Sudan aid should not be left to children

June 12, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

TEACHING, TO paraphrase a famous Shakespeare quote, is the noblest profession of them all. Barbara Vogel, an elementary school teacher from Aurora, Colo., might be the noblest of the noble.

It was in early 1998 that Vogel read an article to her fourth-grade class about slavery in the northeast African country of Sudan. The story was from the local paper, with a headline that read "Slave Dies In Sudan." Vogel read the tale to her class because she felt some correcting was in order. She had taught her youngsters that the days of chattel slavery were long gone.

"Nothing in my career prepared me for the tears that ran down the boys' and girls' faces alike as I read them this story," Vogel said as she testified before a House of Representatives subcommittee on international affairs a day before the start of the Memorial Day weekend.

Also testifying were Charles Jacobs of the American Anti-Slavery Group; Mark Ajo and Victoria Ajang, two southern Sudanese who spoke firsthand of the terror visited almost daily on their countrymen; Frances Boyle, who, along with a group of ministers, stayed in a southern Sudan village that was bombed frequently by government troops; and Dr. Millard Burr, who told the subcommittee that the aim of Sudan's government was "to depopulate and destroy Bahr al-Ghazal."

Bahr al-Ghazal is the southern Sudan province that is the home of the Dinka people and the place where Arab slave raiding has gone on since 1820. While Americans have worked themselves into a state of pity and compassion for the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and the thousands who have been killed there, we sit on our duffs about the ethnic cleansing in southern Sudan and the millions who have been killed there.

How concerned are American politicians about what's happening in Sudan? It should be noted that many subcommittee members didn't hear any of the witnesses. They had already split to celebrate the holiday.

Sudan's painful history of slavery and civil war may or may not have been known to Vogel as she read to her class. But what she and the class did know was that education is not just the learning of a few facts and then being dismissed from school to the comforts of home.

"As a teacher," Vogel told the lawmakers, "I believe my students should think globally and act locally." Her students have learned her lessons well. After Vogel read the story of modern slavery, her students didn't ask, "Is it lunchtime yet?" Instead, they asked, "What are we going to do about this?"

What they did has made international headlines. Vogel and her students started the STOP (Slavery That Oppresses People) campaign. After learning that others had sent money to free slaves in Sudan, Vogel's class started raising money, collecting enough to free 9,300 people. How much money did these tykes raise? Freeing one slave in Sudan costs 50 bucks. Do the math.

"These are children not with guns in their hands but with pens in their hands, writing for freedom," Vogel said. Dressed in a black skirt and jacket, she wore her glasses when she read from her prepared statement, then took them off and tapped them lightly on the desk as she often looked up to speak directly to the subcommittee members.

Vogel's glasses were back on as she read to the representatives questions and comments her students had put to them.

"What are you prepared to do about the worst crime against children in modern times?" one student asked, apparently aware that women and children are the ones most frequently hijacked into bondage by Arab militias.

"Look at the 9,300 people we have helped free with no weapons, just pens," another said.

"If you can't help them, who can?" a third queried.

After the testimony ended, Vogel answered questions from the media. One question concerned her reaction to the paucity of lawmakers in attendance.

"What celebration, in what city, what flight, can be so important with such genocide going on?" Vogel responded. The children in her class are aware enough to see the double standard in President Clinton's policy of bleeding his heart out for ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and leaving the Dinkas of Bahr al-Ghazal to suffer worse oppression.

"They know it's a similar issue," Vogel said of her kids' comparing Kosovo and Bahr al-Ghazal. "We believe deeply that these people need help and what's happening there is wrong. Why has no one stepped forward to help these people?"

Pub Date: 6/12/99

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