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Students Stand Up for Human Rights

Robinson students kick off lobbying project for Sudan.

When Robinson Secondary School senior Mark Roberts learned about the violence in the Darfur region of western Sudan, he knew he had to do something.

Currently, over 2 million Sudanese have fled their homes in Darfur because of attacks by local militias. According to David Rubenstein of the Save Darfur Coalition, many Darfur refugees describe torture, rape and slavery at the hands of the militia members.

"I've seen pictures from Africa of starvation and systematic slaughter [in Sudan]," said Roberts. "I didn't think it’s right that we should stand by." He described a story about a young boy in Darfur who was enslaved and, after trying to attend a religious service, had his feet nailed to boards by his master. The boy, now 15, was freed and has forgiven his master, said Roberts.

"Think of how much one person can affect a mass [of people]," said Roberts. "I really, really want to raise awareness about this. I got the feeling nobody knew much about it."

That is why, half a world away from eastern Africa, Roberts and a group of Robinson students are trying to instigate change. On Monday, Nov. 28, marketing students' association DECA introduced the student body to the Sudan issue at a town hall meeting. Speakers representing both the Sudanese government and human rights groups gathered to discuss the issue at the meeting, which drew hundreds of Robinson students.

"Students have very often led the way in creating social change, in college and in high school too," said Rubenstein, who was also a panelist at the town hall meeting. "This situation is very important to continue to press the government and for students to be leaders."

"This is a preventable crisis," said panelist Sam Bell of the Genocide Intervention Network, a lobby he helped launch while at Swarthmore College in 2004. "It’s not the tsunami. It’s a manmade crisis, people did it and the U.S. has the power to help stop the people who are doing it."

People do not know a lot about Africa, said Bell, which makes outreach at student assemblies such as Robinson’s especially important.

"The biggest thing we are trying to do is make students aware of what is going on in Sudan and especially Darfur," said marketing teacher Jay Walker.

THE U.S. SENATE passed the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act Friday, Nov. 18, said Walker, but left out a section promising $50 million in aid to the region. On Dec. 19, he said, DECA members and other Robinson students will head to the Capitol to lobby for the act.

Robinson DECA students lobby every year as part of their marketing classes, said Walker. Last year, he said, the students raised $4,000 for Ethiopian women.

"Marketing is very much akin to persuasion," said Walker. "So when students lobby their House of Representatives or Senate member, they practice what they learned in the classroom."

To Robinson junior and DECA member Zeina Al-Khalaf, lobbying is marketing with a conscience. "I think, personally, that lives of people are so much more valuable than goods," she said.

Zeina recently spent time in Egypt, she said, where she saw many Sudanese refugees.

"These were parents and children trying to start new lives, and they had nowhere to go," said Zeina. "It’s not fair for them not to be able to live in their own country."

Along with panelists Rubenstein and Bell, the DECA students invited Sudanese ambassador Salah Al-Jinaid to speak and provide the government’s perspective.

According to Al-Jinaid, the Sudanese government’s stance on the situation is that definite human-rights abuses occur in Darfur, but the government must reach a peace agreement with rebel groups before anything can happen.

"What we need now is not emotional things, we need practical things," said Al-Jinaid.

Rubenstein said that Al-Jinaid was not telling the full truth about the extent of the violence in the region. Because of restrictions on travel and photography in the Darfur region, he said, it is hard for the world to grasp the reality of the situation.

Al-Jinaid said that Darfur has no such travel restrictions. Student questions ranged from why U.S. citizens should spend taxpayer dollars on a faraway conflict to concrete ways to help.

Many reasons exist why the U.S. should get involved with the conflict in Darfur, said Bell. Besides a moral responsibility, he said, the U.S. must act when it acknowledges a genocide, which President George W. Bush did in June.

Some concrete ways to help include calling and writing lawmakers, said Rubenstein, whose organization sells green rubber wristbands to raise money and promote awareness.

"I’m touched and inspired to see young people taking action, young people taking responsibility for the world and acknowledging that we each have a role to play in ending genocide," said Rubenstein.

"If we are going to make a big deal about the genocide in Iraq a few years ago, then we should do something about the current genocide [in Sudan]," said Robinson junior Josh Kellaher. Josh, who left regular classes to attend the meeting, became inspired to focus on the Sudan issue by a friend in South Carolina, who organized a human rights group. He plans to get involved with human rights organizations dealing with the Darfur conflict, and will lobby on Capitol Hill with his fellow students Dec. 19.

"I’m looking for any way to help out, and this provides a way to do that," said Josh.