A Langley man and his Metro Vancouver charity are grappling with new and deadly challenges as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic—and offering hope to hundreds of students who are at increased risk of attacks, kidnapping, maiming, and murder.
Peter Ash is founder of Under the Same Sun, a BC charity that protects and advocates for people with albinism – a hereditary condition characterized by a lack of pigment (colour) in the skin, hair and eyes. Because of their pale appearance, people with albinism in Africa face severe discrimination and violence.
“I grew up being bullied in Canada because of the differences in my appearance,” says Ash, who is himself a person with albinism. “But the discrimination in other parts of the world is terrifying and we are needed to protect the vulnerable.”
Ash, a former pastor in Manitoba and now a local businessman, explains that in some parts of Africa people with albinism are denied basic human rights and face extreme violence. So-called practitioners of witchcraft, who exploit fears and peddle dangerous cures, claim that the body parts of persons with albinism have magical properties that will bring their buyers luck and money. Today, they continue to fuel a deadly, black market trade of violence and stigma, selling ‘albino’ body parts in potions and charms. Already in 2020, a 92-year-old woman was attacked in Malawi by men with machetes who made off with her toes, a Mozambican baby survived an abduction attempt, and a father of three in Zambia was found dead with his tongue, eyes, and arms removed.
However, the pandemic is making matters worse. In a unique collision of COVID-19 and skin-based discrimination – two issues currently shaking the world – Ash says people with Albinism are now being unfairly targeted and threatened by even more violence and discrimination.
“Frighteningly, the current pandemic is now elevating nearly every threat that people with albinism, in these parts of the world, face,” says Ash. “They are already being unfairly labelled ‘transmitters’ of COVID-19 in places like Kenya, and organizations in other countries say they are bracing for new attacks. The fear is that, as more people become desperate for a COVID-19 cure, they may turn to the black market for protection from the pandemic, and therefore increase attacks on people with albinism.”
While the extent of any increase in discrimination or violence won’t be known for some time, Ash says attacks usually take place in secret and, because the issue is already emerging in Eastern Africa, must be confronted now.
Under the Same Sun is providing protection and emergency housing for more than 50 students with albinism in Tanzania, where it primarily works, who had nowhere else to turn when COVID-19 lockdowns shut their boarding schools. The organization regularly champions for and educates more than 250 students with albinism each year, placing disadvantaged children in select boarding schools where they are protected, integrated, and provided tools to learn. With the help of the organization’s donors, these students can complete any level of schooling from primary school to PhD and may also access vocational training or job placements. Internationally, meanwhile, Under the Same Sun monitors threats, advocates across the continent, and speaks at places like the United Nations and African Union. As the organization marks International Albinism Awareness Day this month, Ash says the challenges remain daunting.
“We know our efforts save lives,” he says, noting that attacks and deaths in Tanzania have decreased dramatically since his organization was founded more than a decade ago. “But much more needs to be done and we need British Columbians to help us protect those who are right now scared for their lives.”
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