Darfur: a lesson in hope

December 03, 2006|By Daniel R. Porterfield

WASHINGTON -- Inspired students sometimes change the way we educators see our work. I trace this insight back to a summer lecture in 2004, when 150 Georgetown University students, faculty and staff had the chance to meet Macram Max Gassis, the exiled archbishop of Darfur, Sudan.

That afternoon, Bishop Gassis helped us see the Darfur genocide in human terms. He invited us to imagine government planes dropping bombs on villages and janjaweed killers gunning down children as they ran away.

Ten or 15 of my students, hearing his words, found themselves just one degree of separation from a horror. Observing expressions and hearing their questions, I could see that they were catalyzed to act.

And so they did. First they read up on Sudan. Then they gave themselves a name, Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND), and started recruiting students on other campuses to build awareness about the crimes of Omar al-Bashir's regime.

As their network expanded, so did its work. The students held conferences with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Amnesty International. They organized fasts to raise funds for food and books in the camps. They advocated for legislation to increase peacekeepers and freeze the assets of government leaders. They successfully pushed universities and pension funds to divest their holdings in oil companies profiting from the carnage. Two years later, there are STAND chapters at more than 500 colleges and high schools in at least 10 countries.

A stunning success by almost any standard - except ending genocide.

On that score, human rights groups estimate that the regime has slaughtered at least 400,000 of its own people and driven five times that number into the desert to die. The regime and the militias it backs have wiped out villages, stolen land, killed aid workers, starved refugees in camps, lied about their crimes, and turned the U.N. into bystanders.

What's needed to stop genocide? Cold reason says that this crisis requires the leadership of the great powers, and that college students should instead focus on goals they can achieve.

But cold reason doesn't always deter the young. One Georgetown student, Nate Wright, traveled to Darfur in 2005 to help create a fine documentary that mtvu.com aired for six months. Another, Patrick Schmitt, spent the 2005 summer organizing a nationwide fast for Darfur that raised nearly $1 million. This year, Erin Mazursky, the executive director of STAND, is juggling her studies with the need to spend every waking hour leading the network and trying to make it a sustainable nongovernmental organization.

Knowing these students well, I can say that they are extraordinary people and at the same time typical college kids with many interests and cares. As they extend themselves, sometimes showing the strain, I wonder about my responsibilities. Should I challenge them to deepen their knowledge? Advise them as they organize? Encourage them to keep it all in perspective?

Perhaps this case calls for more than the typical professorial advice. After all, these young people are wrestling with evil - both as a set of specific, preventable atrocities, and as a concept in their developing outlook on life.

We who teach - we who are older - have more experience with evil. We remember the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when the great powers turned away. We have incorporated that calamity into our sense of things. Today's sophomores were about 8 then - too young to have absorbed the dark truths of the time.

So, is it my role to share such sensibilities? For example, to tell them that if they want to see American troops on the ground in Darfur, they need to give this president and Congress a more compelling justification than stopping genocide? Or that Mr. al-Bashir's recent refusal to let in U.N. peacekeepers, combined with the fraying of the flawed May 2006 peace treaty, makes Darfur's future look worse than its past?

My answer is yes - if done constructively. As educators, we can applaud our students' ideals without shielding them from the disillusioning lessons of history. That kind of protection won't help them become leaders.

Our students know that if they can learn to weep for Darfur, then others can too. They know that if enough people make their voices heard, the NATO member states will send in peacekeeping forces, whether or not the U.N. gives them blue helmets. And they know that the genocide in Darfur will someday be stopped, because the moral outrage will grow until it happens.

For my students, the question is not "if" the horror will end but "when." We who are older lean toward "if." But then I listen to these very intelligent and very normal young people, who have such faith in humanity, and "when" feels right.

As teachers, one more role is to let our students move us.

Daniel R. Porterfield, a Baltimore native, is assistant professor of English and vice president for public affairs and strategic development at Georgetown University. His e-mail is porterfd@georgetown.edu.

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