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Defenders for Human Rights
Remzi Cej

Remzi Cej Displacement to Activism

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GRADE LEVELS = 7 to 12  /  SUGGESTED TIME = Three 60 minute class periods

“When we call ourselves victims, we have essentially surrendered to the actions that others have tried to put upon us to weaken us. I’ve always tried to say that I’m a survivor and not a victim.”

Remzi Cej was seven years old when his school teacher soaked towels in water and pressed them against the doors and windows to protect him from the teargas outside. The gas was being sprayed at Albanian students, who were protesting to maintain their language as a language of instruction in the schools of Kosova. Months later, he watched his mother shelter another protestor and lie to a Serbian police officer to save the man from arrest.

Remzi was 15 when Serbian police officers came for his own family.

Throughout the long forced walk from his home in Mitrovica to the Albanian border, he was starving and parched. He once felt the barrel of a gun against his head, his life in the hands of a Serbian paramilitary officer. He had defended a hungry eight-year-old boy, and was now a “loudmouth.”

Remzi’s parents, penniless, had to pay for the man’s mercy with his mother’s necklace.

“He let me go. It felt like anything could have happened simply because I had said something quite innocent, but something that I felt needed to be said because this child was… You could see the desperation in his eyes.”

Remzi walked for eight days straight. A few days into the long walk he and his parents had to take, he saw a Serbian woman on the side of the road, filling up water bottles for the many Albanian, Turkish, Roma, and Bosnian families, using her water hose. She wiped her tears with one hand, and filled the bottles up with another. “Please don’t forget us – we haven’t all agreed to this senseless violence! Not in my name!” she kept saying, as she helped the parched families hydrate their loved ones.

As Remzi and his parents ended their long walk, they saw their passport thrown onto a pile and he was told never to return home again. For the next year and a half, Remzi moved between seven refugee camps in Albania.

At 16, Remzi arrived with his parents in Canada, carrying travel documents that marked them as ‘stateless.’ He did not go back to Kosova for ten years.

It’s the story Remzi hasn’t stopped telling since.

Seeing what people were willing to do for strangers inspired him. He started working with the organizations that had fought for him – Amnesty International, War Child Canada, and Oxfam.

“There was this zeal of wanting to do something for others who might have been in the same situation that I was,” he says.

Though he was proud of his Kosovar roots, and his Albanian and Turkish heritage, Remzi found that Canada became home. He also found it was the perfect place to follow that “zeal.”

“What I’ve seen in Canada is that hope that I didn’t have before, when I was in a refugee camp with my parents and we didn’t know where we were going to go,” he says. “I find Canada to be as close as you get to that ideal, in terms of equality in diversity that I never would’ve thought could exist in real life.”

“How interesting is life when we’re all the same boring people that you see everywhere?” he continues, grinning. “I would describe (Canada) as the most exciting country in the world.”

His human rights work eventually led him to his current position, as chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission.

The old discrimination that haunts his memories of Kosova reappearing in his own backyard has been “challenging,” says Remzi.

“Human rights abuses are just as grave and just as difficult for someone … here as they would be for someone in Kosova,” he says. “They remind you in some way you’re different, and being different in some way is ‘inferior’.”

“The battle never ends and it continues on. It just sort of reshapes itself in different ways.”

He’s learned the hard way that inspiring activism isn’t as easy as he once thought. Making people care about a stranger is a difficult task.

He’s inspired by the energy a ten-year-old has when she runs up to him and suggests a bake sale to make change across the world. But he finds that as people get older, they begin to see that energy as naïve.

“I used to think if you can tell a story properly, and if you can make people understand the challenges someone is going through, subsequently they will become so passionate that they would take action,” he says. “I was disappointed that I couldn’t really do that.”

But, idealistic or not, Remzi can’t help continuing to fight. He believes in the capacity for kindness in his fellow Canadians.

While working in St. John’s as a translator for refugees, Remzi once sat with a Roma man in the hospital for hours. They talked about anything and everything to keep the man’s mind off the fact that his six-month-old daughter was dying in the next room.

He was crying. His greatest hope was for his only daughter, after two older sons, to live a full and happy life with no memory of the refugee camp where she was born.

When they took her body away, and the tears stopped, the man turned to Remzi.

“You know, it’s amazing that I’m here today,” he said. The man told Remzi that back in Kosova, he would’ve been insulted. He would have, he said, been blamed for his daughter’s condition because of his background.

“It’s very sad and amazing at the same time, the man said, that I’ve had to come this far to enjoy respect from somebody who’s never heard of me, who doesn’t know anything about me, and is willing to treat me like a fellow human.”

It’s a story of simple, instinctual compassion, but the surprise in the man’s voice is something Remzi knows well. It’s that compassion, and knowing there are people who don’t know what that feels like, that keeps Remzi going, even when the going gets tough.

“I try to mobilize individuals for activism,” Remzi says, “because I think someday I might somehow lose this memory (of Kosova). I don’t want it to go away, because it’s one of the only things that pushes me.”

“I’d like to battle in any way I can that notion that being different somehow is equal to being inferior, because it’s anything but. Our differences actually make us stronger and richer and better, and all of us are different in many ways.”
“They’re not freedoms that our state or the United Nations or others have given us. They’re freedoms and rights that we were born with. They’re not something that can be taken away easily.”
“I just think that all of us are human rights activists at a given point. If you want to replace the words ‘human rights activist’ with something else, I would just say ‘human’ because it’s everyone’s responsibility to act for a fellow human being.”