July 18, 2016

Students learning to soar with human rights

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
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Caption: The Capital Region Institute for Human Rights' second annual Teen Summer Symposium at NYSUT headquarters in Albany. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Colorful kites are on the list for "all things summer." They dip and curl in playful swirls as people fly them in parks, on the beach or in a field. Today, a group of 47 high school students had a chance to buy a Freedom Kite brooch made of soft thread and embroidery floss, with a tail made of beads, to help support efforts to provide education and share learning experiences with people in Afghanistan.

The teens are attending the Capital Region Institute for Human Rights' second annual Teen Summer Symposium at NYSUT headquarters in Albany, where they are learning about cultural differences and ways to reach out and help others both locally and globally. They are learning that how they spend their money makes a difference in the kind of world they are helping to create; that slavery still exists in labor and human trafficking; that food insecurity affects many lives; that many environmental concerns are in need of advocates; that living wages create stable families.

Sixteen thousand children are dying of starvation every day; 1 billion adults are unable to read; 27 million people are enslaved today — all the startling declarations from a morning video on human rights.

Teachers Thea MacFawn, English and journalism, North Colonie Teachers Association; James Bell, English, North Colonie TA; Bill Reilly, global studies, Bethlehem Central TA; and Kelly Wetherbee, school librarian, North Colonie TA, are leading a spirited program that asks students to delve into books, videos, discussions and speaker talks to open their hearts and minds to taking action. Some of them have already begun that journey; others know their hearts have been leaning that way for a while but they want to know how and where to release that energy.

"We want to give them strategies," explained Wetherbee.

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On this first morning of the weeklong symposium, students learned from the sincerity and perseverance of Razia Jan (pictured above), an Afghanistan woman who spoke to them through laughter, tears and calm passion.

Her warm face, rich with hope, expressed the ups and downs of her journey to improve human rights. After the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on 9-11-2001, Jan returned to Afghanistan, a country with "a long history of war" where the Taliban have been "the worst of the worst."

"I couldn't find my family. I couldn't find my house. I couldn't find my street," said Jan, a widow who had raised a son in Boston, where she consistently took part in community outreach.

She began by working in orphanages to help the babies and youngsters paying the many prices of war; eventually she began raising money to build a school "in an area that never, ever had a school for girls."

Women, she said, have had no rights in Afghanistan and are treated as objects. She saw what the privilege of education has done to change her life.

The Zabuli Education Center opened in Deh'Subz in 2008 with 101 girls – despite much resistance from men and personal threats to Jan.

"I was determined. I was focused," she said, adding proudly that it is the only free girls school in the country, she said.

Girls, she said, are "eyesight," and those who disagreed were blind.

Jan broke down crying while telling the story of some of the struggles the girls face, including being forced into unwanted, early marriages or suicide with rat poison.

The school runs 11 months of the year. The first graduating class, last year, had seven girls – the next one will have 15. Most of them wake at 4 a.m. to do family chores and then go to school. Until a bus was purchased last year, some walked four to five miles each way to attend school and learn. There is no electricity in the village, so the school uses solar; students have solar lights they can take home to do their homework at night. Each girl is given soap and shampoo once a month.

Next door, an institute is opening for graduates of the school so they can enroll in midwifery programs, English as Second Language or computer science.

"We take one step at a time," Jan said.

After all, as the symposium reflects in references to Eleanor Roosevelt—the former first lady who spearheaded the Universal Declaration of Rights -- individual rights begin "in small places close to home."