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Pensacola Welcomes Dr. Feride Rushiti, Human Rights Activist From Kosovo

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

Humanitarian and activist Dr. Feride Rushiti from Kosovo is visiting Pensacola this week, hosted by the Gulf Coast Citizen Diplomacy Council.

Dr. Rushiti is one of ten women to receive the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award.

Credit U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State

In Washington D.C. Friday, First Lady Melania Trump delivered special remarks at a ceremony in their honor.

“Each of these women now join the distinguished list of past honorees, who have made the world a better place,” said Mrs. Trump, asking the audience to take a moment to think about what courage truly is. “Courage is the quality most needed in this world, yet it is often the hardest to find. Courage sets apart those who believe in higher calling and those who act on it. It takes courage not only to see wrong, but strive to right it.”

All of this year’s honorees have dedicated their lives to the fight for human rights, many on behalf of women and girls. They come from all corners or the world including Iraq, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Rwanda, Mauritania, Thailand, Guatemala, Honduras, and Italy. One of them, Dr. Rushiti, comes from the Balkans region of Southeastern Europe.

“Dr. Feride Rushiti is from Kosovo. She’s is founder and executive director of the Kosovo Center for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims,” said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, who hosted the awards ceremony this year and introduced each of the honorees.

“Dr. Rushiti is being honored decades of advocacy on behalf of civilian victims of Kosovo’s war, including rape survivors. And, she’s laid the groundwork for a legislative victory to support survivors of wartime sexual violence.”

For the past couple of days, Rushiti has been visiting Pensacola, making the rounds and talking about her work. During a stop at the WUWF studios on Monday, she took us back to the beginning, during the war in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999.

At the time, Rushiti was a medical school student in neighboring Albania, finishing her specialization in gastroenterology. She says for the first time, she met people who were tortured during the wartime, who escaped from Kosovo to Albania.

“I met family members who [lost] their children. I met mothers who were present during the rape [case] of their daughter,” said Rushiti, adding that she also encountered pregnant women and children who were raped. “It alerted me that I need to do something for my nation.”

As Rushiti considered how to help, either with medical support, sheltering or with other needs, she says that was the time she began to transition from a focus on being a medical practitioner to being a human rights activist.

In founding the Kosovo Center for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims, Dr. Rushiti sought a multi-disciplinary approach to address all the needs of conflict victims. She was among the first doctors to recognize the need for treatment of psychological trauma for refugees fleeing the violence, particularly among women and minority groups.

“Besides medical complaints, they had also other complaints, and we had to treat and to offer to them psych-social service in order to enable them to continue with daily demands.”

Her center was designed to provide rehabilitation for torture victims, but with a special focus to the rape survivors of the war.

Dr. Rushiti has now worked for almost two decades to secure, not only access to healthcare and treatment for trauma, but also justice for the civilian victims of the war in Kosovo.

As noted in her state department introduction, Rushiti and other activists have been successful in lobbying the government in Kosovo to acknowledge the survivors. She’s proud that they are now about to receive long-awaited recognition and compensation for the rape and torture they endured.

It’s income, but “It’s more a recognition of their suffering,” Rushiti said, noting that for the first time, the state is starting to recognize that they are there, that  they suffered, and they need to be supported.

During her visit to Pensacola, Dr. Rushiti is spending time in discussions at various organizations, including FAVORHouse and Gulf Coast Kids' House.

Rushiti also met with University of West Florida criminal justice professors Kimberly McCorkle and Richard Hough. They discussed challenges that all societies face in dealing with domestic violence and sexual abuse victims, and talked about a new program for victims of domestic violence, typically women, as well as men involved in the abuse.

Rushiti says it’s good information for their new state of Kosovo.

“We just celebrated this year, the tenth anniversary of our independence. And, the information I get in exchange with the campus here will help me as a guide to bring those ideas in my country.”

Earlier today, Dr. Rushiti was a guest of the Gulf Coast Citizen Diplomacy Council and the Institute for Women in Politics of Northwest Florida for a lunchtime address to the community at the Wright Place, downtown.

Credit U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
The 2018 International Women of Courage Awardees pose with the first lady after the recent ceremony at the U.S. State Department.

This year marks the twelfth anniversary of the International Women of Courage Award, for which over 120 women from more than 65 countries have been recognized.

Rushiti says it’s been a great honor to exchange stories with the other honorees and to be recognized for their work.

“This award, besides that this is a recognition to me personally, it’s a recognition to all the rape survivors in Kosovo and I dedicate this award to this because it was their story that inspired me and obliged me to go forward and to be here.”

Dr. Feride Rushiti and the other IWOC awardees soon will conclude their two-week exchange in the U.S. The program wraps up with a Public Forum in Los Angeles, California tomorrow (Wed), Mar. 28.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.