By Alex Newman
BERLIN, Germany – Countless tears were shed at the first Global Home Education Conference here as homeschooling parents told horror stories of having to flee vicious persecution in their home countries – mostly Sweden and Germany, but other places as well.
One German homeschooling mother, sobbing, explained that it was the second time she was forced to escape oppression in her homeland.
First, she fled from the clutches of the brutal communist regime of East Germany. More recently, she went into exile from the now-united Germany to avoid the ruthless persecution of homeschooling families, which can include massive fines, jail time, and even loss of custody over children.
By the end of the historic conference, though, it was clear to everybody in attendance who spoke with WND that the international home-education movement had taken a giant step forward. Smiles were everywhere and enthusiasm radiated from the newly united activists, leaders, policy makers and experts.
“The conference was a true success,” said Jonas Himmelstrand, GHEC chairman and Swedish Home Education Association president-in-exile.
“Maybe the most important achievement here was to give home educators self-awareness – the sense of being part of a growing global social movement and to be presented with the vast pedagogical, psychological and juridical knowledge supporting home education,” added Himmelstrad, who was forced to flee from his native Sweden to the Finnish Aland Islands with his family this year to escape persecution for homeschooling.
“The increased self-awareness has infused energy into the movement, and we will see expression of this energy going forward,” he said, predicting that the governments of Sweden and Germany would not be able to continue trampling on human rights indefinitely.
The unity across cultures and the true diversity among attendees was spectacular as well, the homeschooling father and Swedish family-policy expert continued.
“To experience that home educators from different faiths, motivations, methods and cultures have so much more in common than many may have believed was wonderful,” Himmelstrand noted, celebrating the emerging global network that has pledged to stand together and work harder than ever.
“Certainly the global home education movement has grown in conviction and strength through this conference,” he said.
Plus, human rights struggles throughout history have been victorious, and this one will be as well, Himmelstrand added confidently.
Another key point, he explained, was sharing the tales of persecution suffered in some parts of Europe with homeschooling families and journalists worldwide. Those who had previously been unaware were “deeply shocked at the depth of the persecution endured by home educators in Sweden and Germany,” Himmelstrand said.
More than a few attendees echoed those remarks.
Perhaps the most significant formal accomplishment of the summit was the signing of the Berlin Declaration by home education leaders and human rights advocates from all over the planet.
The document outlines various human rights conventions and treaties protecting the fundamental right to choose home education while calling on rogue governments to end persecution and repression.
“We commit to support freedom, diversity and pluralism in education through formal and informal coordination with the goal of making home education a legitimate educational option in every nation and the right of every family and child,” the Berlin Declaration explains.
Conference organizers and a hugely diverse coalition of activists from every corner of the globe told WND that the document was historic.
It will be used to pressure abusive governments into respecting human rights as the number of signatories continues to grow.
“The Berlin Declaration makes clear that countries like Germany and Sweden are in violation of binding human rights treaties,” said attorney and GHEC board member Michael Donnelly, who also serves as the director of international affairs for the U.S.-based Home School Legal Defense Association, HSLDA.
The energy of the attendees will now be focused on spreading the principles of the Berlin Declaration worldwide to other governments, NGOs and human rights organizations, Donnelly told WND.
Activists from Kenya and South Africa to Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines and everywhere in between will be working hard to preserve and protect the rights of parents to freely home educate their children no matter where they reside, he added.
In addition to the Declaration, there were numerous other achievements to celebrate as well.
“This conference was historic as the first ever global gathering devoted to the issue of home education freedom,” Donnelly said. “It has injected a new energy and enthusiasm for home education around the world as leaders were united around the common position that the fundamental and prior right of parents to choose the kind of education their children should receive must be respected.”
History has shown that freedom is fragile and must be defended, Donnelly said.
Today, however, home education proponents are more committed than ever to ensuring that the human rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children are honored across the globe.
Donnelly also emphasized that while authorities in Sweden and Germany continue to lawlessly violate the unalienable rights of citizens, globally, the situation is largely improving.
“Apparently Germany and Sweden have something to learn from Russia, which has superior respect for the right of parents to home educate,” he said, citing Russian lawmakers and leaders who attended the conference to highlight the explosive growth of home education there.
“The conference gave new hope to persecuted homeschooling parents in both Germany and Sweden as they saw the resolve and support from hundreds from all over,” Donnelly added.
Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of people – probably millions – are also standing with the victims of this sort of persecution.
In all, some 200 homeschooling leaders, human rights activists, education experts, policy makers, attorneys, professors and parents converged on Berlin over the weekend for the GHEC. More than two dozen nations from six continents were represented.
The city was chosen to host the conference in part due to the symbolism – the division between freedom and oppression, as well as the eventual collapse of the Berlin wall.
Of course, the persecution of innocent and loving German families also played a key role in the selection of Berlin, conference leaders told WND.
The decision to gather in Berlin, organizers said, ended up being an excellent move. Multiple radio and television outlets covered the news, helping to raise awareness among Germans about the human rights abuses being perpetrated by officials in Germany.
Among the most prominent advocates for educational freedom from Germany were liberty-minded statesmen from two of the ruling parties, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the smaller Free Democratic Party (FDP).
“Today I observe a total usurpation of children by school,” said the CDU’s Norbert Blüm, a federal lawmaker, human rights campaigner and the former German Minister of Labor under ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
The prominent German leader also openly endorsed home education even as homeschooling families continue to flee from Germany to escape persecution.
“I am against the state’s education monopoly and see parents responsibly homeschooling as a healthy response to an imperious school system,” Blüm said in a statement that was celebrated by home educators and human rights activists worldwide.
Also speaking out was German Parliamentarian Patrick Meinhardt, the education spokesman for the Free Democratic Party parliamentary group and a widely respected leader in the broader European movement for freedom.
“Homeschooling should not be restricted anymore,” declared Meinhardt, one of the keynote speakers at the conference.
Heavy-hitting human rights activists from Scandinavia were there as well.
Attorney Ruby Harrold-Claesson, chairman of the pro-family Nordic Committee for Human Rights, hosted a workshop where she recounted the abduction of then-seven-year-old Domenic Johansson from his parents in 2009 by Swedish authorities, citing homeschooling, which was legal at the time.
More than a few attendees were sobbing as she showed pictures of the loving family before it was ripped apart.
Annie and Christer Johansson, the parents, were scheduled to be at the summit but were not able to attend. Still, the outpouring of support for the family was overwhelming.
By the end of the GHEC, Harrold-Claesson was clearly pleased with the historic summit.
“It is so wonderful to see that homeschoolers from around the world are uniting to bring about better conditions for children – not just for their own kids, but for children all over the world,” she told WND.
Vienna-based Roger Kiska, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), has worked on the Johansson case with Harrold-Claesson and the HSLDA, as well as other incidents of persecution in the region.
After the summit, he was even more inspired to keep working on behalf of families and religious liberty in Europe.
“The Berlin gathering of homeschooling families and experts was truly an extraordinary experience,” Kiska told WND.
“Authorities should be obliged to spend time with these wonderful loving families before they are allowed to rule on their cases,” he said. “Home education is a human right recognized by international treaties and conventions – it should be respected as such.”
As the historic summit was winding down, optimism was widespread.
“The future is very bright,” said GHEC Chairman and ROHUS President-in-exile Himmelstrand.
Alex Newman earned a degree in journalism from the University of Florida and has worked for local newspapers and publications around the world. He grew up on four continents and currently works as a consultant, educator and journalist, as well as a foreign correspondent for The New American magazine.