Rajaa Altalli was working on his doctorate at Northeastern University in 2011 when the Syrian revolution began.
Altalli, originally from Syria, immediately began talking to people who have visited detention centers or family members to document human rights abuses. Soon after, in July 2012, she moved to Turkey to help the Syrian revolution and refugees.
Now she’s coming to Denver with 16 other women from 15 different countries to share their stories, discuss activism and promote women’s leadership at the Inclusive Global Leadership Initiative’s Summer Institute for a week beginning Saturday.
The institute is hosted by the University of Denver as part of the school’s Inclusive Global Leadership Initiative in partnership with the American Institute for Peace.
Activism and human rights causes have long been a part of his Altalli’s life, but not without complications. When she was 12, her father was arrested and sentenced to 9 years in prison for being a political activist.
“Actually, you can say abducted because there were times when we had no idea where he was,” Altalli said. “Even when we knew where he was, sometimes we weren’t allowed to see him.”
It was then that she made the decision to never be politically active. It was too dangerous.
But the revolution happened while she was in America to study. News from home began to affect her daily life, and Altalli knew she just had to do something.
She was only supposed to go to Turkey for a year, but she hasn’t left since her decision to move. His education is suspended indefinitely. In the meantime, she is busy running the organization she co-founded, the Center for Civil Society and Democracy. It aims to encourage peace in Syria by emphasizing women’s rights.
Marie Berry, a professor at the University of Denver, is the director of the Summer Institute. Most of her academic work focuses on feminist theory and women activists who confront war and violence.
“I’m a big believer in coming together and talking when it comes to change,” Berry said. “I fundamentally believe in the power of summoning, people being in spaces where they can be vulnerable, open and honest about what they’ve been through personally.”
That’s why she designed and launched the Summer Institute, which is now in its third year. A unique aspect of the conference is that it is also a retreat.
“It’s important because these women are doing a lot of work all over the world and it’s intense,” Berry said. “Speaking out is a death sentence in some cases. Women who speak out often receive death threats and can no longer lead normal lives.
Altalli understands first hand. She frequently receives death threats. When her mother died of cancer two years ago in Syria, Altalli was unable to return home to say goodbye for fear of being arrested. She takes certain safety precautions — not always sharing her locations, not staying in one place too long — but it’s still difficult for her.
But despite all the struggles it brings, Altalli thinks his work is worth it.
“Hope for the next generation is what keeps me going,” she said. “I wholeheartedly believe [the people in Syria] should have equal opportunity.