By Yujia Yang
What does it take to lead the Groningen branch of a major international organisation?
Eli Berghuis (20) is the president of Amnesty International Student Group Groningen (AISGG). She joined the group two years ago as a freshman in university. “I have always been very passionate about the protection of human rights”, Eli says. “Although being a part of the Amnesty International organisation is a small way to contribute, I believe it still could make the world a little better.”
Go big or go home
During her first year, she was in the Write for Right committee, which organises one of the annual writing marathons in Groningen on International Human Rights Day. It is one of the traditions set up by Amnesty International to write letters for prisoners of conscience and for those who have been wrongfully detained.
“In Groningen, we write letters to the government to put pressure on them, to say ‘hey, your policies don’t line up with human rights’. It’s still my favourite committee, even though I am not allowed to have a favourite,” states Eli.
After being accepted by the National Student Campaign committee last year, she had an opportunity to work closely with the board here in Groningen. They have created a campaign that opens dialogues about discrimination in universities by collaborating with all 11 of the student boards around the Netherlands.
“After it ended, I wondered what was next for me. I thought ‘go big or go home’. So, I applied for a board member position. The board saw my enthusiasm and determination, not only on raising human rights awareness by doing campaigns, but also by trying to solve funding problems even now, which is very difficult but important.”
What does independence mean?
Amnesty International is independent of political pressures exerted by governments and universities. None of the Amnesty student groups are funded by the organization’s headquarters. They fundraise by hosting small activities and events, like movie nights and the annual collection for charity.
Eli explains that Amnesty International Netherlands (AINL) must make every financial report 100% transparent and public, so that people know where their money is going to. However, with 11 student groups across the Netherlands who organise their own events, it is more difficult to keep track of every single cost.
“As a donator to AINL,” she says, “it is positive in the sense that I know whether my money is used in a good way or not. As a member of AISGG it can be rather annoying.”
She thinks it is a shame that the headquarters don’t support them financially. “They have not realised how much potential the student groups have. They only know that we are independent”, she continues. “We have great ideas, but we are just unable to do it because we do not have money.”
Eli and presidents from other student groups have already taken steps to build up a closer relationship between the groups and the headquarters. However, as a large and international organisation, it is not easy to change overnight.
Make the world better, even a little
Having played a crucial role in AISGG for almost three years, the group has become the biggest part of Eli’s life. “Besides my studies, it’s my main priority,” she laughs. “I am always thinking and talking about it, as well as sharing my passion and unforgettable experiences with everyone.”
After organising and participating in many campaigns and activities across the Netherlands and Europe, she remembers two campaigns that impressed her the most. One is called “kijk niet weg”, which means “don’t look away”. It is about helping the refugee situation in Lesbos, Greece, where the refugee camps are overcrowded. AISGG prompted the Dutch government one month ago to take in 1000 refugees, and are now waiting for a response.
The second campaign concerns discrimination. Eli collaborated on this project with other student boards in the Netherlands. She says that she was surprised by how open-minded people were, but also “shocked” by how much discrimination exists in higher education in the Netherlands.
“Students we helped were not afraid to share their personal stories and opinions with us. For example, an African girl complained about unequal treatment she received from one of her professors because of her skin colour. And this is not an isolated case,” she says.
This anti-racism campaign also ran in Groningen. “Even here,” explains Eli, “discrimination in university is also a problem. It is necessary to pay more attention to it and to take effective measures in improving the situation. We are trying to take some further steps, even if it’s just a little at a time.”
Respect one another
As the president of a group, she has to do more than just organising campaigns. She tries to seek common ground and properly handle differences within the group. Eli says that “it is so common to see that some people just do not stand by the same values as you, even if you are in the same organisation advocating the same thing.”
She takes the refugee campaign as an example, saying that most things went well. But there was one guy who disagreed with it, and thought that the refugees should stay in Lesbos. “I am so passionate about this issue, but people just do not understand.”
Although the conflict did not lead to any yelling, Eli still regards it as one of the greatest things she has learnt as part of Amnesty. “Not everyone sees the world in the same way as me – it sucks but it makes the world more interesting.”
Eli adds, “currently our organisation has roughly 100 members, but only eight to ten are Dutch people. Obviously, we are an international group, so it is more important to us to listen to each other, learn from each other, and respect one another.”