Lucy Kurien and Front Line: a service to humanity

 In Diary, News

This May was filled with activities that were very different from my normal routine. And now I’m going to contradict myself. The act of writing involves so many related activities that sometimes, it’s hard to discern just what the word ‘normal’ might mean.
It’s good in a way: a writer’s life can have as much – or as little – variety as we choose. And a little of the unpredictable is always good. It shakes things up. Shakes us up.
The only problem is that sometimes these ‘peripheral’ events tend to take over, and that can become an issue. Particularly if I’m itching to get back to my desk and that unfinished manuscript that’s waiting, not so patiently, for my undivided attention.

And then there are times when the days away from the desk can bring all sorts of precious and unexpected benefits. So it was for me, during the month that has now slipped away.
June already: hard to believe…

2011, India: Lucy Kurien

Back in 2011, on a lengthy visit to India, I met a woman called Lucy Kurien. I already knew something about her: that she had founded a series of refuges all over India for the victims of domestic violence; that she never turned anybody away who was in need of help; that she had once lived, voluntarily, in the slums of Bombay in order to understand better the realities of grinding poverty.

Lucy is also a Catholic nun: but one who has opted to live outside her community in order to serve the women, children and destitute men who now live in ‘Maher’ – or, the Mother House – in 43 centres all over the sub-continent.

In mid-May, Lucy came to Dublin in order to raise awareness of the work that she does, ‘to sow seeds for the future’. She was ably assisted by Bernie Hill, who lives half of each year in India, helping to run Lucy’s organisation.

Lucy founded Maher in 1997, in the city of Pune, having witnessed an unspeakably violent act some six years earlier. She provides shelter and safety to those who need it most. In the rural villages of India, the caste system is still very much alive and well: and her work is often not welcomed, as she does not distinguish between caste or creed.

At first, she had a real battle on her hands, particularly when it came to educating young girls. ‘In the Indian psyche,’ she told me, ‘educating girls is watering the plants in the neighbour’s garden’ – a particularly arresting metaphor that has stayed with me.

One of the areas of her work that I continue to find fascinating is her establishment of street theatre. Groups of actors perform ‘theme-fuelled plays’ – about female infanticide, about the need for education, about non-violent responses to domestic difficulties. ‘There is no point,’ Lucy says, ‘in creating an awareness programme as such.’

Instead, the young actors give theatrical shape to social issues, ‘living them through the medium of art’. The actors draw huge and curious audiences, and Lucy has been able to implement hundreds of educational programmes in the villages as a result of the level of engagement generated by the art of theatre.

She has thousands of stories of abandonment and loss. But she prefers to focus on what she can do to bring about change: ‘Let me do what I can, where I am.’

Her philosophy would, I believe, be shared by Front Line Defenders, who honoured the work of human rights workers all over the world at an event in City Hall on Friday morning, May 26th. It was a privilege to be there, to hear about the courage of ordinary people who refuse to do nothing in the face of oppression, and who face daily threats, intimidation and harassment as a result.

lucy kurien and bernie hill
Sister Lucy Kurien and Bernie Hill

2017, Crimea: Emil Kurbedinov

The 2017 Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk went to Emil Kurbedinov, a lawyer in Crimea. Since that country’s illegal occupation by the Russian Federation, Emil has defended the persecuted Crimean Tatar minority, civil society activists and journalists. He also provides emergency response and documentation of rights violations during raids and searches of activists’ homes.

In January 2017, Emil was on his way to the house of an activist that had been raided, when masked representatives from Crimea’s Centre for Counteracting Extremism detained him and took him to a local directorate of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) for interrogation.

A district court found him guilty of ‘propagandising for extremist organisations’ and sentenced him to ten days in detention.

Emil’s story was one of many we heard that morning – any one of the activists nominated would have been a more than worthy winner. Their stories came from South Africa, Vietnam, Kuwait and Nicaragua.

Emil told us that having his clients acquitted was virtually impossible, given the system under which he operates. His main role, he said, is to offer comfort and support to those he represents, to reassure them that ‘I will not abandon them.’

I think he and Lucy – and Front Line Defenders – are doing humanity a service that cannot be overestimated.

I salute them as I return to my desk.

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june caldwell, photo © Will GovanCatherine Dunne (Photo: Noel Hillis)