It was only a couple of days after I arrived in Ireland that the images of Alan Kurdi—just three-years-old—lying lifeless on a beach in Turkey made global headlines. The pictures of the boy, who failed to find safety in escaping his war-ravaged home, powerfully amplified the voices of those demanding greater action in the face of the human catastrophe of the Syrian refugee crisis. At the same time, it also drew attention to the ominous storm churning in Central Europe. As hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers desperately made their way to Europe, they were met by populations in Hungary, Poland, Austria, Slovenia and the Czech Republic that were becoming increasingly xenophobic, nationalistic, and hostile. It was with a measure of horror and a feeling of cruel irony that I observed the governments of these countries, which had themselves suffered under fascism and totalitarianism so recently, shut the door to these victims and violate their human rights. In the case of the Czech Republic, the rising tide of xenophobia was even more shocking, since it was not so long ago that its own founding president, Václav Havel, emerged as a global symbol of human rights.
Philosopher, playwright, and political dissident, Havel was a leader of the fight for human rights and democracy in Czechoslovakia, playing a major role in the toppling of communism there. He soon after assumed the presidency, getting reelected in 1993 as the first president of the Czech Republic following Slovak independence. Havel’s essays, plays, and speeches, together with his work to liberate his own country, have cemented his legacy as a powerful and inspirational intellectual on the world stage. And yet, on the year that would have marked Havel’s 80th birthday, the current president of the Czech Republic is a man who has referred to the influx of refugees as an “organized invasion” and has actively warned against allowing Muslims into Europe. It is in this context that we are challenged to honor the life of Václav Havel—a challenge being met through Havel@80, a joint effort of the Vaclav Havel Library, Art for Amnesty, and Vaclav Havel Library Foundation, which has organized a wealth of events around the world in 2016 to celebrate Havel and his accomplishments.
Having been working with Art for Amnesty and its founder, Bill Shipsey, throughout the year, I met with Pavla Niklová, director of the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation (VHLF) in New York, to discuss how to engage more students in Havel@80. Thinking back to the my first months in Europe, when I saw the growing hostility to refugees in Central Europe, I sought to find some way to draw attention to those in the Czech Republic fighting to keep Havel’s commitment to human rights alive—those treading against the current of anti-immigration populism. It is from this seed that I worked with the VHLF to develop a summer fellowship for undergraduate students in the US to learn from and engage with organizations in the Czech Republic working to carry forward Havel’s legacy in the field of human rights. The Vaclav Havel Library Foundation Fellowship for Human Rights, which was announced last month, will, each year, provide students with a fully-funded opportunity to spend time in Prague, collaborating with human rights organization to develop a project that they will bring back to their home institutions. In this way, we hope to strengthen the transatlantic commitments to human rights that Havel himself, in his frequent shuttling between the US and Europe, helped foster.
As I now prepare to go to Prague to meet with the organizations that will be welcoming the first recipient of the fellowship this coming summer, I feel deeply privileged to be able to commemorate Havel, a person I so greatly respect, in this way. Like the George J. Mitchell Scholarship, the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation Fellowship for Human Rights will honor the memory of a great individual by nurturing his legacy amongst future leaders. In a sense, as a Mitchell Scholar designing this fellowship, I feel as though I am helping, in a modest way, to weave the legacies of these two great figures of the last half a century, Mitchell and Havel, together—and this is an opportunity for which I am profoundly grateful.