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Robinson Students Take On Dirty Diamonds

Robinson Secondary School students Gabriela Eljaiek and Allison Garfield were happy to admit their faux diamond jewelry was not the real thing. Eljaiek gazed at her sparkling ring.

"It was $6," she said. "I got it at Kohl's."

Garfield sported diamond earrings, two in one ear and one in the other. She lost one but wasn't worried.

"Oh, they're fake," she said.

Eljaiek and Garfield wore their jewelry on their class project "Protect Free Enterprise: Stop the Sale of Dirty Diamonds," in which they traveled to Capitol Hill, lobbying against the diamond trade in Sierra Leone. Garfield contacted Amnesty International about reports of the diamond trade funding terrorists and the physical abuse incurred by the Sierra Leone diamond miners. It was initially Garfield's class project and turned into a political and marketing lesson for two busloads of Robinson students.

While DECA is a marketing class and the project had political ramifications, Garfield looked at the marketing aspect.

"We're marketing the idea," she said. "We're still trying to push retailers to sell clean diamonds."

Garfield looks at diamonds differently now, and she even turned it into a family discussion on Thanksgiving Day with her mother.

"She was surprised she didn't hear about it sooner," Garfield said.

A classroom video that her DECA teacher showed about the diamond trade set Garfield's wheels in motion.

"We all felt we need to do something about it," she said.

The students contacted representatives from Amnesty International as well as World Vision, a Christian relief organization, to learn more about the cause.

"DIRTY DIAMONDS" were the buzz words being chanted on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol, on Tuesday, Dec. 10. The demonstration coincided with Human Rights Day.

"Hey, hey; what do you know. Dirty diamonds have got to go," was one of the demonstrators' chants. Amnesty International and World Vision members were on hand at the Capitol to meet the students. Mona Cadena, with Amnesty International, appreciated the students’ efforts to get the word out. She was there with Adotei Akwei.

"They contacted us. I did lobby training at the school," Cadena said.

Akwei talked about the progress made so far in the effort. The Kimberly Process is a diamond-identification process that has yet to be passed into law, but supporters are behind the effort. Kimberly is a town in South Africa.

"On Nov. 1, a new diamond certification came into place, the Kimberly Process. They'll be lobbying for effective legislation," Akwei said.

In the letters written by Garfield describing the diamond effort, which were intended for each office of Congress, the Kimberly Process "establishes a certificate of origin framework for rough diamonds. However, the U.S. Congress has not acted to prevent the sale of blood diamonds from being sold in American jewelry stores," it read. In some of the students’ explanation of the process, President Bush was blamed for not acting on the measure.

Larry Barrett represented Howell Tate, who was part of the Jewelers of America trade association. He watched the students’ activity in front of the Capitol.

"It certainly shows some energy. We follow this issue on behalf of our clients," he said.

Robinson senior Charlotte Sleeper was in her first year at DECA. She had a sign as she headed into the House Office Building.

"We're going to use it like a visual to the Congress people," Sleeper said.

THE FIRST ROADBLOCK the students encountered was at one of the House buildings, where the security guards made a ruling on the number of envelopes each student was allowed to have. It wasn't something they had rehearsed, so Garfield was left holding the envelopes out in front of the Buchanan building.

"I did not sign 435 letters to not take them in there. If we can't take our own stuff in, we'll have to wing it," she said, but then contacted Walker on the cell phone.

Walker and Rory Anderson, the World Vision Africa policy adviser, showed up on the steps to hash out a plan.

"These guys work for you," Anderson said of the elected officials.

"This didn't happen last year," Garfield said. She came with the class on a similar project last year involving tobacco.

Walker's plan to go around to the other door, a few at a time, worked, and soon all the students were wandering the halls of the Buchanan Building. Each group of students had 12 offices they were to visit and hopefully talk to Congress members.

That's where they hit obstacle No. 2. It was around 5 p.m., so hardly anyone got to talk to an actual U.S. representative. And Congress was in the middle of an office shuffle, so many of the offices had changed, and painting equipment lined the halls.

"This is really the only time we can do it," Garfield said.

The assistants were good at taking the materials. First stop was Rep. David Drier (R-Calif.). Staff assistant John Taylor intercepted the package.

"I'll make sure he gets it," Taylor said.

"I'll make sure he gets it" was also the reply from the assistant in U.S. Rep. Rob Portman's (R-Ohio) office.

"He's getting ready to go to a meeting," said an office assistant in U.S. Rep. William Jefferson's (D-La.) office. At the office of U.S. Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), legislative assistant Clay Earl surprised the students with a question of his own, pertaining to the identification of the diamonds.

"By law, are they required to be?" he asked.

U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11th), from Northern Virginia, was on Walker's list, but he had already moved offices. U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10th) was another representative from the western Fairfax-Loudoun area, and the students were happy with the reception they got from his assistant, David Dettoni. Wolf was familiar with the dirty-diamonds issue.

"He's been on the ground with this issue," Dettoni said.

Gray was happy to hear that from a local representative.

"That's was awesome, he knew about it. That's wonderful, especially since he's from our state," she said.

Garfield was taking notes and told each office she would follow up with a call.

The Robinson students left the building victorious, even though they didn't speak to one elected official. Gray expected a worse reception and was surprised at the friendliness.

"All the assistants we've talked to have been very nice. We prepared for worse," she said.

BACK AT THE BUS, Walker said they used to come earlier in the day, as a legitimate field trip, but had to change it to after school.

"Since the SOLs [standards of learning tests], field trips have been curtailed," he said. "No other high school is doing this."

Other students talked about their experiences at other buildings. Behzad Ghoraishi was at the Rayburn Building. In one office, he recognized the representative by a picture in the office.

"I saw one, he walked in the door," he said.

Sarah Barbour encountered one person who had heard about the "dirty diamonds" from a movie.

"One of the people I talked to heard about it on the new James Bond movie," she said.

Their next step of Garfield's project was to go to jewelers in the area and talk to them about the issue. Allison Wright, the DECA photographer on the trip, already had gone to some area diamond retailers to see if they were aware of the issue. Kay Jewelers and Wal-Mart were two retailers she visited.

"Kay Jewelers, they gave me a sample of certificates showing they weren't involved. Wal-Mart, I wasn't so sure about," she said after Wal-Mart failed to produce certificates.