In the heart of Washington, D.C., amid the hustle of politics and policy, stands a testament to human resilience and the ongoing struggle for human rights. This is the story of “Ahmed,” an Egyptian who escaped imprisonment and torture in his homeland, only to face new challenges in a foreign land that promised safety but delivered a struggle for survival. The alias “Ahmed” is used to protect his identity and safeguard his family in Egypt, illustrating the constant dangers that persist even in exile.
Ahmed’s journey to the U.S. required a Herculean battle against bureaucratic indifference and skepticism to secure a visa — a common challenge for many human rights defenders seeking refuge. Despite support from journalists and international human rights groups, he faced detached scrutiny from an inexperienced visa officer. His arrival in the U.S. marked not the end, but the beginning of a new chapter of survival, characterized by drained resources and the lasting physical and mental scars of his past.
By day, Ahmed drives for Uber; by night, he continues to fight against the injustices in his country. His story vividly illustrates the struggle against transnational repression — his activism in exile, while barely surviving, attracts the long arm of repression extending beyond borders.
Despite finding relative safety in the United States, he faces ongoing threats and intimidation that extend across borders. To protect his family, Ahmed has ceased all communication with them for months. Yet, his efforts to shield them have not prevented reprisals; both his brother and cousin were detained for months by authorities seeking information about him. Ahmed is subjected to continuous threats through phone calls and online harassment. He receives weekly death threats, being labeled a traitor and “American servant.”
His situation highlights a disturbing trend: Not only are usual suspects like Russia, China and Iran targeting journalists and activists abroad, but U.S. allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are actively doing the same.
Human rights defenders like Ahmed are unsung champions of democracy and human rights, enduring great sacrifices for their bravery. The McCain Institute at Arizona State University supports these individuals through its Human Rights Defenders program, offering a roadmap for much-needed support.
The McCain Institute recently issued a series of recommendations to significantly bolster the safety, effectiveness and resilience of human rights defenders worldwide. These recommendations include urging the U.S. government to simplify visa procedures for human rights defenders and place dedicated senior human rights diplomats in U.S. embassies. These diplomats could be lifelines for defenders in crisis. The recommendations also call for refined policies to protect human rights defenders and for businesses and tech companies to resist endangering actions, such as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) and data sharing.
The challenges facing human rights defenders like Ahmed are not just humanitarian, but pivotal for global security and stability. Allowing defenders to be silenced enables the growth of authoritarianism and erodes the democratic fabric binding the global community.
Ahmed’s story is a reminder of our collective responsibility. Our response to his ordeal and to the experiences of many facing transnational repression will define our commitment to human rights and democracy. It is a call to action for the U.S. government, Congress, businesses, technology companies and civil society. We must provide not only a safe haven for these defenders but also ensure they have the support and resources to continue their essential work. Our commitment to human rights and democracy depends on it.
Berivan Orucoglu is Human Rights Defenders Program Manager of the McCain Institute.
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