Kathleen Freis (USA)
(Welcome letter: Issue #49 – November 2007)
Szia! Namaste! Hello! As alumni of Teachers College Peace Education program (2000-2002) and former Program Director of the Hague Appeal for Peace Global Campaign for Peace Education (2003-2005), it is a pleasure to share news from my work with educators and youth in Eastern Europe and India over the past several months.
From May to September 2007, I was Camp Director for “Teaching Tolerance through English” Summer Camp, an initiative of the Foundation for Democratic Youth and the United States Embassy Regional English Language Office in Budapest, Hungary. Fifteen educators and seventy-five youth ages 12-15 came from Croatia, Hungary, Kosovo, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia for 2 weeks in Balatonlelle, Hungary. From September to November 2007, I designed and instructed “Media Literacy & Social Responsibility,” a course for 40 students aged 13-14 analyzing different forms of media through a human rights perspective at Eklavya School in Ahmedabad, India. We also went on a camp program in Kutch in the region of Gujarat.
The two areas in Hungary and India were quite distinct. Balatonlelle is the largest lake in Central Europe, a picturesque area
known for its varied water recreation. Kutch is a desert (called Rann) and receives less than 25 cm of rain annually. During monsoon season, Kutch floods and turns into an island! Swimming is uncommon here, because of the extremely high salt content in the water. Hungarian cuisine includes hearty, meat dishes, while Indian fare is spicy and often vegetarian.
Still, the groups had things in common. The countries involved shared histories of civil unrest and modern societies that remain segregated on the basis of ethnicity, religion and class. Both programs brought youth to new environments to engage with peers and societies about personal and social issues. We spent time with each other and local villagers learning about each others’ way of life and celebrating together through native song and dance. Eastern European and Indian youth expressed similar questions, concerns and enthusiasm for things from matters of love to the band, Green Day. We learned about individuals who had positively impacted society nationally and internationally and how we could give back to our own communities. One significant way we showed how to contribute to the betterment of our societies was to become “responsible journalists.”
One night at camp in Hungary, the youth went to the circus and came back skeptical of fair treatment of the elephants. They researched animal rights advocates, returned to the circus to inquire with administration and interviewed fellow campers to gather their opinions. They developed an article and produced a Camp Journal. This journal also included a multi-lingual dictionary inspired by their curiosity in getting to know one another.
Camp did not just improve their command of English, but provided them language and skill to address issues of personal and social importance. Youth expressed delight in meeting new people and pride in having gotten through the rough batches of homesickness and relationship blues. Around the middle of the 2nd week, teachers began to open up about difficult issues they faced in their schools and communities i.e., segregated teacher rooms and cafes. Time was necessary to build trust to share their stories. They expressed how much they wished that others could see the relationships – both friendships and love interests – that developed among Serbian and Albanian youth at camp. Even their own experience working side-by-side with teachers of different ethnicities was special and rare.
At school in India, students were encouraged to create an optional mini project by 1) selecting a topic of interest and relating it to a human right, 2) analyzing a media source on their topic, 3) researching current, local initiatives working on the issue, and 4) suggesting what they might do to improve the situation. Harshit, Jehan, Siddharth, Alak, Ridhi, and Shubha took up the challenge and focused on equal opportunities to education, child labor and women’s rights. In working after school with Siddhart one day, I asked him why he had focused on children’s rights advocacy. “I want to have a hand in this,” he implored. He and his family decided to forego buying firecrackers this year, a very common part of Navratri festivities, since it is well-known that children work in the production factories.
After school, Alak and Ridhi went to the city slums to interview labor workers and learn about their education levels. Articles we read in class measured literacy by the ability to read and write one’s own name. They asked workers to provide their names by writing them on a piece of paper which they did successfully in Gujarati. Alak and Ridhi learned how some of the workers were both working and going to school part-time. They learned about the difficulties workers faced in earning a living wage to support their family and to improve their quality of life. They were touched by the workers’ dreams to become such things as a doctor, teacher and pilot.
Alak and Ridhi began their project with an emphasis on labor rights. Direct investigation, however, demonstrated an inter-relatedness among human rights. If these workers do not know their rights, specifically wages they are legally entitled to, how can they protect themselves? If these workers must work to feed themselves and, therefore, cannot attend school, how will they improve their position? Alak and Ridhi shifted toward inquiry into whether opportunities were equal for all people.
In Hungary and in India, some programmatic or course details were eye-opening for the youth of both countries. Some of them had never traveled great distances or used certain forms of transpiration like a boat or a tractor that we took at camp. Others had never spoken with their neighbors, who were fellow citizens, yet considered “locals who were different.” For the first time they were getting to know their community and/ or others, firsthand.
Despite our short time together, I saw growth in youth for their understanding of society and their individual place in it. In leaving these respective countries and parting ways with new friends, my thoughts did not so much dwell on hope for how these youth would shape the future. Rather, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for the peace being nurtured in small corners of the world by talented, conscientious youth making a difference today.