Canadian Student Wins Facing History Upstander Contest!

Posted by Jasmine Wong on March 27, 2015

>This morning, Facing History and Ourselves announced the winners of the first annual Facing History Together Student & Alumni Upstander Scholarship Contest, and we had the pleasure of surprising the writer of the winning essay, Shireen Afzal, at her school—Scarborough, Ontario's Woburn Collegiate Institute.
Facing History and Woburn Collegiate staff join in celebrating Shireen's win. L to R: Jasmine Wong, Leora Schaefer, Ben Gross, Shireen Afzal, Ron Hoffman and Karen Hume
When I caught up with her after the surprise announcement—which took place in front of her principal, several teachers, and a Toronto District School Board representative —I asked her a few questions about how her class had inspired and informed her essay, and more about her. Here is what she said:

My Facing History and Ourselves class, Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, has taught me to question the world around me. It's taught me that humanity's problems are not simple or easy to solve, but that doesn't mean that we are exempt from our duty to understand them.

Before this class, if someone had mentioned the Armenian Genocide to me, I wouldn't have known anything about it. Who knows? I could have been that person who denies a genocide happened—any crime is possible when ignorance serves as a barrier to our understanding and prevention of genocide. Facing History classes are meaningful to me because they present the truth unconditionally and break down those walls of ignorance.

One important lesson I took away from my Genocide class is that genocide does not happen overnight. People don't simply murder millions without hinting at their plans. There are opportunities that arise that could have halted those plans. The Ten Stages of Genocide by [Genocide Watch President] Gregory Stanton is a testament to that idea. I have learned that genocide always happens in steps, that mass violence is not inevitable and can be stopped before the path leads to the stage of extermination.

Facing History: Is there a moment in your class that stands out to you that changed your perspective or inspired you?

The moment was in our Identity unit, when I realized the significance of Facing History and Ourselves. I had always focused on the "facing history" part so much that I forgot that facing "ourselves" is equally as important. Learning dates and events may be crucial to understanding genocide, but how can we pretend to understand humanity if we can’t even understand ourselves? It made me think about the importance of the individual and our understanding of the identity of others in relation to crimes against humanity.

Facing History: On to more personal questions about you! What do you do for fun?

Oh, no, the secret's out! I’m a fangirl. Always have been, always will be. My idea of fun is reading/watching my favorite book/manga/anime/show/movie that I'm currently hooked on, blogging about it, and drowning myself in the world of fanfiction until I have to return to reality. It's a hopeless cycle of doom.

Facing History: What are you most proud of (personally or professionally)?

Personally, I am most proud of my identity as a Muslim. My faith makes me who I am, gives a direction to my life, and I never want to hide it.

Professionally, I would say I'm most proud of receiving the award for having the highest average last year when I was in grade 10. I've never been that perfect student who aces everything and comes out on top every time. I think that somewhere at the back of my mind I resigned myself to being mediocre. Last year, I tried to change. I had a goal, I worked toward achieving it, and everything turned out great. It’s just that a lot of times things don’t turn out well, but this was a big deal to me because I was able to prove to myself that it’s not impossible for me to scale the walls of mediocrity if I put in the effort.

Facing History: Imagine taking a break from life and living anywhere you choose for the next six months. Where would you go?

I have absolutely no idea! It just seems so strange to me, the prospect of living anywhere other than Canada since I'm so used to life here and I don't like change. The United Kingdom would definitely be an option though since I have family there I've always wanted to meet. Tokyo is another must. I've only seen Akihabara in anime and I'm dying to go there myself.

Facing History: What language(s) do you speak?

Urdu and English. I wish I could say French, but even after eight years of French class, that would be a stretch!

Facing History: Favorite book (or two)?

I could go with the old "Harry Potter was my childhood and it will always be a part of me" or the "Darcy ruined my life and I’m an avid Jane Austen fan" route because they would both be correct. I can't decide since it's always changing. I do have a list of favorite books though, if you’re interested.

Facing History: I feel happiest when I…:

…have had a good night's sleep and am laughing with my family and friends while eating something delicious (preferably chocolate or ice cream).

The Facing History Together Student & Alumni Upstander Scholarship Contest asked select students and alumni from Facing History's Innovative Schools Network and Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grant-winners to submit either a 500-word essay or three-minute video responding to a video profile of Benjamin B. Ferencz, a former prosecutor for the Nuremberg Trials who has dedicated his life to preventing mass atrocities through global intervention. Voters chose Afzal and Williams’ entries out of a pool of 14 finalists chosen from over 175 total submissions representing students from around the world.

Topics: Facing History Together, Canada, In the news


This is where Canadian Facing History and Ourselves teachers and community members meet to share reflections, scholarship and teaching practices that will inspire, challenge and improve teaching and student learning. Our stories provide a window into diverse Facing History classrooms in Canada, and invite you into the discussion.

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