The Human Rights Warrior

Jennifer Prestholdt

Jennifer Prestholdt
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
February 25
Human rights lawyer, wife, and mother of three. (Not necessarily in that order.) I write about my experiences in fighting for human rights and how I am trying to bring those lessons home to my kids. Join our journey at, Humanrightswarrior on facebook and @JPrestholdt on Twitter. All material on this blog is © Jennifer Prestholdt, 2011, 2012


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FEBRUARY 3, 2012 1:33PM

Making Something Out of Nothing

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 There was a time in my life when I felt naked without a pair of knitting needles. Yes, I was the obsessive girl who knit in class, on the bus, walking down the street, in front of the TV during Star Trek: Next Generation. I didn't learn how to knit until I was 18, but once I started I went in for it yarnover, worsted weight and popcorn stitch. My personal PR remains knitting a pair of royal blue and black diamond pattern mittens in 5 hours the night before Valentine's Day as a gift for my boyfriend.  Following Norwegian tradition, I knit in one of my hairs to keep him from dumping me. We've been married for more than 14 years now.

Because I learned as an adult, I distinctly remember how difficult it is to learn to knit.  You feel awkward as you struggle to make the needles do what you need them to do. (I felt like I was wrassling with tentstakes and spaghetti noodles on my first scarf.) It's difficult to make sense of the stitches and frustrating to decipher the patterns.  The stitch codes might as well be written in Cyrillic; you need to be a CIA secret codebreaker to read some pattern directions.  

Often you can't even tell you are making a mistake for rows and rows.  When you do realize your misstep, you have to rip out your work and start over, which, by the way, hurts more than getting your legs waxed.  It's even harder when you learn to knit in Norway, where the normal practice is run a double seam with a sewing machine and then take scissors to CUT your weeks and months of hard work in order to have neater seams when you sew in the arm tubes, formed like the worms from Dune with a gaping mouth where someday your wrists will rest.  That is, if you don't screw it up. 

What I absolutely love about knitting, though, is the satisfaction that comes from taking what is basically a couple of sticks and a ball of string and turning a bunch of knots into something that is both beautiful and useful. It takes effort and determination and a bit of creativity, but in a very real sense, you are making something out of nothing.

I haven't done much knitting in the past decade - having the second child pretty much put the brakes on my fiber arts career.  Several half-finished projects lodge like spinster aunts at the back of my closet, hiding sheepishly (ha ha!) behind my boots. I can't see them but I do feel slightly guilty about them.  No matter how faithfully I promise myself that I will release them from closet purgatory, finish them in front of Downton Abbey and gift them to some deserving baby, I haven't made much progress.  

Then a friend showed me some mittens that she is making for her son. They are My Neighbor Totoro mittens and they seriously are just about the cutest thing I have ever seen.  I saw them and my fingers started itching - literally - to knit them. I downloaded the pattern for Totoro Mittens from  

Half-finished baby projects, be damned!  (I had also promised a friend that I would knit him a tapir, but half-finished tapirs be damned!)   As I started the cuff of my Totoro mittens in black mid-weight yarn on 3.5mm dpn (aka double-pointed needles), I started thinking about James and Julia*.  This kind of thing isn't unusual; random memories of my former clients frequently flit through my mind.  For the first seven years of my career, I represented people who were fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in the U.S.  These are people who are not easy to forget and whose stories shouldn't be forgotten. 

James and Julia had been politically active in their native Kenya. Julia, in particular, had been very active in speaking out against an oppressive government.  They had a young son, who I'll call William, who had huge, solemn eyes.  When the police came to their house to arrest Julia, a police dog bit William on the head. You could still see the jagged scar on his scalp more than a year later when, having left everything they owned behind to escape Kenya, they were seeking legal assistance with their asylum claim in the U.S.  

In police custody, Julia had been brutally beaten.  She was also repeatedly raped in custody, including with objects such as the muzzle of a rifle and a Coke bottle.   Julia testified about her experiences in a straightforward manner and in excruciating detail, but with such poise and dignity that both the asylum officer and I were in tears. Only a few times have I seen an asylum officer (specially trained federal officials who make decisions about asylum cases based on a written application and an in-person interview) actually cry during an an asylum interview. I remember well how James sat next to her, utterly still. Anguish is the only word that could possibly describe the look on his face as he listened to her testimony.

Years later, after they got their citizenship, James and Julia had a party to say thank you to all of the people who had helped them.  In addition to their attorneys, there were people from their church and other members of the Kenyan community. They now lived in a big, new house out in the suburbs. Julia was close to graduation from nursing school. William, who I hadn't seen since he was three, was now in middle school.  He was a straight-A student and talented musician who had just gotten braces.  They had had another child, too - a daughter born here in America. She was wearing a pink tutu.

It had taken a lot of hard work for James and Julia to get to where they were.  They had experienced many challenges and frustrations with adapting to life in this strange, new country.  But they persisted and, through sheer effort and determination and a bit of creativity, made a new life for themselves and their family.  In some ways, they had even followed a pattern - the American Dream.

 It wasn't easy, but James and Julia had done it.  

They made something out of nothing.

*All names have been changed. 

(With special thanks to brella for allowing me use both the Totorro mittens image and pattern in this post!)


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Intensely interesting and brutal story of survival. How does a "Julia" get through the degradation and inhumane treatment of such a rape? I hope you are planning a book. You are natural story teller...easy to read...with thoughtful endings.
I second the hope of a book-
Thanks so much, Ande and J! It would be fun to do a book someday. I really appreciate your encouragement.

@Ande, part of what I'm doing with this blog is puzzling through questions like the one you raised - how does a person get through degradation and inhumane treatment? For "Julia", the experience of suffering terrible human rights abuses made her determined to do something good, something that would help people. That's why she decided to become a nurse. I think it that was part of the healing process for her.

Thanks so much for reading!
Through the pain this comes out so beautiful. After all, knitting is the most endearing of all art. R
Thanks much, Thoth. Maybe I'll knit you a tapir, too!
Beautifullyknitted story of love and endurance. :o)
I am a knitter too which helps me understand your feeling toward the craft and the challenges it presents at first.
Thanks Fusun! I knew you were a kindred spirit. Plus, brella, whose creation these mittens are, is a Canadian. From Toronto, not Montreal, but still. Best wishes to you!