Students chose "Human Rights: Getting the Big Picture" as the topic for their Feb. 12 Issue Day discussions at Green Fields Country Day School because they felt it was an issue each in his own way could do something about.
They chose their speakers for the annual event focusing on an issue of national or global significance at least in part to illustrate why something needs to be done.
Lindsay Hook, junior class vice president and Issue Day chair, said many possible topics were discussed ranging from environmental issues to substance abuse.
She was pleased with the day's discussions on the topic because "they gave people a realistic view of what's happening in the world," and inspired students to initiate a school-wide fund-raiser, to support human rights activities.
Green Fields, established in 1933, is a coeducational, nonsectarian college preparatory school for students in grades four through 12 on a 20-acre campus at 6000 N. Camino de la Tierra. Annual tuition for students in the fourth and fifth grade is $7,800, For students in grades six through 12 it's $10,200 a year.
Another major goal of the Human Rights Issue Day event, Hook said, was to help people realize how truly lucky they are to be Americans so they don't take their freedom and other rights for granted.
John Majok who never knew freedom as a boy, would appreciate that.
As a child, Majok's home of Sudan, "the land of the blessed," was anything but, he told the Green Fields students.
At the age of six he was driven out by a civil war between the Islamic government in the north and the Christian black population in the south. He joined as many as 20,000 other youths on a 1,000 mile trek across desert, through a land of crocodiles, lions and leopards, trying to hold out against their attacks as well as cholera and dysentery, thirst and starvation and the bombs and gunfire of strafing planes.
Weeks later, these wanderers, later to become famous as the "Lost Boys of Sudan," reached a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Half had died by then.
Four years later, another change in government forced Majok and the remaining survivors out of Ethiopia and back to Sudan. Those who survived this phase finally ended up in a refugee camp in Kenya, where only Majok's mother and a sister remain. The rest of the family that included 11 children are dead.
In his address to the Green Fields students, Majok listed issues of race, religion and the unequal distribution of resources as the causes of the war in Sudan. The lives of blacks have been made "intolerable" as Islamic forces continue to bring all sectors under their rule of law, he said.
Majok doesn't talk about rights in the sense of such things as freedom of speech. His is a far more basic application of having the right to food and shelter. Freedom is what his countrymen cry for even as they go to their graves, he said.
The civil war in Sudan, now in its second phase, has left more than 4.5 million homeless and more than 2 million dead. In fact, Sudan, the largest nation in Afica, is the world leader in war-related deaths, according to a 1998 study by the U.S. Committee for Refugees.
Majok is one of the lucky ones when all is said and done. With the assistance of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Majok was resettled in Tucson about two years ago and is now attending PIma Community College. There are more than 2,000 Lost Boys of Sudan living in the United States now, including 51 in the Tucson area.
Majok doesn't know his true age or the date he was born. He guesses he's 21. He and his companions were all given a Jan. 1 birthday by officials in the refugee camp.
He has no plans to return to Sudan until the war ends, but said he wants to get an education to be in a position to help the Sudanese when that day comes.
In another classroom anthropology professor Rohn Eloul's talk on human rights in the Middle East was being halted by the sudden raising of a sixth grader's hand.
"What you're saying is way over my head," the boy told Eloul. "Could you break it down to the basics?"
Taking on the formidable task of doing that in an address of less than an hour, Eloul explained how Israel rose to prominence after becoming a state in 1948 because its people had a common identity unlike other nations of the Middle East created by the major powers after World War 1 that continued to battle among themselves based on historical and religious precedents.
In the Middle East, Eloul said, there is no such thing as civil rights, those rights associated with membership in a country that are often codified in legal rights. Rather, all rights are based on religion and who shares those rights is decided by those in power.
To describe Israel as a democracy would be a mistake though, Eloul said, because its democracy is a democracy solely for the Jews not shared by the nearly 1 million Arabs within its borders.
Meanwhile, Brian Flagg, a Catholic Worker at Casa Maria for the past 19 years, and another of the 15 Issue Day speakers, was telling his student audience that the only way human rights are going to be attained for all is through struggle.
"There's a whole lot of greed in our country, our state, our cities and what that means is there are the haves and the have-nots," Flagg said. And the only way to become a have in the sense of attaining basic rights to not only free speech but to enough food, a roof over one's head and proper health care is to take power away from those who have it, he said.
"People all around the globe are doing that right now so there's fairness, equality and justice," he said.
To help them achieve that, "you may have to at times live a counter-cultural lifestyle, you may have to be a traitor to where you come from, to some of your friends, to some of the institutions you might know - your church, your school , maybe even to your family in what you think your family stands for," he said.
In a classroom where University of Arizona Professor Theodore Downing was holding down the fort, students were asked to name the most dangerous target a terrorist can hit. Among their choices were the White House, the Statue of Liberty, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the Olympic Games, Times Square in New York City and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Downing told the class they were all wrong and that the most sensitive terrorist target in his opinion is the U.S. Constitution.
At the end of the day, the school's more than 200 fourth through 12th grade students gathered in the gym for a "walking debate."
Statements were posed to the students and those who agreed with the statement went to one side of the court, those who disagreed the other. A student from each side had to explain the rationale behind the stance.
Four statements were made and stances defended on each. The last statement was "Freedom of speech is the most important human right. The vast majority were in agreement. "Freedom involves all the rights," one sudent argued.
"If you can't choose for yourself, you're not being a human being, you're not being you," another student weighed in.