Mrs. Vogel's Abolitionists

Fifth graders in Colorado have taken on abolishing slavery in Sudan as their class project

BY: Anne Morse

 

It was the mother of all field trips. Last month, 26 fifth-graders and their teachers boarded a plane in Denver and flew to Washington, D.C. Standing in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, the 10- and 11-year-olds told reporters that their goal was to alert the world to the fact that, 135 years after it was outlawed in America, chattel slavery is thriving in Africa today.

The kids are the students of Barbara Vogel, who teaches at Highline Community School in Aurora, Colo. Two years ago the class was shocked to learn that thousands of African woman and children were being traded as slaves in Sudan. The kids--many of whom are African-American--broke into tears at the news.

Determined to help, the class formed an organization called the Slavery That Oppresses People (STOP) campaign. Starting with a few pennies in a jar, Mrs. Vogel's kids began putting their lunch money where their mouths were. Their goal: to raise money to buy the freedom of Sudanese slaves. "We sold lemonade, we sold T-shirts, we sold candles, and we sold our old toys," says 10-year-old Amandeep Kaur.

They also wrote hundreds of letters to celebrities, political leaders, and the press, asking for their help. They had hoped to meet with President Clinton, but he was out of town when the kids came to Washington. "I was going to say, 'Why do you turn you back on these people? They're just like your mother, and you need to help them,'" said 11-year-old Dong Cho.

Help--mainly in the form of beaming a harsh light on how Sudan is treating its citizens--is what a number of congressmen and senators are promising. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Penn.), co-founder of the Congressional Religious Prisoners Task Force, warned the kids that little will change until the passions of Americans are engaged. "The saddest part of the Sudan story is how grossly underreported it is," he told them. Those who want to help the Sudanese must "shine a spotlight" on the human rights abuses, he said, and press the Clinton administration not only to put diplomatic pressure on the Sudanese government but also to encourage other countries to do so. "The fact that the international community has hardly lifted a finger to change the situation is enough to tempt one to despair," said Pitts.

According to Christian Solidarity International, a Swiss-based human rights group, those faraway slaves are mostly Christian women and children who are captured during raids in southern Sudan and sold into slavery in the Arab north. It's the most vicious aspect of a civil war that's raged in Sudan for 16 years, when the National Islamic Front snatched control of the government. Nearly 2 million southern Sudanese have died, many because the government will not allow Western food aid to reach the south; nearly 5 million more have been driven from their homes. Tens of thousands of people have been captured in slave raids. Once in bondage, they are beaten, branded, and forced to convert to Islam. Young girls face genital mutilation and sexual abuse from their "masters."

Since the STOP campaign began, the kids have raised nearly $50,000--enough money to free some 2,000 slaves. Other anti-slavery groups have redeemed thousands of others and helped them get back to their families. But their efforts have raised questions about whether good intentions are making a bad situation even worse.

UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, is among the harshest critics of modern-day abolitionists. UNICEF officials call the buy-back program "absolutely intolerable." They claim redemption not only does not alter social attitudes that condone slavery, but countenances the notion that it's ethical to buy and sell humans.

Human Rights Watch--while sympathetic to abolitionist efforts--says slave redemption creates an economic incentive to capture even more slaves--especially since the price redeemers pay for slaves--currently $35--is sometimes double what customers pay: $15-25.

Spokesmen for human rights organizations have answers to both these concerns. First, they counter that they are not "buying" slaves; they are freeing them from a horrific life of rape, torture, and hard labor. Thus, they believe redeeming slaves is a deeply moral act. They also contend that the moral debate over emancipating slaves with cash was settled 150 years ago by American abolitionists who bought the freedom of Frederick Douglass (and others) for fear his "owner" would drag him back into slavery.

"Have any of those...who lecture us on the morality of redemption ever looked into the face of a slave?" asked Catholic Bishop Macram Max Gassis, an outspoken critic of the Khartoum government, in a Boston Globe op-ed piece. "I have looked into such faces. I have seen the inhuman brands on their skin burned in by the hot irons of their 'masters.' I have also looked into those faces once they have been freed from bondage. Now I see that they have hope--and even joy."

Moreover, he says, it is "politically naive to expect that if the redeemers went away...the slave markets would also disappear. The regime is committed to the destruction of my people."

Bill Saunders, a Washington human rights attorney who assists the bishop, told Beliefnet that whether slavery is profitable or not, the Sudanese government will continue to exploit it "as a weapon of cultural and religious genocide."

Theresa Perry-McNeil, public relations and marketing director in the U.S. for Christian Solidarity International, says Arabs who retrieve slaves are paid $35, but it actually costs CSI $75 per slave because the organization must charter flights into Sudan, and then provide food, clothing, and medical care for those they redeem.

Mrs. Vogel's kids--now back in Colorado after hobnobbing with senators, presidential aides, and the press--are hoping their recent field trip to Washington will help make slave redemption a thing of the past because slavery will be eradicated. As 11-year-old Charles Hayes explains, "We want to let the whole world know about this issue."

Mrs. Vogel does, too--but she also wants the world to know how proud she is of the lessons her kids have learned about the value of volunteering.

"I can think of no greater skill or knowledge a child could have than to know it's everybody's responsibility to make the world a better place," she declares. "That's how you balance the mind and the heart. That is education--true, meaningful education."

Francis Bok, a young man who escaped many years of Sudanese slavery, told the kids, "You are our heroes. We know because of you, the world has not forgotten us."

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