Remzi Cej knew he wanted to work in human rights the day he crossed the Albanian border after fleeing conflict in Kosovo.
Almost 13 years later, he finds himself in a position dedicated solely to that.
Cej is the new chairman of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Human Rights Commission.
“I’m not daunted,” the 28-year-old says. “I think I’m thrilled because I wanted to do something of this kind for a long time.”
Cej knows full well the importance of human rights.
He and his parents fled wartorn Kosovo in April 1999 after the Serbian paramilitary said they had to leave.
The family walked hundreds of kilometres over a week as part of a mass exodus. They crossed over into Albania, where they stayed at a refugee camp for a year and a half. He said it was a difficult journey; Cej’s uncle was one of many people lost along the way.
The family immigrated to St. John’s in October 2000. Cej was days short of 17 and enrolled in high school at Holy Heart.
While grateful for the new beginning, there were heavy hearts. They had lost contact with Cej’s older brother, Adnan, who had left Kosovo for Turkey a year earlier.
“At the time (he left) the Serbian paramilitary was going house to house, taking any able-bodied men away, and holding them in awful conditions,” Cej says.
“They later would round them up and kill them, which is how 20 members of my extended family were shot. (Mom) was worried this would happen to (Adnan) and she sent him away.”
The family had began searching for Adnan in Albania, but there was no trace of him.
A world away in St. John’s, Cej says it was difficult as they tried to console each other.
Amazingly, four years after they landed in Newfoundland, cousins and friends in Kosovo started calling out of the blue. A TV station had run a clip about Adnan, who is hearing impaired.
“It was a report from a Kosovar teacher who had been in Turkey on vacation and she had heard this story on Turkish TV of a man who was deaf being interviewed about his missing family from Kosovo, and trying to get in touch with them.”
The family soon reconnected with Adnan.
“It was just miraculous,” Cej says. “It was obviously like being reborn. I’ve said that many times. It’s like being reborn. You feel someone is gone from your life and they’ll only live in your memories, and they’re back in the flesh. It’s incredible.”
After regular phone contact with him for about a year, Cej and his mother brought Adnan to St. John’s to live in 2005.
Cej’s experience with human rights doesn’t end with his family’s experience.
He became heavily involved in organizations such as Amnesty International and War Child Canada. His efforts were recognized with a 2007 Terry Fox Humanitarian Award.
“Remzi Cej is at the very forefront of young people I have known in my personal and professional life over the course of my 65 years,” John Fleming of Amnesty International said in a write-up for that award.
“He is not only willing but passionate in his determination to be of service to his world-wide community, especially in promoting respect for human rights.”
Cej also advised the Department of Justice when it amended the province’s Human Rights Code a few years ago.
Besides the rights work, Cej has excelled academically in Newfoundland.
After graduating Holy Heart, Cej did a joint honours degree in French and German studies at Memorial.
In 2008, he was the province’s Rhodes Scholar, obtaining a masters in philosophy in international relations.
Cej now works for the government, as a program and policy development specialist with the Department of Advanced Education and Skills.
He was surprised when an official recently approached him about being chairman of the Human Rights Commission.
He thought about the offer and accepted the honorary position, knowing it was work he always wanted to do.
“One of the most important things I bring to the commission is that perspective of witnessing discrimination first-hand and seeing what it’s like,” Cej says.
“But I also bring a sense of community experience, of speaking about what I’ve gone through and what other people have gone through.”
Last year, the commission received 70 complaints and close to 1,000 inquiries.
Thirty-two of the complaints, Cej says, were based on disabilities. Others were based on factors like pregnancy and martial status.
The new chairman hopes to bring a balance of empathy and rational thinking in dealing with such issues.
He also wants to put a major focus on human rights promotion, and is impressed by the commission’s recent awareness efforts.
Cej says he would like to think he’s used his hardships and struggles to do something positive.
His mother, Hafize, is not surprised he has made something of his opportunities.
“I had hope for him, and I come here just because of him. ... I always knew he will do something and I would be proud.”
She said she is thrilled with his appointment because it’s the type of thing he’s wanted to do since boyhood.
“He was always talking about rights, about people’s rights.”
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @bartlett_steve