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Freedom talks life experiences

Courtesy Kelsey Whiting

By Krishna Chalise     3/5/24 9:56pm

Enes Kanter Freedom, a former NBA player, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, spoke about his life experiences around the world at Rice Feb. 27. 

According to The New York Times, Freedom’s outward focus on democracy started when he publicly called the current president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the “Hitler of our century.” Since then, Turkey canceled Freedom’s passport, arrested his father and placed him on a most wanted terrorist list with a $500,000 bounty on his head.

Craig Considine, a senior lecturer in Rice’s sociology department, invited and hosted Freedom to speak at the university.

“Enes’ lived experience is pretty intense … He had his citizenship revoked, multiple international arrest warrants … largely because he’s a human rights activist,” Considine said. “Enes is giving voice to the voiceless, the people that don’t have a platform to speak for themselves, and I think this is really important.” 

Freedom said he solely spoke out about the Turkish government until one day, someone questioned how he could call himself a human rights activist while ignoring the plight of Uyghurs in China.

“How can you call yourself a human rights activist when your Muslim brothers and sisters are getting tortured and raped every day in concentration camps in China?” Freedom was asked, he said.

According to Freedom, he knew he had to do something after he spoke to a Uyghur activist and learned about the torture methods, including forced sterilizations and organ harvesting, that human rights organizations said were occurring in the region. 

Freedom said that this inspired him to create his custom Freedom shoes. By wearing shoes that told the stories of movements like #FreeTibet and #FreeUyghurs, he wanted to share people’s stories. 

Freedom said he had most people’s support when he only criticized the Turkish government. It wasn’t until he spoke out against the Chinese government that he said he was met with pushback from people around him and the NBA. 

Freedom wore his #FreeTibet shoes for his first game back after speaking with an Uyghur activist and was told to take them off; he was informed that he could get banned from the NBA if he didn’t take them off.

“My agent called and said, ‘If you say another word, you’re never going to be able to play basketball again, and you’re 29 years old … You could make between $40 to $50 million.’ I hung up the phone and never talked to him,” Freedom said.

Freedom said he even reached out to other sports leagues like the National Hockey League to bring attention to the Uyghur crisis. While they supported him privately, they did not want to risk losing sponsors and endorsement deals, according to Freedom. 

“I asked them one simple question,” Freedom said. “I said put yourself in their shoes. If your mom, sister daughter was in those concentration camps tortured and raped everyday, would you just still take money over your morals?”

Freedom said it is important to do more than just bring attention to human rights violations —  action is also necessary. He spoke about his work pushing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, legislation that prohibits imported products made with forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. 

“Forget about one — I would have sacrificed hundreds of careers just for this,” Freedom said during the event.

Ashlyn Zhang, a member of the Rice’s women’s basketball team, spoke with Freedom the day before the event, along with the members of the men’s basketball team. 

“Speaking with Enes helped me appreciate basketball and sports as a universal language, as a vehicle for bringing people together despite differences,” Zhang, a Hanszen College sophomore, said. “I think it would be beneficial for Rice to continue bringing people like Enes to campus, people whose multidimensional backgrounds can contribute unique and global perspectives, helping students look at things from a wider lens.”

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