relatively low. Almost none of the major terrorist plots since 9/11 have involved refugees.  Even in those cases where refugees were arrested on terrorism-related charges, years and even decades often transpired between their entry into the United States and their involvement in terrorism. In most instances, a would-be terrorist’s refugee status had little or nothing to do with their radicalization and shift to terrorism.”

Oh, and to address those users of social media, proudly posting your messages of #NotoMuslims and various other anti-immigration messages: if you think that being Muslim means by definition you are a terrorist, does my being from Northern Ireland mean I am a member of the IRA? That I am an active member of a paramilitary organisation? If you should answer, ‘of course not’ then you need to realise you are not willing to generalise me, but you are prepared to generalise Muslims.

 

Moreover, we now have one Donald Trump calling for increased surveillance – of American Muslims – and for the consideration of faith-based identification requirements, such as compulsory ID cards – for American Muslims. This comes along with floating the ideas of closing mosques and warrantless searches.(So he has moved on from generalising Hispanic-Americans to generalising American Muslims. I’m debating whether that is indeed progress or not.)

If you believe that ISIS truly represents Islam, if you believe that they are true Muslims – kindly desist with such thinking and educate yourself further. ISIS is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity. Does that comparison make you feel awkward and uncomfortable? Good. It was meant to.

The irony is that according to Paul’s argument, I would be barred from entering the US too due to travelling from Europe. Had my scholarship programme commenced this coming summer, I would perhaps struggle to be granted a student visa.

Yet, because I am a white Christian, I would maybe be permitted to enter via prioritisation.

What a funny, sad and frustrating world we live in.

~~~~

*This has become a contested statement due to the complex analysis required behind the report, and the complicated legal definitions and legislation. Yet the evidence does suggest that the threat to US security from refugees remains very low.

**Twitter avis and usernames have been covered to protect the users’ privacy. These were just two of the many messages I have seen. Search the hashtags to find more – if you can stomach it.

The author acknowledges that these (social media) messages represent a minority. She does not wish to make sweeping generalisations, such as the ones she has criticised in this post. (Now that would be ironic to be sure.)

Solidarité.

It had been a typical day.

Winding down a long, but interesting week. I was conscious of a coursework deadline for my Legal Theory module; it was rapidly approaching and I was concerned about getting my work completed that weekend. My mind was humming with humdrum student things: notes, reading, emails and God needs to provide more hours in the day to permit me to get through my to do list.

I had been working on coursework planning and research on Friday the 13th November. That morning was spent attending a fantastic workshop relating to Dispute Resolution in Business, learning about the benefits of undertaking mediation in lieu of litigation. I had learnt a lot, and met many inspiring ladies who wished me success in my final year of Law and for the future. The afternoon saw me at my laptop surrounded in textbooks and green tea, pondering which arguments to select for my diatribe against the House of Lords judgment in R v A (No 2) and my support for the Feminist Judgments Project rewritten judgment. (An interesting topic to read about to be fair; I never fully realised just how different a judgment can be reached through using a different perspective.)

Just a typical student day.

Until the news broke that evening of horrific, wide-spread attacks in Paris.

My family and I had been watching The Hunger Games that evening; I was explaining the plot to my father who was slowly becoming more interested in the film whilst my mother expressed a desire to borrow my books to read it for herself. We were discussing dystopian futures, corrupt elites and how the downtrodden eventually mount revolutions when I idly scrolled through my twitter feed and saw tweet after tweet about breaking news in Paris. Needless to say, my parents and I were shocked, and after learning more about the ongoing attacks, we switched over to Sky News.

We watched in silence as we learnt of attacks in restaurants, of explosions near Stade du France and reports of a hostage situation in a theatre. We watched as news unfolded about a growing death toll, the television screen full of police and ambulances with screeching sirens.

My heart sank, but not before it broke. How many people had gone out for an evening of fun, entertainment and relaxation on a Friday evening, and would not come home? How many had thought to herald in the weekend with friends and family, only to witness such horror?

I have friends in Paris. Some are French, who naturally reside there. Others are friends, from Ireland and America, who happen to be living and studying abroad there. I instantly thought of them: were they safe? Were they watching their city being attacked?

There had been an earthquake in Japan that day. Terrorist attacks in Beirut the day before. An ongoing conflict in Yemen. More airstrikes in Syria. We were surrounded by death and destruction, but it was watching the attacks unfold in Paris that it hit home: the world is being torn apart by conflict, terrorism and fear. My heart goes out to all victims of such atrocities the world over. There is not a hierarchy of victims in my eyes. Terrorists do not rank their victims, either.

The European way of life was attacked on Friday. I suppose that is why the Paris attacks shocked me as they did. Bombings, shootings, street violence… All this happened in France, within Europe. We are supposed to feel safe here – at least, that is what we are told. We are made aware of security threats, but reassured that there are security measures in place.

Our way of life is one of democracy, freedom, of interactions with friends and meeting new people. We advocate rights for all, education for all, acceptance and tolerance of all faiths, opinions and thoughts. We recognise minority groups and fight to end discrimination and promote equality. We abide by the rule of law, enjoy entertainment and deriving pleasure from interests and hobbies. Our way of life is, in sum, the complete antithesis of the way of life ISIS and other terrorist organisations insist upon. Freedom, equality, rights and acceptance – words which ISIS in particular cannot abide by. Hence the organised attacks in Paris, a city proud of its culture, bonhomie and entertainment.

But Paris will not be cowed. Paris will adhere to its motto – Fluctuat nec mergitur / ‘She is tossed by the waves but does not sink’. These attacks were meant to spark fear, to incite hatred and violence towards French Muslims and instigate division and inflame extreme nationalists. Paris will instead unite. Paris will unite in grief, unite in sorrow, and unite in the belief that it will overcome.

And Europe, and the world, will unite too. Not just for Paris. But for all countries enduring conflict, terror and pain. We will unite in our humanity, for when we are united we cannot be defeated.

ISIS wants us to fear them. Fear is a powerful weapon, an oft-used tactic in war to demoralise and defeat.

But unity?  Unity is even more powerful. From unity we derive strength. And this strength provides the will to fight back.

We shall fight back. We will fight back by simply continuing in our way of life, and refusing to give in. We will continue to go to work and to school. We will continue to have fun with friends and family, whether in restaurants or cinemas. We will live our lives and insist on our freedoms and civil liberties. We will not blame or be violent towards our fellow citizens. Islam is not what ISIS represents, and we should not be asking our Muslim friends and neighbours to prove they are not terrorists.

Northern Ireland was torn apart by continuous conflict. ‘The Troubles’, we call it. That name conjures images of minor civil disruptions, whereas in reality there were bombs, security alerts, shootings and kidnappings on a regular basis. Police and army soldiers strolled down every street. Communities were divided, with distrust and fear and bitterness the invisible barrier between them.

But we overcame. Northern Ireland picked itself up and slowly but surely saw off the violence and the death. Citizens wanted change, wanted peace. Unionists and Nationalists, Catholics and Protestants, the politically-neutral and minority religions – they all united. Peace marches, the call to non-arms aka utilise political, peaceful platforms: they instigated change through both political and societal means. And unity worked. The Good Friday Agreement arrived, followed by ceasefires and decommissioning and devolution.

I am not saying Northern Ireland is perfect. Goodness knows, our politics can be exasperating, we sometimes live too often in the past – but we are not at war with each other anymore. Peace walls are coming down, both literally and metaphorically. Desegregation of communities is ongoing, and within education is a real possibility. The Troubles may have divided us for a while, but ultimately it united us as we sought to bring peace and stability to our state.

So, dear France, dear countries of the world – whilst this is a dark, dark moment, know that you will soon find light. You can, and will, overcome. In unity you will find the strength to continue. You will find the strength to overcome.

And you will win.

A Brussels delivery and Ambassador undertakings.

Today I felt like a connected, special individual. (Oh, a girl can dream.) How come? Well, as I collected the post delivered whilst I was out, I discovered there was a large envelope addressed to myself, which bore a Belgian postmark. I do love to receive post, this I will readily admit to. Messages, texts and emails are fine and dandy in this day and age, I suppose. But in my mind, nothing can beat a letter received in the post. (Top of the class you will go, should said letter be handwritten.)

Alas, I am not a European diplomat, or a political advisor (at least, not yet!) and so there were no politico-legal documents enclosed in the envelope. But there was something of the politico-nature: that of a letter and documents from POLITICO EU.

The lovely and friendly EU Studies Fair team at POLITICO EU kindly posted out leaflets for me to distribute around my university and among friends. As you can see below, the leaflets are sharply designed and I feel they are rather eye-catching. It will be hard not to notice the vivid and traditional POLITICO red background when left on desks and pinned to notice-boards!

Come one, come all! I hope to see you at the EU Studies Fair in February.

Readers of this blog may know of my position this year to promote the annual EU Studies Fair organised and hosted by POLITICO EU in Brussels. I feel that it is an honour to have been chosen as an Ambassador. As the sole university ambassador in Ireland, it is both a challenging but exciting role, and to date I have enjoyed undertaking the duties and tasks my role entails. I have utilised social media platforms, emailed and contacted staff from three academic institutions and have managed to be included in careers emails. I also created flyers and ‘headline’ posts (basically, you re-write the flyers so that they can be attached to emails or posted online: the aim is to catch and sustain attention of the reader and not to overwhelm them with information).

I also am personally very much looking forward to attending the EU Studies Fair myself in February; I cannot wait to see the EU institutions, and hear from professionals regarding their academic and professional experiences in their fields during the seminars and workshops. Moreover, as I am contemplating undertaking a Masters degree upon my graduation from Law, I look forward to meeting university representatives during the Fair.

Should you wish to know more about the EU Studies Fair, please do see my blog post from September which details the dates, location and summary of the Fair. Moreover, please do visit the relevant website, which you can access here.

What made me feel very happy and inspired to continue in the work I am doing however was the inclusion of a thank-you note alongside the promotional leaflets.

Politico note
The pièce de résistance!

I think this was a lovely and thoughtful touch, and has made me feel that my work thus far has been sufficient. I shall therefore ensure that I carry on in the same vein for the remainder of my time in post.

It just goes to show the power of words, doesn’t it? A ‘thank you’ goes such a long way, and to have my work praised does motivate me to continue.

Also, as stated in the opening of this post: I am such a fan of hand-written letters and notes. So quite naturally this letter was the proverbial cherry on the POLITICO-red iced cake!

The countdown to Brussels and the EU Studies Fair continues. It is going to be an exciting and informative two days, and I truly cannot wait.