From Durango to Darfur
DHS students work to spread awareness

SideStory: What is PeaceJam?

Members of Durango High School’s PeaceJam group, from left, Emma Rejholec, Hannah Keener and Tory Scott work on crafting their letters to national and world leaders Saturday at the Durango Sangha. The students are protesting the violent situation in Darfur, where an estimated 200,000 civilians have died and 2 million have fled their homes since fighting erupted in the western region of Sudan in 2003. The students will deliver their letters and those of others to local congressional offices./Photo by David Halterman

by Missy Votel

The Darfur region of northeastern Africa may be thousands of miles away, but a group of local high school students would like to bring it closer to the minds of Durangoans.

Hannah Keener, Emma Rejholec, Tory Scott and Skylar Bolton, as well as recent graduate Chris Hernandez are working to create local awareness about the bloody Darfur conflict along the Sudan-Chad border. According to the BBC, since 2003, more than 2 million civilians have fled the area to escape fighting between rebel groups and pro-government militias. It is estimated that more than 200,000 Sudanese civilians have been killed in what the UN has stopped short of calling genocide.

“It’s been going on for years, but not that many people know about it,” said Rejholec, a junior. “When people find out about it, they want to help. But they can’t help if they don’t know.”

To that end, the students organized a letter-writing campaign last Saturday at the Durango Sangha. About 15 people showed up to write 46 letters to local congressmen, President Bush and the Sudanese president calling for a peaceful end to the conflict. The students plan to hand deliver the letters to the local offices of Sens. Allard and Salazar as well as Rep. John Salazar. They also have received confirmation of a meeting with Sen. Salazar next time he is in town.

“We just facilitated the letter writing, we provided pens, paper, fact sheets, anything people needed,” said Keener, a sophomore.

Keener said the group came up with the idea for a letter-writing campaign after attending PeaceJam, an international educational program that partners teens with Nobel Peace Prize laureates such as Desmond Tutu and The Dalai Lama, in Denver last October. During the last conference, a special 10th year anniversary, teens attended various workshops on how to initiate peaceful change. In parting, they were urged to decide on a service project in their local community in order to apply what they learned, and they settled on Darfur.

“Darfur has been bugging me for a couple of years because I’ve known about it but haven’t done anything about it,” said Scott, a freshman. “We’re taking on the darkest side of humanity. When we tell people about the genocide, they say, ‘That doesn’t make sense.’ And that’s the point, it doesn’t make sense.”

The students came upon the idea of writing letters after attending a PeaceJam session hosted by Oscar Arias, president of Costa Rica who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his efforts to negotiate a resolution to conflict and war in Central America.

The students said they would like to first raise awareness of the Darfur issue and help instigate a call to action to help refugees, many of whom are facing forced relocation, lack of medical care and starvation. The situation in Darfur is so dangerous that not even aid workers can get through to help.

“One of the focus points of their project is to increase awareness and political will to do something about it in our country, county and town,” said Nancy Logan, the group’s adult sponsor who took them to the conference in October. “It’s wild that even fund raising at this point won’t necessarily go to the refugees on the ground. It’s too unsafe there.”

The PeaceJam group is not the only one at Durango High School trying to call attention to the Darfur problem. A Middle Eastern Studies class, taught by Dale Garland, has also taken up the collection campaign, in an effort to raise funds and awareness about the conflict.

In addition to the Darfur conflict, the PeaceJam students are also active in other projects to help further ideals of peace and equality. The students are involved in the school’s Prejudice Elimination Action Team, or PEAT. As members of this group, they undergo training by the Anti-Defamation League and give presentations to local students on prejudice. “We help them recognize their biases,” said Scott. “We just want them to be aware and possibly do something about it. It’s easier to reach kids than adults because children are more open.”

The PeaceJam group also meets once a week to discuss objections and what needs to be done to accomplish their tasks. Keener said ultimately, the group would like to persuade the school to offer a PeaceJam class on peaceful conflict resolution, as is done in some Denver schools. “I’m so sick of reading about wars and war generals,” she said. “I think it would be so much more useful if we were also learning about peace and conflict resolution.”

In the meantime, the students are busy raising funds for their next PeaceJam, next month in Denver. The students held a bake sale last weekend at Wal-Mart and will be putting out donation jars at local businesses to help offset their estimated $1,000 in travel expenses.

Keener, who attended her first Peacejam a year ago as a freshman, said the gatherings have changed her life. “It’s hard to explain,” she said. “We go to these conferences and talk to world leaders, and they listen to us. It’s made a serious difference in my life – how I look at things and my priorities.”

For Rejholec and Scott, they say Peacejam has helped them to focus on what it is they want to do with their lives once they are out of school. “I love going to Peacejam because I feel like it’s a life calling to try to help people and the community,” said Rejholec.

Scott, who said she wants to become a doctor so she can help people in developing countries, said she sees PeaceJam as a global call to action for others, as well.

“It’s our responsibility, really,” she said. “Americans consume tons of resources, and we have the best education available, so we need to put that to action. We can’t just sit by and let it happen.” •