The holidays may not seem the best time to talk about Darfur.
In fact, though, a season celebrating miracles of light and life and the coming of God into the world is exactly the time to talk about our connections to the homeless, the refugee, the grieving. All those categories are found in the tragedy of Darfur, where fighting is in its fifth year, the number of dead is approaching half a million, and perhaps as many as 3 million people have been displaced.
In ways large and small, the crusade to stop the genocide in Darfur has found important supporters here in Minnesota.
President Bush in 2004 was among the first to call the war there genocide, and Congress agreed, officially applying the term that describes the deliberate destruction of a race or nation by systematic violence. On Wednesday, Bush complained the United Nations has moved too slowly to stop the killing, and called on President-elect Barack Obama to continue to bring pressure against the government of Sudan, where Darfur is a region.
And on Tuesday, a U.S. task force on preventing genocide presented a report to the public on the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the U.N. convention against genocide. The task force, chaired by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, recommended that preventing genocide be a top foreign policy priority, and that a fund be established -- $250 million a year -- to combat genocidal wars.
Albright only learned late in life that she is Jewish and that her grandparents died in the Holocaust. Her own vigilance against genocide was criticized after the 1994 slaughter in Rwanda happened on her watch as U.N. ambassador. On Tuesday, she said that the world must do better and that "preventing genocide is an obligation to past victims."
Minnesotans are helping make sure that obligation to the past is fulfilled in the future.
"We have a remarkable community here, one that advocates for human rights on as many fronts as possible," says Ellen Kennedy, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, which has helped spearhead the efforts. "When people know that innocent people are being hurt and killed somewhere else and that we can do something to help, they are eager to know how to make a difference."
You can start helping as easily as dialing 911: Call the anti-genocide hot line (1-800-GENOCIDE) and get automated assistance in contacting your elected representatives. The hot line is run by the Genocide Intervention Network, an advocacy group with a strong local chapter and a Minnesota website: mngin.org. In the past few years, the anti-genocide campaign in Minnesota has blossomed into a bipartisan effort to prod Washington and the U.N. to make sure there are no more holocausts.
College students have urged friends and families to make cash contributions to the Genocide Intervention Network in lieu of Christmas presents. Already, $500,000 has been raised nationally for the GI-Net, with a fifth of the total coming from Minnesota. The contributions have ranged from $25,000 from one business leader all the way down to the efforts of an 8-year-old girl named Freya. After she heard about Darfur during church, she started to make and sell "sacrifice beads" for $5 (they also are called "good deed beads" or "St. Therese beads") and give the proceeds to the anti-genocide cause. Freya has raised about $600, says Kennedy, and you can help her raise more by visiting her blog at www.deedsfordarfur.blogspot.com.
The University of Minnesota and three cities (St. Paul, Hopkins and Edina) have decided to support "disinvestment in Darfur," an international effort to remove any investments in 24 targeted companies (none of them American) whose spending in Sudan has helped fund the genocide. The state of Minnesota is also among 27 states that have adopted disinvestment policies, and the Minnesota Bar Association is likely to endorse the initiative in the spring. But Kennedy, of the Holocaust Center, stresses that all these official efforts grew out of and reflect the deep beliefs of individuals who have responded to genocide in a far away land by deciding to do something.
"When people hear about women and children being hurt, they want to help," says Kennedy. "They want to help make sure the future is brighter than the past."
All people of goodwill know that prayer, whatever their faith background. In our hearts, we long for a brighter future.
Where I come from, we call it Christmas.
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