During the dark, wintry days of Spring semester 2016, students at Washington High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin undertook an extraordinary venture. In their Citizenship class, they had been learning about the lives of refugees living in Dadaab, Kenya – the largest refugee camp in the world. They also discussed the work carried out by the Center for Victims of Torture in Dadaab, where we extend rehabilitative care to survivors of torture among the refugee population.
The students learned about the challenges of camp life and its limited resources and opportunities, and what it’s like for those who have experienced trauma to begin taking steps to rebuild their lives. And some of the students participated in these discussions by adding their own stories; some of the students were refugees themselves. The class examined human rights issues and the conditions that so many hundreds of thousands of refugees endure after escaping oppression and conflict in their home countries.
These young people were inspired to help. In the words of one of the students, “Although I can’t relate to what you are going through, I am terribly sorry that you have to live like that; no person should have to flee their country, and I will do everything in my power to help you guys have better lives.”
They decided to hold a walkathon at the school to raise money for CVT. This was no small undertaking. Their school is located in an area of Milwaukee that has experienced significant economic challenges and increased levels of violence in recent years. The students were young ninth-graders, and some of their families were not in a position to sponsor the walkers with pledges. But they were motivated and continued with their plan.
According to Nicole Palasz, program coordinator at the Institute of World Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the students were participating in a new service-learning initiative within the Milwaukee Public Schools district. The young people planned and coordinated the event ahead of time; some of the students wore signs the week before the walkathon to raise awareness among the teachers, staff and students. She said a number of students “planned to walk despite not having anyone in their lives with funds to support them. A few of us pitched in so they would have sponsors.”
On that Saturday in May, the student walkers were met with hail and sleet. A dark, cold day with miserable conditions like this could have discouraged even the toughest of teenagers. Their teacher, Shari Michael, said, “The silver lining was that our school’s baseball players showed up for their game at 9 am only to be informed that it was rained out.” But these baseball players saw that a walkathon for Dadaab was getting started even in these dreadful conditions, and they decided to join in. As Ms. Michael said, “Several started doing laps for Dadaab against that brutal northwest wind and four hours later were still on the track. At least four adults showed up with cars idling and checks in hand. Our ESL teacher tracked nine miles and lots of stories of past and present students who’ve spent time in Dadaab.”
In the words of one of the participating students, “if you want to change something that looks wrong, then you should do it and not let anyone get in your way or tell you that it’s stupid. Even if they have to do it alone, don´t give up because sooner or later someone will come along and stand with you.”
Ms. Michael said the students tracked laps by tying a ribbon per lap on the football field fence. The following Monday, she said the loud and proud students wore signs that said I WALKED.
Following the walk, Ms. Palasz and Ms. Michael reached out to CVT’s Kenya program staff to explore the possibility of a Skype call to Dadaab with the students. Sarah Farah, CVT Dadaab field coordinator and a former teacher herself, agreed to connect with students at the school to share her experiences. She showed video footage of the camp and conditions there. The students had many questions about life in the camp, including access to food and water and the lack of permanent housing. Ms. Farah thanked the students for their support of CVT’s work in Dadaab and also left the students with this positive message: “Remember that war is not a solution to any problem. Be advocates for peace and support peaceful initiatives.”
In addition to the walkathon, the students also raised funds for CVT’s work in Dadaab through a pottery painting fundraiser. Earlier this summer, CVT received a donation of over $840 from the school. Curt Goering, CVT executive director, sent a letter of gratitude and admiration to the students, saying “Your dedication and perseverance are to be admired and held up as an example to other students: you are all, every one of you, heroes in our eyes.”
A couple of the students also had a message for CVT staff: “Keep your head up! We are following what you are doing, so if you keep your head up, we keep our heads up right along with you!” Another student shared the following words of gratitude: “The work you are doing is very meaningful to the victims of torture,and I and the people you are helping are very thankful for your help.”