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  • Cagla Bulut

Two human rights defenders, one hero, one criminal

Will we ever learn from history?




Today marks the 111th birthday of late Sir Nicholas George Winton and people use this occasion to honour him and his courageous act for rescuing children from the Nazis during the Second World War. While Sir Winton is being celebrated as a hero, many human rights defenders nowadays face prison sentences.


Sir Nicholas George's work is recognized as a service to humanity, and he received several prices for his selfless act. When I opened my google browser today, I saw - like most of us - the following Doodle:




Which reminded me of the current refugee situation and a more up-to-date, but similar scene as in today’s Doodle:



The second photograph shows Salam Aldeen, an activist providing humanitarian aid on the Greek island of Lesbos, holding a baby in his hands. One of many he had rescued from dying in the sea.


Compared to Sir Nicholas, Salam is not celebrated as a hero today. Quite the contrary, he was accused of human-smuggling and faced court trials and hours in jail. After paying a 10,000€ bail, Aldeen was released from prison, and he continues his humanitarian aid in offering shelter, clothes and food for those in need.


Two men, who both have committed selfless acts to help people in need, but yet so different views on them.


Looking at footage material of the two men and reading about their stories, many commonalities emerge. Sir Nicholas and Aldeen established organizations to save people whose lives were at risk because of war and outside forces.

Sir Nicholas organised together with other volunteers the transport of Jewish children from former Czechoslovakia to the safe grounds of Britain and sheltered them.

Aldeen’s NGO Team Humanity participated primarily in sea rescue operations around the Mediterranean Sea and is now providing refugees on Lesbos with emergency aid and relief work.


Sir Nicholas rescued children, who were escaping the Holocaust, Aldeen rescued people who were fleeing war, bombings and famine in their homes. More importantly, Aldeen saved people from dying in the sea, and risked his own life each time he went on an operation.


They both put their livelihoods at risk when they decided to help people. During World War II, the Nazis forbid to hide or help Jewish people or other enemies of the regime. And going against the Nazis' will meant to put one's own life at danger.

Just like Sir Winton, Salam risked his own life, freedom and reputation.

Despite the dangers both were facing, they still believed in what they thought was right and provided their humanitarian aid.


The people, that both men saved, were in need, they were innocent and their lives were at risk. While one man is being celebrated today for his bravery and courage, the other one was accused, and his efforts were criminalized.


But during the Nazi regime, Sir Winston's efforts weren't recognized either. It took decades for us to hear about him and his rescue work. For Nazis, his heroism would have been a criminal act, and now German newspapers call Sir Winston a savior.


When we say “never again” and teach about history, war and peace at schools, don’t we try to learn from humanity’s past mistakes? Don’t we try to make things better and let history guide us to have a clearer view on current affairs?

Does time need to pass for us to realize who the good and who the bad guys are? Do decades need to move for us to understand and to recognize the work of human rights defenders? I hope not…

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