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In Pursuit of Human Rights: Thirteen Personal Stories

(Image: McSweeney's Books and Voice of Witness)

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The Voice of Witness Reader: Ten Years of Amplifying Unheard Voices, edited by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s Books and Voice of Witness, June 2015

For the past decade, Voice of Witness has been a reliable source of enlightening oral histories. In 13 books released between 2005 and 2014, readers have met people who were wrongly incarcerated; immigrants to the United States; victims of the war in South Sudan; families terrorized by racism and people who’ve lived with political repression in Bangladesh, Burma, the West Bank, Gaza and Zimbabwe.

The mission of the press, writes cofounder Dave Eggers, runs counter to the sound bites and celebrity-driven reporting offered by most mainstream media. By allowing each person interviewed to describe the events of his or her life to an interested journalist or scholar, the press captures deeply layered and poignant stories. “This is not a hit-and-run interview,” Eggers writes in the introduction to The Voice of Witness Reader. “This is instead a process with no set timeline. Renowned oral historian Dave Isay has said, ‘Listening is an act of love,’ and we’re guided by this maxim, that this act of one human sitting and listening to another, with no agenda or timetable, can itself be a transformative and empowering experience.”

A Story of Wrongful Imprisonment

The reader’s 21 chapters are indeed revelatory, with each of the press’s 13 books sampled. It opens with the story of Chris Ochoa, whose wrongful arrest and imprisonment is chronicled in the book Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongly Convicted and Exonerated. Ochoa’s story begins in 1988 when a coworker at a Pizza Hut in Austin, Texas, was raped and murdered. Ochoa was in his early 20s at the time and was interrogated for 48 straight hours – without a lawyer – before signing two separate statements. In the first account, he took credit for the killing; in the second, he claimed that his roommate, also a Pizza Hut employee, had pulled the trigger.

Police questioning, he reports, involved bullying and repeated threats, and although he eventually secured legal representation, it hardly mattered. “The lawyers were calling my mom every day,” he recalls. They told her, “He’s guilty, he’s guilty. You got to get him to plead guilty and to testify. If not, your son is gonna die on death row.” Ochoa subsequently took their advice and pleaded guilty to murder and sexual assault. It was only in 1997, when another man confessed to the crime, that Ochoa contacted the Innocence Project. Once DNA evidence was compared, Ochoa was exonerated; by that point he had spent nearly 13 years behind bars. Ochoa later sued both the City of Austin and the police department and won a $5.3 million settlement. He subsequently attended college and law school, and now hopes to establish a foundation to help recently released exonerees adapt to life on the outside. All in all, the chapter tells a gripping, outrageous story, amazing in its lack of expressed bitterness or fury.

A Story of Migration

The experience of an undocumented immigrant named Lorena (her surname is never revealed) – drawn from the book Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives – is told in a similarly matter-of-fact manner. As a 6-year-old child, Lorena left Mexico on foot for the presumed safety of California. “I remember walking through the desert,” her account begins. “It was my mom, my stepdad, my two younger brothers and me. I was so hungry. This is something I don’t wish on anybody, that kind of hunger.”

Shortly after fleeing their home in Puebla, the family was discovered by US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents. They had been napping on the ground. When found, INS promptly returned the five to Mexico. “Not even a day went by and we tried it again,” Lorena continues. This time, the family made it across, settling in the tiny town of Lamont, California. Both adults became farm laborers, and the children enrolled in school, where they were targeted by other kids because of their inability to speak English. But Lorena was a quick study, learning the new language and excelling. She finished high school while working two part-time jobs, and enrolled in college. Along the way, she did a summer internship teaching farmworkers in North Carolina about their rights. She is now back in California, works full-time at a real estate company and is completing her undergraduate studies one class at a time. She has also secured temporary legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and hopes to one day become a US citizen.

A Story of Labor Struggle

This compilation also tells the story of Kalpona Akter, who began working as a young girl in her home country of Bangladesh. She was originally profiled in the book Invisible Hands: Voices for the Global Economy. In her case, she had to leave school after her father suffered multiple strokes. His sudden incapacity left the previously middle-class Bangladeshi family destitute and Akter, then 12, and her mother had no choice but to take jobs in Dhaka’s garment industry to support their seven-person household. “While we were at work, my brother, who was 10, would take care of my younger sister, who was a newborn baby, my other two sisters, and my dad who was still sick from the stroke,” she told her interviewers.

A few months later, her mother became too ill to work and her brother entered the workforce. Conditions were appalling and Akter immediately saw that the workers needed to do something to better their situation. Opportunity knocked when Akter met several trade unionists and learned about rank-and-file activism and labor organizing. In the two-plus decades since she became active, she has been removed from the shop floor and jailed, but she and her union colleagues continue to speak out about the rampant safety violations and low pay endemic to the business. She has also become an international spokesperson, and travels extensively to educate consumers about the high human cost of cheap apparel.

A Story of Occupation

Other entries in the anthology decry the exploitation of workers in South Korean electronics plants, as well as the dearth of economic opportunities in Gaza.

Jamal Bakr, a 50-year-old man from Gaza City, notes the devastating impact of Israeli policies that make it impossible for fishermen like him to earn a living. In a story drawn from the book Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation, he recounts getting his first boat at age 16. The father of nine told his interviewers: “Things have been especially bad ever since [Israeli soldier] Gilad Shalit was captured in 2006. Before his capture, we used to have access to 12 nautical miles around Gaza City for our fishing boats. But since then, the restrictions have been much tighter. It might change a little, but whether it’s three miles or six miles doesn’t make much of a difference. We can’t find much in the waters – only a few sardines.”

Bakr admits that the lack of fish means that he has to rely on charity to support his family, a reality that fuels feelings of inadequacy and depression. Worse, he adds that Israeli soldiers continually monitor all Palestinian-owned boats, and arbitrarily fire at or seize them with great regularity. “My life is always in danger,” he concludes. “It’s not for a good thing at the end of the day. Before the blockade, I used to face many hardships, but it was for something good, because I used to make a good income. Now I’m sacrificing my life for nothing. Now I have a dead heart.”

It’s impossible to read Bakr’s words – and those of others who tell their stories in The Voice of Witness Reader – without feelings of sadness and rage. These emotions infuse new meaning into the addendum to the book: the 67-year-old Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations after World War II. An affirmation of the “dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women,” the declaration is a clearly written and simple position paper, an important stepping stone toward the creation of a just world. In addition, its support of free compulsory education for all, alongside “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of everyone, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services,” makes it a blueprint for decency. By speaking out, the people whose stories are included in The Voice of Witness Reader are taking courageous steps toward the kind of world described in the pages of this universal declaration.

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