Genocide affected Jen Panosian’s family nearly 100 years ago. Now, a comparable tragedy has stirred her feelings about that grim history.
Massacres and starvation related to a civil war in Darfur, a region in western Sudan, have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The war also has fueled widespread slavery, rape and family displacement. If the killings continue, the death count could approach the estimated 1.5 million Armenians killed by the Turkish government in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923.
Many Armenians were deported or fled. Among the emigrants was Jen’s great-grandfather, who eventually established an Elmira shoe business that continues to be operated by her family.
“I saw similarities (with Darfur). It inspired me to try to make up for what happened in Armenia,” said Jen, 17, a junior at Elmira Notre Dame High School.
Jen was part of a Notre Dame group that journeyed to Washington, D.C., April 30 for the Rally to Stop Genocide. The Elmira contingent joined thousands of others demonstrating for several hours in front of the United States Capitol.
The trip grew out of John Cain’s social-studies class, which highlighted the writing of Nicholas Kristof, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for his columns about Darfur. Regarded as the first genocide of the new millennium, the crisis began in early 2003 with an uprising by mostly non-Arab rebel groups against Arab militias. In response, the militias began a devastating series of attacks on the non-Arab population of Darfur.
This is the latest conflict in a war dating back 50 years, pitting Arab Muslims in the north against Christians and animists — believers in the existence of spirits — in the south. Patricia Ladley, a retired Elmira Notre Dame theology teacher who rode on the bus to Washington, noted that at least 400,000 people have died to date; most of the villages have been totally destroyed; and millions of Darfur natives are barely surviving in refugee camps in Sudan and Chad.
Some students from Cain’s class, deeply affected by what they have learned, began meeting after school to figure out how they could best address the crisis. The idea of attending the Washington rally surfaced during those meetings.
“We look at the pictures of the women and children who don’t seem like they pose any threat, and they’re getting massacred. It seems like if that happened around here, we would be devastated. I was thinking, why not have that same emotion and same disgust for things like that going on in other parts of the world?” Jen asked.
“I’m really concerned to do something. Nobody should have to go through that in their life,” added Danielle Remy, 16, a junior. She and her mother, Nancy, arranged for a charter bus to the rally and ended up recruiting 40 people from Elmira, about two-thirds of them Notre Dame students.
The event was attended by people from many ethnic and religious backgrounds. “What encouraged me the most is there was a lot of young people,” Cain said.
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington gave an address on the National Mall, reiterating the U.S. bishops April 28 statement calling on elected officials to increase their efforts on behalf of Darfur. Among the other speakers were politicians and celebrities — most notably Oscar-winning actor George Clooney, who has made humanitarian trips to Darfur. Danielle said she was initially excited to see the movie star with her own eyes.
“Then, when he started talking and said he had gone over there, it was kind of like he was just one of the other speakers,” she remarked.
“We see (celebrities) on TV and in the newspapers, but it doesn’t seem like sometimes they’re real people. It kind of makes me realize that (Clooney is) human, too. He has the same emotions and same thoughts about current issues,” Jen added.
The April 30 trip is an extension of an initiative begun at Notre Dame last year, when students sent hundreds of letters to President George W. Bush, asking him to take action regarding Darfur. The school later received a call from the White House acknowledging receipt of the letters.
“The (Darfur) people needed our help and it didn’t seem like anything was being done,” Danielle recalled.
Now, Cain feels that voices are growing louder and being heard. He acknowledged that in some small way, maybe Notre Dame had something to do with that.
“It’s hard to measure, but I really think the people have made a difference. And we’re going to continue to pursue this,” he said, noting that the school plans to continue writing letters to lawmakers about Darfur. He added that the Washington visit will certainly lend a motivational spark: “The people got a chance to see democracy in action. They see the opportunity to make a difference.”
“The students were terrific, and we owe them our gratitude for taking the lead and raising local awareness about the genocide taking place in Darfur,” Ladley remarked.
Notre Dame’s bus left town at 6 a.m. and returned immediately after the rally, getting home after 1 a.m. the next day. Cain was particularly impressed with the time sacrifice made by students who also faced upcoming Advanced Placement tests.
“There’s no right decision, but I kind of like the decision they made,” Cain remarked.