Q&A: Encouraging talking in class by connecting refugee and US school children
Darfur Dream Team is a partnership of organizations and professional basketball players working together to link American schools with schools in twelve Darfuri refugee camps in eastern Chad through its Sister Schools programme. Gabriel Stauring is founder and director of i-ACT, one of Darfur Dream Team's partners. He has played an instrumental role in implementing the Sister Schools Program by visiting refugee camps in Chad and teaching students how to use the technology to communicate and develop relationships with students in the United States. Dasha Smith, a communications intern with the Washington office of UNHCR, recently spoke with Gabriel Stauring. Excerpts from their conversation:
Tell us about the Darfur Dream Team Sister Schools Program and how you got involved?
It started with a visit to the camps by NBA basketball player, Tracy McGrady, guard for the Detroit Pistons, along with John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project a couple of years ago. If you visit one of these camps and ask the refugee children 'what do you need the most?' - even if they need food and clothing - they'll always answer education. When Tracy and John came back they decided they needed to do something about it. So, that's where the first part of the Dream Team idea came about. At first the idea was to get schools in the U.S. to fundraise for education in the camps, but with John approaching me about my multi-media knowledge and experience in the camps we came up with this idea of leaving technology in the camps to allow people in the United States to connect directly with refugees. The bigger idea of the Sister Schools Program is not just about fundraising, not just doing an event and then sending a check. It's about helping the people in the school and in the community here in the US to really get to know the individuals in the camps. So it becomes a personal relationship - it's caring for each other and learning from each other.
How many trips have you now made to Darfur and what impact have they had on you?
My first trip was in 2005 and now I've been out there nine times. It has completely changed my life. When I first went, it was just going to be one trip. I already had a full-time job and was doing this on the side. But what I felt was really missing at the time, and even now, was a way for people to connect with the huge issues. When people see it in the news and read about it, it becomes abstract and something they feel there is nothing they can do to help. I thought it was very important for people to connect at the personal level and see that individuals in the camps are just like us. It changes someone's perspective if they meet a kid who looks very much like their own kid - it makes a lot more sense for them to act and do something about it. For me, going that first time and being in the massive camps with tens of thousands of people and connecting very personally completely changed my commitment to this issue and made me a life-long advocate for the people living in the camps.
Is there a moment or experience that motivated you to working as an advocate for Darfuri refugees?
Rwanda actually had a huge impact. I remember hearing news reports on the tenth anniversary of the genocide and thinking I hadn't done anything at all when it was actually happening. So when I started to hear about Darfur - I knew I had to do something, but I never knew or imagined that I would be this involved and doing it full-time. I started doing very little things like sending emails out to my family and friends telling them, 'hey, have you heard about this?'. And then every day I took one more step to see what else I could do and before I knew it a year later I was walking in a refugee camp.
Can you elaborate on the partnership between the Darfur Dream Team and UNHCR?
UNHCR oversees the refugee camps in Chad. They work with partners who help provide all of the different services in the camps. It was a natural relationship to work with UNHCR which is focused on protecting children and all of the people in the camps. From being in the camps, we see that education means a lot more than what an education might mean to us in the U.S. or other parts the world. It really becomes something more of a life or death situation, meaning that when kids don't have hope they start to look outside the camp to see what they can do. Some join rebel groups, some try to go back into Darfur to find a better education. So many kids have died going back in looking for education. For the Dream Team it's all about building this hope and working with UNHCR to create basic education but also hope for life outside the camp.
When is the Dream Team's next trip to Chad planned and what are you hoping to accomplish while there?
We plan on returning to the first camp we visited for the Darfur Dream Team, Djabal, in the middle of March. We left technology in the camp, and since it's new, we're going to tweak it a bit. We might switch out to an easier computer and do some more training with the students. We also love doing live exchanges where we set up a video feed on both sides and the kids in the camp and in the US get to see each other, ask each other questions and laugh together. We have also thought about coordinating a larger event in the U.S. where a bigger crowd could interact with the kids in the camp.
What are you hoping students in Chad and the United States take away from these experiences?
What is exciting is we're not even sure how far it can go. Just from the few little exchanges we've done we see them connect at a very basic level. They ask each other things like, 'what do you like to do?', 'how do you dance?' and you see kids dance in front of each other on the computer screen. I think the very basic connection of building a person-to-person relationship opens up all of these other opportunities for both sides - being able to learn from each but being able to support each other as well.
Visit the Darfur Dream Team website: http://www.darfurdreamteam.org