By Melinda Koster
In mid May, four of my fellow students and I from the Claremont Colleges embarked on a road trip with a purpose. Disturbed by the nationwide silence surrounding the genocide occurring in the Darfur region of Sudan, we resolved to raise awareness about the situation in the hopes of inspiring other people to action.
Four out of the five of us had previously participated in American Jewish World Service's spring break trip to El Salvador. There, we learned about our responsibility as American Jews to be global citizens. A few of us had already engaged in activism for Darfur. Last fall, I co-founded Challah for Hunger, a Hillel-supported organization that hosts weekly challah fundraisers to raise money for AJWS's fund for Sudan and to heighten people's awareness about the genocide. Meanwhile, another trip participant had helped sell hundreds of "Stop Genocide in Sudan" T-shirts on campus to raise money for the International Rescue Committee's fund for Sudan. It was only natural for us to apply the concepts that we discussed during our spring break trip, such as b'tselem Elokim (the image of God), to the specific subject of this genocide, where 500 innocent people die every day and where women and girls are brutally raped.
Over the course of our 11-day journey up the coast of California and back down through the Central Valley, we managed to collect more than 1,500 signatures for our petition against the violence in Darfur. These signatures confirmed for us that we represent an entire movement of concerned individuals. While collecting signatures, we learned that this issue is not yet on everybody's radar. For many, Sudan is an unknown, largely due to the lack of widespread media coverage. This is particularly distressing, since many people who were previously unaware of the situation expressed interest in participating in this anti-genocide movement once we informed them of the issue. Who knows how many people would be anxious about the fate of the people if Darfur if the media fully exposed the atrocities waged there?
Besides collecting signatures outside public venues, we also had the opportunity to speak at high schools and synagogues and meet with our legislators. One particularly moving moment took place during a speaking engagement arranged as part of a rabbi's monthly lunch series. As with all our presentations, we urged our audience to consider writing personalized letters to legislators, citing the late Sen. Paul Simon's observation that the Rwandan genocide would have been readily stopped had citizens made their voices heard. One man questioned this advice and declared that it seemed fairly absurd that legislators needed to rely on their constituents before taking ethical actions. "Shouldn't it be obvious?" he asked. Unfortunately, I was left to relay the cynical response that "no, unfortunately, our leaders must hear from us, no matter the gravity of the situation."
Just a few days later, our group learned the sad reality that this genocide is not a priority for many legislators. While we were warmly received by the field representatives for California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, we encountered lukewarm responses when meeting with our state assembly members and state senators. Some knew nearly nothing about the genocide taking place in Sudan. Others could not comprehend how such an issue pertained to them, though the reality is that California state pension funds are currently invested in Sudan and therefore indirectly support that government's actions. Clearly, this global issue is infiltrating at the state level.
Overall, our trip was successful. We collected numerous signatures to send to President Bush and our California senators, inspired high school students and other Americans to initiate their own campaigns against the genocide in Sudan, and challenged state legislators and state assembly members to reconsider their assessment of Sudan. The trip also highlighted how much more needs to be done. Until more people voice their concern, people in office will be content to prioritize other issues. One state legislator lamented that he could only do so much, given the pile of issues that he must continually address. This attitude will persist so long as we are silent about the situation. I hope that we - as Americans, as Jews and as human beings - can come together to ensure that the death toll of at least 400,000 people is no longer regarded as merely one of a pile of items.
Melinda Koster is a student at Pomona College.