‘It was a matter of death or life. I was working as a special envoy to the Human Rights Commission and I had to make a report that made many people uncomfortable…’
With these words, in a recent interview with BBC, she explained why she was forced to exile from the Democratic Republic of Congo and arrived as a refugee in the UK in 2005.
Before and after that significant turning point, life for Debora Kayembe has not been easy, having to face racist attacks on her and to her two children but, despite this, she’s had an extraordinary outcome.
Educated at the Universite Libre de Kinshasa, early on Debora became a human rights activist with an non-governmental organisation, and later began her career as a barrister, investigating foreign investment corruption in her country.
After that experience she was nominated by the President Joseph Kabila to be member of a delegation sent to South Africa to investigate human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo that led her to discover some horrific truths about a massacre in the Second Congo War.
After her arrival to England in 2005, she moved to Scotland in 2011 and, being fluent in many languages, started working as a translator for refugees and patients in NHS hospitals.
Despite all of this, she has remained resolute in her dedication to politics: from September 2015 to January 2021 she sat on the Scottish Socialist Party’s Executive Committee, continuously promoting human rights and peace in her work as a lawyer.
In 2019 Debora Kayembe became the first African to have her portrait erected on the wall of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the prestigious Scotland’s national academy that promotes social, cultural and economic wellbeing through the advancement of learning and knowledge.
In 2020 she founded The Freedom Walk Campaign, a Civil-Rights movement which promotes social reforms, racial justice and community harmony.
In February 2021, for her effort in fighting racism, encouraging diversity and equal access to higher education, she was elected Rector of The University of Edinburgh, one of the oldest and best universities in the world.
We have been lucky enough to meet Debora Kayembe through a video-call and it was clear from the beginning of the interview that her message, even through a screen, was warm and full of passion.
Debora, your career and your life-time achievements are amazing and truly inspiring. However, if you were to introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t know you, how would you best describe yourself?
Well, I would say: nice to meet you, I’m Debora Kayembe, a political activist.
And that’s because in my activism I try to work on the policies that change the way we see each other in our society. I promote respect for individuals, I promote community harmony, but I am someone who breaks the grounds to make great change, a radical change in society, in order to let that society go through justice and equality.
That is Debora Kayembe: a political activist.
We totally agree, Debora, also because we never stop to be ‘political’ in our lives.
In everything we do, in our jobs, in our families, in our relationship with the rest of the world.
And speaking of what we do to be ‘political’, what do you think is your best achievement?
I would say my biggest achievement is the ‘Freedom Walk Campaign’, the civil rights movement I founded last year, because it brought to Scotland something original and it has worked up a lot of people around the world. It’s no longer a Scottish affair now, but it’s very different compared to other movements because it brings to society, dialogue and tolerance. Although I received racist attacks, although I was attacked for being black, the Freedom Walk Campaign has an agenda of community harmony and social justice, in particular social justice reparation in the countries. We want to go to the Parliament, we want to go to the police, and we want to try to make them understand that what they are doing is not right, and there is a different way, the right way. We are bringing a very deep change to society by using means of dialogue and tolerance.
So, in my opinion, the Freedom Walk Campaign is one thing I’ve done really well.
And we thank you for having offered to our society another community of people who want to bring radical changes. This comes from your strong dedication, so I’m asking you: what particular part of your life has influenced you to be the person you are today?
It’s the education I’ve had at home, the education that my parents gave me. That, I would say, influenced everything I have become in the public’s eyes. And that’s why I always say it’s very important that parents realise the influence they have on their children, because what you teach your children, is what they become tomorrow. And I think, in my case, the education my parents gave me prepared me for everything I went through outside my home.
And we think that’s very related to what you’re doing now, knowing how important childhood is in being a good citizen. And here we come to the present day, 20 March, the UN ANTIRACISM ACTION DAY. It is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the theme this year is: “Youth standing up against racism”.
Do you think the change is only up to the younger generations to solve this issue?
I think we need to admit that, when it comes to racism, everyone’s views have been completely deformed, the perception is distorted. And I’ll tell you why: we have lived in a hostile environment for so many years that it has become a standard way of living. And I bet many people, until the death of George Floyd, never actually realised how bad the things were around us. George Floyd brought a wake up call. Even if Floyd had nothing to do with the statues (the statues of slave traders or politicians who promoted slavery that are currently objects of discussion for removal) that came after Floyd’s assassination, because we needed to reckon with the past realising how wrong it was, the way we felt.
Try to reflect on that specific moment: how can somebody feel fine being filmed while he is putting his knee on somebody’s neck until the person loses consciousness? How can he feel fine, not disturbed? And why? Well, because the society we are living in is a hostile environment for some people and that has been accepted as it is. And remember that episode in its general context, that the USA had the most racist president in their history.
So I agree with the UN giving the youth a chance for a change. After all, we all can see how the youth have stood up against climate change… They can stand up against racism too, because the voice of the young people in our society is so strong that you can see the move coming and you can see how they are changing our society. So I think the younger generation has a great role: they are the future of our society and if they are taking the lead this year, from this year onward, forever, with the youth standing for climate change and standing for racism, we are on the right path.
Thank you for introducing the next question, Debora. Within our project, The Human Exploring Society, our focus is explicitly to unite two major issues that traditionally have been seen and tackled separately, the Environment and Human Rights. Do you have any suggestions about how we can do this, how we can bring these things together, as a whole thing?
Well, I think the Environment is a Human Right. This is how I see it. The right of an individual to live on a peaceful planet where they are granted the natural resources in a sustainable way… That is a basic human right! The devastation of the environment brings diseases, brings poverty, and brings desolation within our communities, so it is a basic human right to live on a planet that is safe.
That’s why I think your movement can make people understand that a right to a clean and fair environment is a basic human right to every citizen around the world
The people who are wasting the environment are our political leaders with their policies.
Have you heard what happened a few days ago? The UK government has put more money on the Trident Nuclear Programme (The UK Government has announced it is raising the cap on the number of weapons of mass destruction it can stockpile by more than 40%). The environment is going to be polluted again, people are going to starve again, and just a few days before they launched the £2 million budget for promoting peace. What? Are they promoting peace increasing the number of nuclear weapons? What’s happening here?
Yes, totally nonsense… This is the policy of greed. People now are desperate for money because the economy has been attacked by the pandemic, so they should help people, not a war programme. It’s just no sense, that is the reality.
And going on with the news… Do you think it is strange that for so long we have fought to have more women and more people from minorities in positions of power, and yet now that the UK has a woman and a daughter of immigrants as Home Secretary, we still feel the government is very distant from some urgent issues?
For answering this question you need to understand who Priti Patel is… You got the individual, and you got the position that she has as secretary. I don’t think Priti Patel has a good record of human rights, on the home side. She was dismissed by Teresa May for breaking protocols, and even as a politician she is highly controversial. So when she was appointed home secretary personally I thought that there isn’t going to be any change. If people think that things are going to get better just because she is a daughter of immigrants, well that was the wrong way of approaching politics, because as a political person who takes a position, it’s her image and what she stands for, that will determine what she is going to do in office. How much do you know about her in terms of dealing with Human Rights? How much do you know about her investment to human rights in the past? She is a pure politician who listens to orders that she receives from people from her party and she goes on with that, that’s what she does. I’m not expecting anything good in the favour of immigrants while she is still in office, no.
And nothing good is happening in these recent days with the Police Crackdown Bill, making the protests very difficult or illegal in the future…
I’m personally very worried about how things are going. The UK is becoming more and more an authoritarian place where you have the government behaving like we were in the Churchill era. That time passed long ago but we are coming back again to that. We have a Prime Minister who has a language that is really unacceptable. Just not long ago he said, “…we need to control our borders, otherwise we will have the refugees coming to our doors again”. To our doors? Does he think refugees are people or what? It is the same language, the same thing coming up again. We have become too permissive of them when they speak like that. Sometimes we need to have the courage to say that. We can’t accept this kind of language, simply we can’t.
Yes, in some cases we should stand just for some unacceptable statements they make, not only the bills they produce… Just a final question now, maybe the most difficult: how do you see the future of our planet? Imagine life in 2050: What does it look like to you?
The planet is going to go through a rough time, a very very difficult time.
We still have the pandemic that we haven’t controlled yet, we don’t know where it is taking us, and at the same time we are still being witness to extreme weathers everywhere in the world. When it snows, it’s the worst kind of snow, when the heat comes, it’s the worst heat. So there is a climate emergency that we need to take into consideration but unfortunately it looks like politicians don’t care about it, they don’t even bother about it. So I assume the planet will go through some very difficult times, and that will bring people like you, me, political activists, to take the case into the people and tell them: “Listen, if you don’t act now to save our own planet, we will collapse as a society”.
And since that moment I assume many changes will come: people will realise the bad side of capitalism, people will realise the bad side of certain people who have too much money and exploit other people who are working hard everyday not getting anything at all. So that will happen, because people will realise at one point that we have arrived on the edge of a precipice. We are in a pandemic and instead of helping everybody, we are wasting time on this Vaccine Nationalism. What stupidity is that? Vaccine Nationalism… Where does that come from?
That’s why I’m pretty sure our planet is going to go through very rough times in the next few years and then it’s going to be time for a change. A big shift is going to happen from a social-political way of living, for people all around the world.
And that’s what we are going to see: people will choose Change, people will choose Peace, people will choose Justice.
Thank you, Debora. Thank you for your honest and brave view of past, present and future times that we are honoured to share with our audience. Indeed, with these words, we’ll push to help your Freedom Walk Campaign.