In Memory of Josefin Ekermann and Sam Pegram

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When Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed outside of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on 10th March, the world mourned as 157 passengers from over 30 different countries tragically lost their lives. It has been reported that “at least a dozen of the victims were affiliated with the UN”, with many of the passengers heading towards a session of the UN Environment Assembly which began on 11th March in Nairobi. Although they weren’t heading to the assembly, Sam Pegram and Josefin Ekermann were two people who were extremely conscious about human rights, and about making the world a better place for those born into poverty and persecution.

They were also both former students of the University of Leeds.

Josefin Ekermann began studying Modern Chinese and International Relations at the University of Leeds in 2010, graduating in 2014. With the skills and values she learnt from this course, Josefin went on to work for Stockholm-based international human rights group, Civil Rights Defenders (CRD). Here, she worked to support defenders of human rights across the globe, pushing hard for progress amongst civil society and the private sector. Upon hearing of her death, the Executive Director of CRD, Anders L. Pattersson, said “Josefin was a highly appreciated and respected colleague. Josefin will be deeply missed by all of us, and our thoughts are with her family and friends during this difficult time.”

Josefin was well known for being the architect behind the ‘Defenders Database’, an online global reference point for human rights defenders to “register, analyse and share information about human rights violations.” The Defenders Database has been a tool of vital importance for anyone working in the field of human rights, allowing them to share anonymised information and data on human rights violations across the globe in order to make human rights abusers more accountable for their actions. As such, the Defenders Database will remain a significant and lasting part of Josefin’s legacy.

Towards the end of 2017, Josefin also published a blog on Medium detailing the innovative strategies being used in CRD’s Latin American Department to empower and provide psychological rehabilitation for human rights defenders. While Josefin found that “mental health is not an issue that our human rights defenders talk about”, her investigation and her blog saw this talented Leeds student leading the conversation on mental health within the field of human rights. Alongside work from her CRD colleagues, Josefin found that introducing trauma relief and self-help programmes to human rights defenders helped improve their emotional health and quality of sleep, reduced their levels of stress and fear, as well as improved their communication skills. Such work is but a further indicator of how thoroughly Josefin cared about the wellbeing of everyone involved in human rights work.

History and learning to accept yourself and question the actions of the people you hold dear were clearly important traits to Josefin, as shown when she was chosen as the focus of the 2015 independent documentary, Storm in the Andes, directed by Mikael Wiström. Screened at Human Rights Watch Film Festival in 2015, the documentary saw Josefin delve into her Peruvian roots, shedding a painful light on the role her family played in the Peruvian civil war from 1980-2000. In 2017, Josefin conducted an emotional Ted Talk where she recounted the experience of being cut off from her family, as well as the difficulties which arise when we begin to question the things we are told as children, the things we grow up to believe are absolute fact. The 15-minute clip is all you need to see how much of a compassionate and thoughtful individual Josefin so evidently was. Ultimately, her message was that we must be honest with ourselves before we can begin to do honest work in the world.

Following the news of Josefin’s passing, friends and tutors have contacted The Gryphon to pay their respects. Dr Jonathan Dean, Associate Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations, told The Gryphon: 

“I’m really shocked and saddened to hear of Josefin’s death. I got to know Josefin well as I supervised her undergraduate dissertation in POLIS, and she was a fantastic supervisee: thoughtful, committed and very engaged. On a personal level, Josefin was kind, considerate and thoughtful.”

Likewise, a student who studied alongside Josefin during her time at University was equally reflective:

“I would like to say that Josie and I met as freshers studying Modern Chinese in 2010. I knew Josie as a cheerfully dedicated classmate who really took charge of the issues she faced in her life both in and outside of university, and she led me personally by example in ways she never knew for years afterwards. Her classmates have been deeply saddened by her untimely passing.”

When she died, Josefin was on her way to meet Kenyan partner organisations on behalf of Civil Rights Defenders. She was 30 years old.

Also on board Ethiopian Airplanes Flight 302 was Sam Pegram, a man who had exactly the same level of passion for human rights work and helping others as Josefin. Born in Penwortham, a town just outside of Preston, Sam studied International Relations and graduated from the University of Leeds in 2015 before completing a Masters in International Human Rights Law and Practice at the University of York. During this time, Sam spent two years in Jordan as a volunteer Field Coordinator/aid worker helping refugees, an experience which showed him firsthand the value of protecting displaced persons and hard to reach communities.

While at the University of York, Sam worked for the University’s Global Engagement Department, reaching out and creating connections across the world to bring institutions of higher education closer together. After learning of Sam’s passing, Hilary Layton, the University’s director of global engagement, reflected:

“Sam worked in the global engagement department at York whilst studying for his masters. He was a lovely colleague, and supremely talented, and did some really valuable work in promoting the university’s work in Sub-Saharan Africa. We were sure he would go far in his career and make a difference.”

With the experience he learned as both a student and an aid worker, Sam secured a position as a Research Assistant for Durable Solutions Platform for Displaced Syrians at the Danish Refugee Council, a research platform providing recommendations and promoting dialogue about long-term solutions to displacement in Syria and neighbouring countries. Here, he wrote a paper on “Education and Durable Solutions for Refugees in Jordan” based on desk research and key informant interviews. He would soon move on to become a Humanitarian Policy intern for the Norwegian Refugee Council – the post he held when he died. In this role, Sam focused on three things: Humanitarian Access and the Community of Practice, Counter-Terrorism and Countering Violent Extremism, and Human Rights Protection. After being based in Geneva since January, he was flying to Kenya alongside a colleague in order to deliver a training programme in Nairobi. 

His mother, Deborah, told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “Sam was so looking forward to going to Nairobi. He loved the work he was doing. We can’t believe this has happened. We’re totally devastated.”

Likewise, Sam’s father, Mark, said: “He was so very special. I know every parent thinks that about their child, but Sam really was. He always had a big heart, he was always looking out for others. He had a very strong sense of what he thought was right and what was wrong and he didn’t like to see anyone suffer. He absolutely loved the work he was doing, because he was helping ease people’s suffering. And that was what was important to him more than anything else.”

“He was so very special. I know every parent thinks that about their child, but Sam really was. He always had a big heart, he was always looking out for others. He had a very strong sense of what he thought was right and what was wrong and he didn’t like to see anyone suffer. He absolutely loved the work he was doing, because he was helping ease people’s suffering. And that was what was important to him more than anything else.”

Tributes for Sam have poured in from all the places he chose to study, showing just what a well liked and passionate individual he was. Dr Gordon Clubb, International Relations BA Programme Director at the University of Leeds, said Sam would regularly keep in touch after he left Leeds, emailing to say how he was getting on. He added:

“Sam was an exceptional student. He was such a compassionate and kind person. He was one of the students I held up as a role model for others and I’ve never been so proud of a former student – he had a real drive to help others.”

Dr Ioana Cismas, senior lecturer at York’s Law School and Centre for Applied Human Rights, offered similar thoughts:

“Staff at the Centre for Applied Human Rights, York Law School and his fellow students will remember Sam as an exceptionally bright student, who was committed to human rights and humanitarianism, and as a profoundly kind soul. As teachers we have the privilege to meet students who move us to the core – Sam did that.”

Sam was 25 years old when he died.

The Gryphon Editorial team would like to offer their condolences to the families and friends of these two wonderful Leeds alumni.