Mrs. Vogel's Abolitionists

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

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.

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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."

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Anne Morse
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