July 19, 2021

Human rights conference brings together teens from three continents

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
human rights
Caption: A collage of events from years past, courtesy the Academy for Human Rights.

“At this time of increased intolerance and hatred in this country, it is only through education and sharing these stories that we can learn how to recognize the signs of history repeating itself,” said retired teacher Wendy Weisbrot, opening the 14th Academy for Human Rights Summer Symposium.

Aptly themed “Our Stories Will Change the World,” the online symposium brought together 60 students (from three continents) ready to focus on hopeful action. Brave speakers shared stories of war, imprisonment, losses of home and culture, prejudice and change.

Weisbrot shared how her father, Joe Diamond, survived the Auschwitz concentration camp and was among small groups that survived the grueling Death March from Mauthausen to Gunskirchen.

“My dad understood what the results of organized hatred, racism and anti-Semitism could be,” cautioned Weisbrot. It was his mission that what happened during the Holocaust is not forgotten.

“It is hard for students to conceptualize something that is so horrific and incomprehensible as the Holocaust. So, my hope is that when I share my dad’s story, it is more relatable because it is the story of one family,” said Weisbrot, a retired member of the Williamsville Teachers Association in Western New York.

In another profound story, college student Sara Kattan spoke to symposium participants about how she survived war. Her family fled from Syria when she was 10.

“If you don’t flee, you will die,” she said.

Her family left for Lebanon by Uber and lived in a storage room for a year. Then they lived in Jordan for three years, going through interviews for a year and a half before coming to the United States through a resettlement organization.

Resettlement is the desire in situations where people cannot go home.

The summer symposium, co-founded by social studies teacher Drew Beiter provides participants with the opportunity to learn from human rights experts, historians, and advocates, and to take part in hands-on activities and discussions — all to inspire students to take positive, meaningful action toward changing their world.

Speaker Jordan Hattar dialed in to the symposium from the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan — the second biggest refugee camp in the world.

“Stories empower service,” he said. He started his humanitarian work in high school and later founded Help4Refugees, an aid organization that “focuses on listening to the stories, needs, and dreams of refugees in order to act as an international voice for these marginalized individuals and to help identify and deliver their greatest needs.”

His speaking tours raise money for refugees in camps and show what their world is like.

Students also heard from Lisa Heth, executive director of Pathfinders Center in South Dakota. Heth said many adult Native American women go missing, and sex trafficking is prevalent. She shared with students how she was led to open the center to protect and find purpose for victims of human trafficking.

While their worlds were opened to these different stories, students also learned from slam poet Jared Benjamin and artist Nadeh Odeh about how to express themselves and call attention to a cause through words and art.

“What kids do in high school really affects the trajectory of their lives,” said Beiter, a member of the Springville TA. Students have become so enthused with the ongoing social justice movements that this year the Academy for Human Rights will lead a one-day fall international conference.