Supporting the world’s human rights activists from Suva
By Samantha Magick
At the height of Fiji’s Covid-19 wave last year, one Fijian woman was working from her kitchen table in Suva to help arrange the evacuation of women activists from Afghanistan.
Virisila Buadromo is the co-lead at Urgent Action Fund Asia and Pacific, a feminist grantmaking organisation that provides emergency funding to women and non-binary human rights defenders in the first ten days of any kind of crisis.
UAF Asia and Pacific is part of a sisterhood of funds (in the U.S., Africa and Latin America), and the most recent to be established.
“In the Asia Pacific region, we have some of the highest numbers of deaths and disappearances of human rights defenders,” says Buadromo. “So the need for this sort of fund was very clear right from the beginning.
Buadromo describes herself as the main resource mobiliser, working with a team spread across Asia and the Pacific, to mobilise funds and support.
However her role changed in August 2021, as the situation in Afghanistan erupted.
The likelihood of the need to respond in Afghanistan was first flagged in 2020, when advisors based in that country started to warn of the likely implications of the U.S. pullout.
“[Conflict in] Afghanistan had been going on for years, some activists and defenders had lived twice through this crisis; two, three, four generations have lived through this. It’s like a intergenerational trauma, so they know what happens before it even happens,” Buadromo observes.
“So, at some level of it is ‘normalised’, but what was not normalised was this idea that the Americans were going to leave. And a lot of the activists, especially those outside Kabul, were saying the Taliban is going to come back and the government infrastructure and so forth was so rife with corruption, it wasn’t going to hold them back.”
Buadromo says as it was only setting up at that point, UAF Asia Pacific was not able to pre-position-funds prior to the U.S. withdrawal.
As the date for the U.S. departure drew closer, the urgency of the situation was clear.
“The initial evacuation [of vulnerable activists] was from regional towns and moving them to Kabul, because they really thought Kabul would hold back the Taliban,” she says.
“That’s when we started trying to move them out of Afghanistan. That was really challenging, because different governments prioritised different personnel; translators, lawyers, and they were mainly men. So we had to really work with people that we knew, with certain governments, like foreign affairs in Sweden, foreign affairs in New Zealand, Australia, to try and get some of these women lawyers and high-profile activists out.
“And one of the challenges is, when you move one woman out, you have to move their whole family. So it’s easy to find a spot for one person but trying to find a spot for eight people is hard.
“My team ended up having to curry favour from people who were organising these planes.”
Buadromo and her team did manage to liaise with people on the ground, to get activists to safety, including a woman who had been teaching girls, and who was now at risk as the Taliban returned.
“She had this family connection; they got her a [Canadian] visa. So, we just had to get her on a plane.”
Not a simple matter of course.
“I had to call her, and I could hear her baby crying [because] she needed to leave the safe house and go to somewhere else in the city to get picked up with her daughter at night, and from there go to the airport. By this stage, the road to Kabul was blocked, there were people lined up to go to the airport and I didn’t know how we were going to get her there. So I had to say to her, ‘These are all the things that you have to do’. And she was willing to take that risk, with her child, who is 16 months at the time, to leave the safe house, go and stand somewhere and wait for a driver, keep her child quiet, and you don’t know who these people are who are coming to pick you, everything is like a leap of faith.
“But she said, ‘I am going to take this risk’. She said, ‘Virisila, I’ve been here before, I’ve done this before, this is not new.’
“I didn’t hear from her from the time she left her house until she got to the airport, and that was the day they bombed the airport, and I was [thinking], ‘is she alive?’”
Remarkably, the woman made it through and is now in Canada.
“But there are many other stories that are not so great,” Buadromo continues. “Some people got to Pakistan but now they’re stuck in those refugee camps in Pakistan, and no one want to give them visas, they can’t go anywhere. So they’re stuck.”
UAF Asia and Pacific’s initial Afghanistan response was over a year ago now, and Buadromo says what started off as a political and an economic crisis, is now morphing into a humanitarian crisis.
UAF has continued its support to Afghan human rights defenders, through survival grants after the first ten days. “Some of our funders were saying, ‘Why are you giving money for day-to-day living for activists?’ But in countries like Afghanistan, survival is an act of resistance. If you don’t give them money to survive, who is going to rebuild that country?”
Beyond Afghanistan, over the past four years, UAF has also supported human rights defenders in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Micronesia, Samoa, Fiji, Thailand and India.
Growing her family
As Buadromo led her team in responding to the crisis in Afghanistan, there were also big changes happening in her home life.
During Suva’s Covid lockdown, Buadromo and her husband cared for her niece’s son, Jerry.
“My niece told me she was going back to work, and I said, well because I am working from home, I can look after Jerry while I was at home. So he ended up staying with us, and that lockdown was for five months or something, and we bonded. So we started that whole conversation. And because we are family, initially we were going to do a cultural adoption. But then we sort of recognised, because we travel a lot and my husband’s family lives in New Zealand, … it would be just so hard [to travel/manage visas] so we said, ‘let’s formally adopt him’.”
Motherhood has given her new perspective. Buadromo knows when and how. to ask for help, and is lucky to have a ‘whole village’ of support around her family.
“I really have a different level of respect for people who have children, and have more than one child, and have very little, are maybe living on love but are able to support their family. It’s amazing.”
Making space for empathy to grow
Buadromo says she has learnt “from therapy and counselling and coaching over the past few years,” that she thrives on crisis. “[That is] really is something that is where the biggest shifts, personally and professionally, happen for me.”
But she also relishes time on her own, and ensures she makes this time, despite her big job, a wide circle of friends, and busy family life.
“I really think that every human being needs to have time on your own. And it doesn’t make you selfish, I just think it’s really important that if you are going to be a human being that’s able to have deep empathy and be able to connect with people, you need to be able… to find time to just be.”
Buadromo is well known amongst her circle for her voracious reading, and solid book recommendations.
“I really make the time to read, that’s my time, that’s my way of escapism, and I really think it is important because I really think a lot of the stresses we have in the world is because you’re constantly giving. This is a thing about Pacific and island cultures. We are socialised to give, give, give, give and the idea of taking anything for yourself is really frowned upon. For you to give, you need to take some for yourself, so you can build more space for yourself, build more compassion and empathy in yourself to be able to give.”
As an activist, a feminist leader and a person, Buadromo may be socialised to give, but Fiji, and the world is all the better for that.
This article first appeared in Fiji Traveller magazine, Issue 1.