BIG STONE GAP - Essay lessons during high school English class would seem to be an unlikely path to awareness of a perplexing situation halfway around the world from Big Stone Gap, but the seeds of knowledge have bloomed into global civic action by students at Powell Valley High School.
Students will stage a Save Darfur rally from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday at the high school to increase public awareness about the situation taking place in that region of the African nation of Sudan. The rally will include a slide presentation, two speakers from the University of Virginia's College at Wise chapter of a national student organization focusing on Darfur, a live band, and bracelets on sale with all proceeds to go toward humanitarian aid.
"It all started with a discussion while working on persuasive essays," said PVHS teacher Heather Sykes of her 12th-grade English classes. "As an example of an emotional appeal in writing, I gave students an essay about a little girl in Darfur (who was tortured, raped, then killed) and it morphed from that. (The students) are researching and writing letters to the governor, members of Congress and in the Senate to urge intervention in what has been happening there. In addition to the organization they started here at the school, all on their own initiative."
Since early 2003, Sudanese armed forces and government-backed "Janjaweed" militia have clashed with two rebel groups in the Darfur region of the country, the Sudanese Liberation Army/Liberation Movement (SLA/SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement. The world community has condemned the apparent targeting of civilian populations and ethnic groups from which the rebel groups draw their support. The government has been accused of responsibility for the burning and destruction of hundreds of rural villages, slaughter of civilian populations, and rape.
According to SaveDarfur.com, in the last four years approximately 400,000 innocents have been killed and another 2 million people forced to flee their homes to live in squalid refugee camps in Sudan or neighboring Chad. More than 3.5 million people are believed wholly reliant on international humanitarian aid to stay alive.
Solutions from the global community pretty much boil down to a lot of public condemnation and talk of sending in international peacekeeping troops - and in fact the United Nations is tasked with that very challenge - but whose troops should be inserted into a de facto civil war is a fairly significant sticking point.
At Powell Valley High School, meanwhile, Sykes' students are getting an education they probably didn't bargain for when they took their seats in her English classes at the beginning of the school year.
"What I think they are learning is to be proactive citizens, not only on the local level but the global level," Sykes said. "They are learning that kids from rural areas like here can be proactive and make a difference. I think it's exciting to see that in action. The kids got very motivated on this issue."
Just what the students expect the United States and other nations of the world to do about Darfur is a good debate to have, she said.
"Some states are passing divestment acts (to dissuade companies from investments with the Sudanese government), and what is mainly being pushed is a diplomatic means," she said. "The U.N. approved peacekeepers some time ago and that's still a work in progress. We're not saying, â€˜Let's send American troops' but, for example, we urge diplomatic pressure on Sudan that, although they say send troops, they also keep putting red-tape issues to block that. We believe diplomatic avenues are not being pursued as forcefully as they can be."
The larger student organization of which the Powell Valley chapter is a part, she said, is also pushing a petition to the Bush administration seeking to enact and enforce targeted sanctions against leaders of the Sudanese regime, implementation of all sanctions and measures authorized by Congress including a ban on Sudanese oil imports, development with NATO allies of a no-fly zone in Sudan, and then that thorny issue about troops.
The student organizations "are not necessarily saying U.S. troops, but what the U.N. pushes and calls for with an international force to protect civilians," Sykes said. "I hope it's not all on the shoulders of the United States. I think our soldiers are pinched as it is."