Armando Perla graduated in 2009 from Lund University’s International Human Rights Law Master’s Programme, which is jointly run by the Raoul Wallenberg Institute.
Born and raised in El Salvador, he moved to Canada when he was 21 as an asylum seeker, and was granted refugee status.
Perla studied political sciences, and obtained a Bachelor of Laws from l’Université Laval in Quebec City.
We recently caught up with him to see what he’s been doing since his graduation.
How has this International Human Rights Law Master’s programme been useful to you in your professional life?
It gave me a very strong and solid foundation and understanding of human rights. I came here because I wanted to get deeper knowledge about human rights and I got that. Thanks to RWI’s Human Rights Master’s Programme, I was able to get a job in Sweden while I was still a student, so it was a stepping stone.
When I was doing my master’s, I was able to write my thesis on the projects that I was working on, at Lund University Commissioned Education. Because the projects were bringing international participants from all over the global south, I started to do interviews with some of them. I think this prepared me for the work I went on to do at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, focusing on oral histories. Experience in interviewing was also something that the museum founders were looking for when they were looking to hire the first team of curators.
As a lecturer at the universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba I taught a range of topics, including migrant workers and children’s rights. But when I was offered to teach the human rights law course, I decided to change the way that the course was structured. So instead of just focusing on law, I also included oral history. I think that illustrates the extent to which the RWI Human Rights Master’s Programme really did lay the foundations for the work that I was going to be doing as a curator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and as a lecturer.
Importantly, it provided me with a great network of international contacts because everyone who was doing the Master’s Programme went on to do amazing things, all over the world. It’s amazing to have people all across Europe and Latin America who I continue to see over the years. You always end up crossing paths with someone, or getting help and advice from someone else. It has been incredible in that respect.
Finally, living in Lund was a great experience. We were open to so many different things, lectures and ideas. If I hadn’t moved to Lund, I would never have gone to the museum because it was a Canadian professor who was visiting Lund who told me about the position. I am certain that if I had not done the RWI Master’s, I would not have been able to be a part of the amazing project of opening a national museum in Canada and now coming back to Sweden to do the same.
This International Human Rights Master’s Programme has definitely been a catapult to my achievements.
What triggered your interest in human rights and how did you come to work with them?
Initially, it’s because I wanted to be like my grandfather. I grew up with my mother telling me stories about him. She used to tell me about how he was a judge, a fair person who always tried to help people. Growing up hearing stories about him being a righteous man of the law put an idea in my head. I wanted to be like him.
Having to leave El Salvador because of my sexual orientation cemented my passion for human rights. Leaving as an asylum seeker, starting from zero in Canada, and not speaking a word of English or French, put things into perspective.
As soon as I was recognized as a refugee, I started working at an organization called Manitoba Interfaith Integration Council. There, I prepared claims and cases of other asylum seekers to be presented in front of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) in Canada. Coming from the experience of starting from scratch, living as an asylum seeker in limbo, being labelled and hearing so many misconceptions and stereotypes of who I was, it was another sign for me that backed up my decision. If I didn’t know for sure that I wanted to get into human rights before, I knew then. That was part of the motivation to quickly learn English and then French so I could go back into law school.
I think that the path that I had to go through placed me in that line of work, human rights. Since arriving in Canada at the age of 21, I could not see myself doing anything that wasn’t human rights. When I was in El Salvador, we didn’t use the words “human rights” but we used “constitutional rights” which was something that I was attracted to, as well as working with people. My interest didn’t fully materialize until I had to go through the experience of becoming an asylum seeker.
You mentioned that you left El Salvador because of your sexual orientation, would you mind talking more about that?
El Salvador is one of the most homophobic countries in Latin America. I grew up with the fear of humiliation and fear of being exposed and persecuted. Some of those fears materialized. So, I had to leave. El Salvador was immersed in a civil war from 1980 to 1992, so I grew up during the war: death squads and violence are bad enough, but add homophobia to all of that, it really is not a good mix.
I was 21 when I left El Salvador, so I had already formed my identity and who I was. After leaving I knew that I could never go back to live in the country where I was born. I now go as a tourist, but I still feel like I don’t belong. I can feel the homophobia, I can see people and how they react to me. Even being with my partner, when we go together I am scared for our safety. It is just not safe, you never know what could happen. There’s more people dying in El Salvador now than there were in the time of the war.
We’re seeing this happen today. When I see images of people trying to reach the US border, I see my people. That’s where I come from originally, even though Canada is also my home and I do identify as Canadian, probably more so than Salvadorian. When I see these images, I can’t help but feel the raw emotions of this experience because it is something that I had to do 20 years ago.
You were marginalized in El Salvador for your sexual orientation, were you marginalized in Canada because you were an asylum seeker?
Yes, of course. I live in the intersection of multiple oppressions. It’s sad because I fled homophobia and was greeted with racism. As an asylum seeker, you don’t realise that you will face racism when you get to your destination. You’re being ostracized for being an asylum seeker. When I reflect on my experiences, I feel that there is nowhere in the world where I can truly feel at peace, or that I completely belong. If I go back to El Salvador, there’s homophobia, and when I am in the “western world,” there is racism.
Often, people think that “when we leave as LGBTQ refugees and we make it to a western country we will have reached paradise” but that’s not the case. There’s still so much work to do, for example, Sweden has many problems with segregation and racism that it isn’t even acknowledging. In Canada, it’s the same but at least people are talking about it. I’m so torn between being grateful and thankful to Canada for having saved my life and given me a future, but at the same time, I have to keep pushing for improvements because I know that the country can do better. There’s still a lot of work to do, and I don’t think I’ll see the end of it in my lifetime.
How did you end up working at a museum in Canada?
The opportunity to go back to Canada came up when a visiting Canadian professor came to Lund, and told me that Canada was going to build a new national museum focused on human rights. They were looking for people with human rights experience and knowledge, who could help them with the research and with the curation of exhibits. At the time, I was on the board of a student led human rights network called Jus Humanis International, so the professor asked me to post a job advertisement in our networks. I did so, but I also applied myself!
I ended up getting the job and moving back to Canada. There, I was part of the founding team developing a new national museum which was the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It was the first national museum that was built outside the national capital, Ottawa, and the first national museum to be built in the last 50 years in Canada. It was a big task because of the large size of the museum, and because when I arrived, it was just a parking lot, there was nothing there! We built the museum, the content, all of the different exhibits, we consulted with people across the country, and we developed its collection centred on oral histories.
When I was in law school, I would never have imagined that I would be working in a museum, never mind get to start a museum from the ground. I feel honoured and privileged to have been able to meet many amazing people: human rights activists, people with lived experiences of human rights. The people who have changed the face of Canada’s human rights history.
How did you become involved in building the museum in Malmo?
I spoke at a conference that was held at the University of Malmö, called “Museums in Times of Migration and Mobility,” which brought together researchers, academics and museum practitioners working in this area. I spoke about the migrant workers exhibit that I had developed in collaboration with the workers and the activists who were working on this issue in Canada. Sweden had started the process of developing its own national museum in Malmö, so the conference aimed to gather different knowledge from Sweden and other parts of the world to inform their work. The museum’s mission is to explore the themes of migration and democracy, but also human rights.
The conference was two and a half years ago. Since then, I kept in touch with the people that were leading the project, getting updates, and visiting Sweden a few times. When the museum received funding from the Swedish government, a position opened earlier this year, within the founding team in Malmö. I applied because building another museum from scratch, particularly with these themes, appealed to me, and I was hired.
Can you talk more about the processes of building this museum?
It’s called the “Museum of Movements” because we’re looking at social movements as well as movements of migration. The project was started by local politicians in Malmo who wanted to see a national museum of migration and democracy in their city. I think that having the museum in Malmo makes sense because it’s a city that has a history of social movements but also has a history of migration; it’s the gateway to Sweden if you’re coming from Europe but it’s also the gateway to Europe coming from Sweden. It works both ways.
Recently, the team finished a “feasibility study,” that took around two years, and attempted to determine whether people in Sweden wanted a national museum in Malmo. . The conference that I spoke at was part of this study. It became clear that there are still untold stories from the definition of democracy and migration and that people wanted to see the stories of marginalised groups be told.
We have now been granted funding by the government for the next two years, so we are starting in a small temporary space which we will open in Malmo this spring. It will be our workshop, our prototyping space where we will test ideas and continue our research. The museum is a museum of democracy, so we want to democratize all of our processes and involve people right from the beginning in everything that we do. We want to hear from everyone across the country so everyone can find themselves represented within the museum. It is a national museum, after all.
What is a piece of advice you would give students studying human rights?
Never limit yourself to one path or one way of doing human rights work because there are so many possible paths. If I had closed myself to thinking “I need to be a lawyer, I need to be in the courts,” I would never have experienced all these amazing things. That’s the best advice that I can give people doing human rights: always have your eyes open for any opportunity that can come because you never know. You can do whatever you want. Something else that I got from the human rights masters at RWI is understanding that I don’t have to be a lawyer in the courts, I can be many other things and impact human rights.