ICYMI: This weekend in decentralize.today, as part of our continuing series of pieces regarding the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are featuring an extended essay paper prepared by a Europe based International Baccalaureate student which addresses Threat theory and the concern that our enforced isolation in recent months could drive us permanently apart.

(For your information, the cartoon image used as the post cover for this article is by Ramon Ebole, one of the participating interviewees from the study.)


A qualitative comparative study of confinement

Research question: To what extent is society experiencing a small portion of the confinement conditions that persecuted people have gone through, and how can we learn from it?

Paper by Sofia Ijzerman, May 22nd, 2020

Table of Contents



Developing the interview protocol

Sample Recruitment

Data Preparation

Data Analysis

Basic Needs:

Psychological Needs:


Anxiety and Depression:

Human Rights



List of Appendices

Appendix A - Letter from President Eisenhower

Appendix B - The work I have done

Appendix C - Theory visuals

Appendix D - Interview Introduction & Protocols

Appendix E - Some transcriptions...

Appendix F - Individual profiles of the Discriminated Interviewees (including some historical context)

Appendix G - Detailed raw data

Appendix H - Webinar with Sarah Bond

List of Tables

Table 1. Participant inventory

Table 2. Raw data

List of Figures

Figure 1. Copy of President Eisenhower’s letter to Pieter Ijzerman

Figure 2. Overall Process

Figure 3. My Interview World Tour

Figure 4. Maslow's Pyramid of Needs

Figure 5. Experiential Learning Cycle

All appendices and figures referenced above can be found in the file link at the end of the essay.


There is a letter that fills my family with a great sense of pride and honour. In this letter (see appendix A), President Eisenhower (34th President of the United States of America) expresses his gratitude to my great grandfather, Pieter Ijzerman, for helping to hide persecuted Jews and allies from the Nazis during WWII. Pieter Ijzerman died two weeks before the end of the war and never had the opportunity to see this letter. He helped around 80 to 120 refugees (mostly Jews and a few foreign allies) in a secret village that had been hidden deep in the forest near Vierhouten. There were 10 underground huts under the trees. Three of these huts were rebuilt so future generations would see the very memorable history of the Netherlands.

Two years ago, I went to visit the hidden village and I was able to see inside the huts. The conditions of their confinement were horrible. The huts were extremely small, closed, crowded, underground, humid. The ceilings were so low that the confined were unable to stand up. There was no heating which made conditions even worse during the winter when temperatures could go below five degrees Celsius. These refugees had to live there for over a year from spring 1943 to October 1944. Pieter Ijzerman would ride his bicycle every day for 20 kilometres each way, to bring them supplies. He and his son, also killed by the Germans two weeks before the end of the war, are inspiring models for our family. They were heroes who died to save people who were discriminated against, simply because they were Jewish. My father, Pieter Ijzerman, is named after my great grandfather and passed these values to me.

One evening in this past April, as we were bitterly complaining about our COVID-19 confinement, the family history came back. My father reminded us of the conditions of the Jews in the hidden village. Was our COVID-19 confinement so bad after all? Did our confinement have anything to do with the one the Jews had experienced during the war? This conversation intrigued me and encouraged me to find out more about different types of confinements and to attempt to compare them.

According to Locke (2003), the first step in any research is finding a proper definition of the phenomenon that is being studied. It “identifies the nature of the units subsumed under a concept”. The Oxford Dictionary definition of confinement is “the state of being forced to stay in a closed space, prison, etc.; the act of putting somebody there”. Given this definition, there are a variety of different types of confinement.

Philosopher Michel Foucault created the “great confinement” concept in 1965 (Porter, 1990). He suggests that in a society dominated by bourgeois values there are the ´unwanted` group such as prostitutes, criminals, beggars, outliers, etc. Foucault claims that society created institutions such as mental health centres to protect themselves from these people.These people who were a threat to the system were being confined from society. In the 19th Century in France “unwanted women” were confined in a mental institute and shown as entertainment to the crowd once a year in an event called ‘the fools’ ball’ (Mas, 2019).

The confinement that comes to mind and brought this paper to life is one that more than half the world population is currently experiencing collectively due to the spread of the COVID-19 disease. Most citizens have been obliged by their government to stay at home, with the warning that they might get a fine if they didn’t follow the rules. This measure was meant to prevent overloading emergency rooms of medical centres which did not have the capacity to take too many serious cases.

There is also solitary confinement, which relates to being imprisoned alone with little or no contact with other inmates in a single cell. Research shows that such confinement generates a lot of negative consequences. Lisa Guenther (2013) in her book Solitary confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives talks about how prisoners lose touch with reality. In solitary confinement there are no meaningful human interactions which leads someone to question what is real and what is inside their head. The symptoms of solitary confinement are anxiety, fatigue, paranoia, headaches, hallucinations, depression, confusion, and uncomfortable trembling. In supermax, their prisoners are left with no human contact for 23 hours per day. Although they might have everything they need to survive or more, food, a bed and even television, they lose track of reality due to the absence of human contact. Guenther’s research reveals the true importance of human connections.

The “great confinement” clearly caught my attention as my family has a history with confinement and discrimination. The outcasts that Foucault is describing in his work are being discriminated against by society and therefore confined. Unfortunately, this phenomenon still exists today around the world. People who are not accepted in certain societies are being confined and removed from their basic human rights. It got me wondering whether the confinement that discriminated people went through around the world could be compared to the confinement we are experiencing as a result of COVID-19. This led to my research question: “To what extent is society experiencing a small portion of the confinement conditions that persecuted people have gone through, and how can we learn from it?”. After all, we have a limited experience of confinement and the one imposed with COVID-19 is collective and due to a global pandemic, not due to systematic oppression.

I was therefore very intrigued to understand more about confinement. In this paper I intend to compare the circumstances of opposite groups (as Eisenhardt, K. M., & Graebner, M. E., (2007) do in their research) in times of confinement. My research seeks to understand the circumstances around the confinement that society is experiencing at the moment due to the spread of COVID-19 and compare it with the confinement that people who fought for their rights have experienced. My primary means of investigating this question will be through interviews. The reason for using interviews and mainly open questions is to give room for emotions, anecdotes and information shared spontaneously in an informal exchange. It also allows for humble enquiry (Schein, 2013), with no preconceived ideas or beliefs.

Due to the exploratory nature of my research, this paper naturally becomes interdisciplinary. It includes Psychology, Social and Cultural Anthropology as well as History. Psychology is the study of mental processes and behaviours, examining the sociocultural, cognitive, and biological influence on human behaviours. Social and Cultural Anthropology is the understanding and exploration of the humankind through comparative studies of human societies and culture. History is the study of political, economic, social and cultural types of history, it is based on a multi-perspective and comparative approach. It helps put into context the confinement that my interviewees went through.

I organize this essay as follows. First part of the body is the protocol development followed by the explanation of my choice of data, the recruitment and preparation of data, the raw data and the analysis. Lastly the conclusion will include theoretical implications, practical implications, limitations of the study and suggestions for further research. Finally, I explore a learning theory as a possible means to learn from this crisis and prevent the rise of further discrimination.

Appendix 1 - Letter from President Eisenhower


I adopt a qualitative method and seek to interview people who were confined due to the corona virus and people who were confined due to discrimination.

Developing the interview protocol

Following the steps of existing research that uses Maslow´s theory to analyse confinement, I have explored Maslow’s pyramid. In 1943, Abraham Maslow authored the paper “Theory of Human Motivation”. The paper developed a theory that defines what an individual's needs to reach his or her potential. It is called the Maslow's Hierarchy of needs and tends to be depicted in a pyramidal form. There are five different levels, the top one being self-actualization, meaning reaching the individuals full potential including creativity. Maslow claims that for self-actualization to be reached, all the bottom levels need to be reached before.

Inspired by previous research on solitary confinement (Bassett, 2016), my interview data will be categorized into the five Maslow to compare both groups. I gathered data about i) the lowest level: physiological needs (e.g. access to food and water); ii) heir safety needs, (meaning fear and security); iii) belongingness and love need (e.g. intimate relationships, communication, and friends); iv) esteem needs (e.g. feeling of accomplishment and prestige) and v) self-actualization in terms of creative activities.

I will adapt from Lisa Guenther’s research (Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives),that is mentioned above, and will compare the outcomes that she identified: Anxiety and depression.

Finally, I added additional human rights that I gathered from United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I developed my interview protocol based on the 5 criteria from Maslow´s theory, the criteria from Lisa Guenther in her book Solitary confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives and a criterium from Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The protocol can be found in appendix D.

Sample Recruitment

All the participants that I planned to interview from the discriminated group were taken from the human right stated in Article 2 by being imprisoned. This Article 2 summarizes most of the rights: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. Furthermore, the condition which they have been imprisoned is sometimes against article I will be using article 5 as another criteria: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

Researching people who were confined due to discrimination was a big challenge because they are extremely difficult to find. Researchers recommend to use snowball sampling in such cases were participants are rare (Useem, 1995). I began by contacting family members related to my three origins (Dutch, Portuguese and Brazilian). All three countries had strong histories of discrimination. Netherlands went through WWII and the invasion of the Nazis (1939-1945), Portugal underwent the Salazar Dictatorship (1926-1974) and Brazil suffered the military regimes of Castelo Branco, Costa e Silva, Emilio Garrastazu Medici, Ernesto Geisel and João Figueiredo (1964-1985). I reached out to distant family members, requesting for interviews or contacts. This was an intimidating experience which was a personal challenge at first yet one that I overcame thanks to my family’s enthusiasm for my topic and their continuous encouragement. I also contacted my mentor and other connections who gave me access to family or friends that had/were experiencing confinement either due to discrimination or COVID-19. Eventually, initial interviews came with one or more other interview opportunities.

I contacted the participants by email, phone, zoom or skype with an introductory document, in which I briefly introduced myself, described how the project initiated and shared my objective and an invite for a possible interview. I also sent in attachment, my interview protocol including all questions. Both the introduction and protocol can be found in Appendix D.

The topic seemed to intrigue the participants and there was a noticeable interest about my desire to discuss the injustice of discrimination with a larger audience. Scheduling the interviews was not easy. Some interviews had to be re-scheduled, I encountered difficulties in scheduling others due to time difference and also experienced misunderstanding due to cultural differences. Additionally, some of the participants shared concerns about the interview and required to remain anonymous for confidentiality or safety reasons. Gathering the 23 interviews took me four weeks.

Data Preparation

I did the interviews according to the communication means that interviews had available. Adam, in Palestine, only had a phone and could only do WhatsApp. Other older participants like Nikoll Prenga (85 yrs. old) or Sinclair Guimarães Cechine (73 yrs. old) only felt comfortable with email and that is how they sent me their answers. I audio recorded all live interviews with two devices to make sure there would not be any technical issues since there were precious interviews to schedule (Nelson Mandela’s prison guard and friend was probably the most stressful of all interviews). Each interview for COVID-19 was shorter in comparison to the discriminated participants: on average, 22 min for COVID-19 vs. 48 min for discriminated participants. Overall, with the scheduling, partial transcriptions, translations, and interview process, it was a total of 35 hours.

The following table shows the profiles of participants. I was fortunate to manage to cover a large range of different types of discrimination. With Nelson Mandela’s prison guard, I touched upon racial discrimination, with Adam, I touched upon sexual orientation discrimination, with Angela, Leane, Sinclair I discovered the Brazilian military regime and with Zunar and Ramon, I found out that drawing could get you into jail. The participants were divided in two groups. Group 1 included the participants that were interviewed about their confinement due to the spread of the disease COVID-19. Group 2 were the participants that were interviewed about their confinement due to discrimination.

The following table shows information and the order of the interviews I completed. 2 out of the 13 discriminated interviewees were secondary data of people who knew the victims (e.g. Christo Brand talked to me about his friend Nelson Mandela, and Mrs Buckle told me about her father). Finally, I took information from a historical film related to the Uruguay military regime and filled in the different criteria according to what I had witnessed in the film and the additional archival research I did online.

Table 1. Participant Inventory

Data Analysis

The following table shows the average answers of the participants. The questions are categorized in sections: i) Maslow's hierarchy of needs, ii) Gunther’s anxiety and stress variables and iii) differences in human rights. The participants were divided in two groups. Group 1 being the participants that were interviewed about their confinement due to the spread of the disease COVID-19. Group 2 is the participants that were interviewed about their confinement due to discrimination.

Table 2: Raw data

Basic Needs:

In the view of Maslow´s criteria, as seen in the table above, every COVID-19 participant reaches the highest degree of physiological needs. Vanessa Barros says “my father is cooking all the time and he is a great cook!”. This contrasts with the discriminated, for which only 15% reported a reasonable quality of food. Ramon Ebole (please see his detailed profile in Appendix F) stated that “black beach food is not food to get, it is a very dangerous food, it is a miserable food, no one normally can get that food” (..) “that is not food, that is for animals, animals too don’t need that kind of aggression of their life”. Ebole is referring to when he was imprisoned, in black beach, a prison in Guinea that is famous for being the ´hell hole`. In light of the very expressive quote from Ebole there is an immense difference on food quality among both groups.

In the line of basic needs, the safety needs of the COVID-19 show that 70% of the participants are in fear of being infected with the disease, which is rather high and in this respect similar to the discriminated. 92% of the group of discriminated were/are scared for their lives although for a very different reason. In my first interview, Almendra (substitute name because he requested to stay anonymous), said: “I had to be careful going out to the streets just not to be seen, not for any other reason. In that sense it ends up being relatively similar at what we have now but more in other contexts, (…) if I failed in anything I would go to jail. Similar to what we have with the virus but instead of wearing a mask, gloves and gel you had to be determined to being careful, only leave at certain hours, don’t go to certain places”. In other words, he suggests (like my results) that both the confinement he lived due to his beliefs and the COVID-19 confinement are similar in that aspect. Around the world there are advertisements advising the use of masks, alcohol, and gloves to protect our-self’s and other from the inflection of the COVID-19 disease. As a result of fear, most people are following safety procedures, as Mr. Almendra mentioned. Even though he was not in a solitary confinement, he disagreed with the military regime of Salazar in Portugal so he could not be seen by any authority in the streets. Being confined at home was the safest option. He had to do take some measures to be safe. Claudia Ijzerman clearly states that she fears for her life on a daily basis due to the virus. Both groups showed fear from the cause of their confinement and both had to take precautions to try to be safe.

Psychological Needs:

Going up to psychological needs we will first look at belongingness and love needs for the group COVID-19. All participants from Group 1 were able to communicate with friends and/or family every day. They knew that their confinement was collective. They were not targeted. They were only one of many responsible citizens trying not to spread the virus. The discriminated group, on average had 3 days per week to communicate with friends and/or family, even though 6 were prohibited to communicate at all. Referring to Adam Jamal´s (also substitute name because still in confinement and under threat) situation, his confinement, still very real, is because of his family and their culture are against his sexual orientation. He told me (referring to his uncle)that “if he saw me in the street he would kill me” and (about what the uncle said to him) “you have to forget that you have an uncle here in Russia, I don’t find you an issue for me. He told my whole family about it (referring to his homosexuality), my mother threatened me and she told me that, if I came back to Palestine, she is going to cut my head off literally. She put my name in the black list for Hamas organization, if they saw me, or if they knew about my coming back to Palestine they are going to put me in jail until they are going to judge me to death”. Adam is afraid of communicating with his family, as they may kill him. He also lost contact with all his friends in Palestine because of being a homosexual. As we can see, the discriminated in contrast with the COVID-19 group have no or little interpersonal relationships, in addition most don’t receive affection intimacy and trust through this limited communication. These aspects are included in Maslow´s theory as belongingness and love needs.


Interestingly, although the difference is not major between the two groups (60% for Group 1 vs 77% for Group 2), the discriminated had a higher level of creative activities. Mandela and Eko grew little gardens to stay entertained, Almendra started sculpting and Marie Madeleine Bertrant started painting and sewing. The COVID-19 group also developed creative needs. Vanessa Barros tells me how she started writing books one after the other. Alexandros uses the opportunity of confinement to learn new dancing skills and fill in the time he has to spare.

Anxiety and Depression:

The degree of anxiety and depression expressed by the COVID-19 group is significantly lower (50% vs. 77%) than the Discriminated group. Leo says how he gets bored due to having to stay at home all the time. Here the intensity of the anxiety is significantly different. Mandela was sad because his belongingness needs were deprived as he could not see his family and begged to hold his grand-child just a few seconds (that is how the friendship with Cristo Brand began). Zunar told me how he was almost ready to quit his most loved occupation (drawing) due to the discrimination.

Human Rights

Where the contrast is also very strong (as much as for basic needs) is on the universal human rights. COVID-19 may at times argue that they would like the right to choose whether they go out or not and get contaminated or not (Almendra), they are clearly not victims of human rights deprivation (100% have their human rights vs. 15% for the discriminated ones). Discriminated participants were deprived from human rights, due to physical abuse (Jose Mujica was beaten up, Adam was raped), psychological abuse (Angela talks about the constant fear of being called to the torture room and the constants screams of her colleagues). The huge gap into both confinement realities is striking.


The average answers show a very big difference between the conditions of both groups. The participants confined due to discrimination have no human rights and contrast with the participants who were confined because of the spread of the COVID-19. Although they may both experience fear, be down or find creative ways to spend their time, the results show that both confinements are incomparable. We are in two different worlds, even though there are small similarities, the conditions and experiences are much more severe in the discriminated group.

As I was doing this qualitative exploration, I was able to cross several disciples to help further understand the confinement phenomenon. I brought further evidence of the contrast between two types of confinement: the one related to COVID-19 and the one related to discrimination.

I realize the number of interviews is still limited and much more could be said by interviewing member of others social classes (the COVID-19 individuals were all from middle to upper class and clearly experienced a very different confinement from poor families stuck in very small houses). Further research could include other discriminations such as income, disability or gender which I have not covered.

Nonetheless, this study was extremely intense and moving for me. It opened my eyes to a part of the world that can be very cruel and inhuman. I kept a journal since the beginning of the research and that enabled me to do a lot of reflecting. I learned a lot about myself, my fears, about other people. I cried after some interviews, I listened with tears to the advice that Adam gave me to always ask questions to grow in life. I learned about the historical context behind all the stories I was being told. I learned about psychology, social and cultural anthropology, cultures and acquired many different skills (from organising my work, to interviewing senior people, to having the courage to ask questions to senior experts). I went through a fundamental experiential learning. What if everybody got the chance to learn as much as I did about COVID-19 and discrimination?

The fact that half of the world is experiencing the same confinement phenomenon is particularly important. Could all people go through the same learning experience as I did? Experiential Learning (Kolb, 1984) is a theory that suggests a process of leaning. It implies that learning is best shared (as compared to top down learning) from life experiences. Beginning with the experience, then reflecting, conceptualizing, and experimentation turns the knowledge acquisition more effective. Could that be a tremendous opportunity to learn from the confinement we are living? Is it a possibility that collectively we can all do experiential learning from the confinement by reflecting on both COVID-19 confinement and discrimination confinement?

Why is it so important that we learn from COVID-19? Because we can already see dangers for society as a consequence to this crisis. The fear and anxiety that this crisis is creating and that we saw in our results, can urge people to protect themselves from those they don’t know and aggravate discrimination. Terror management theory proposes an explanation to a defensive human behaviour and mental processes that is generated by awareness of death. Research shows that the fear and awareness of death brings a natural instinct for self-preservation leading to protection and exclusion (Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon and Tom Pyszczynski, 1986).

After this theory was proposed there were studies on terror management theory on the collective traumatizing event of 9/11. Results showed that their response was fear which leads to exclusion (Baumeister and Muraven, 1996). Dan Caple and Francesca Gino (2020) published an article linking terror management theory with the COVID-19 spread. In their article, they state that potentially the spread of the coronavirus with all the infected and dead, is showing to be another traumatizing event around the world.

If we begin with exclusion and self-preservation, we take the risk to encourage discrimination reoccurring, or even rising. I want to send a message that this crisis in our society is a tremendous opportunity to make a choice: we can be conscious of the terror management theory and the dangers of fear and we can work together to be constructive and respectful so others do not have to suffer unfortunate consequences. Otherwise there is a risk that we encourage self-preservation and do harm to people who may not be exactly like us. In the view of Cable and Gino (2020): “We all have a choice about how to react to the death awareness we’re experiencing amid the pandemic. When we can manage to reflect on death without succumbing to anxiety about it, we are likely to make choices that help us make our best contributions and improve the world rather than hunkering down or lashing out.”. In the light of this phenomenon, is it possible that we learn from the confinement we are experiencing, and that, as a society, we prevent terror management theory from contaminating us.

I was fortunate enough to be allowed in a webinar with Includers, an organization of research and orientation hosting Sarah Bond. This great expert in inclusion has over 20 years’ experience studying organisational and culture change on diversity and inclusion. The meeting was all about the importance of inclusion. I was brave enough to overcome my fear and asked her “in a world of COVID-19 where there is fear of others, what can the younger generation do to help inclusion?” Sarah Bond answered: “Don’t let anyone tell you that inclusion does not matter, hold on to the beliefs that you have at this time and teach us what it really means.”. John Metselaar, who was moderating the session added: “you need to have the courage to do so. Courage is the persistence in the face of fear”. I have learned a lot with this project. It has been a journey of inclusion somehow for me. My not being amongst the top students made me hesitate to even include myself in this challenge.

I also remembered what some of the interviewees said to me: Zunar, at the end of the interview, said “if only this crisis can open the hearts of all people. Adam concluded “I hope the hell I am going through will help future generations” and Mr Brand hoped the 27 years Mandela spent in jail to fight for his rights would inspire people in times of COVID-19: “Just think that there was people out there suffering more than us”. So, my hope in doing this essay, and following my great grand-father’s values, is that my research will reach a larger group and that it will raise awareness of the danger for our society to fall into fear rather than the opportunity to embrace inclusion to build a better world.


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Human Rights
What Are Human Rights? Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to…

All appendices and figures referenced within the essay can be found in the following link. This includes many of the verbatim transcripts from the Discriminated Interviewees.

Sofia Ijzerman Essay Final FV 220520.pdf
decentralize.today - The revolution will not be centralized

In keeping with the privacy ethos of decentralized.today, this file is encrypted, should you have any difficulty in accessing it, please advise us at hello@decentralize.today and will be happily supply a file copy directly.

About the author

Sofia Ijzerman was born in Lisbon to a Portuguese and Brazilian Teacher and a Dutch Entrepreneur. She was raised and currently lives in Portugal.

She is now a 17-year-old student finishing the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Saint Dominic’s International School where she majored in Biology, Portuguese Literature and Psychology.

Sofia has a passion for animals and wants to become a veterinary surgeon, she is going to study veterinary medicine in Portugal.

Her favourite literary style are personal Diaries and her favourite music genre is Rap. Sofia likes traveling and has already explored parts of three continents, Europe, Africa and North America.

She loves soccer and is positioned as goalkeeper, she has played for 7 years and has gone to 3 international tournaments in London and in Scotland, in which she was once nominated as “the most valuable player”.

Her great grand-father (Pieter Ijzerman)’s heroic deeds during ww2, protecting Jews and allied soldiers in the Hidden Villages of Vierhouten have remained a family inspiration and lead to her research on Confinement entitle Covid 19: Learning to Choose Inclusion over Fear.

Ms Sofia Ijzerman - contact details

LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/sofia-ijzerman-2542621aa/

Email - sofiaijzerman@gmail.com

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