July 22, 2014

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‘Don’t be bystanders’


Human rights activist John Prendergast speaks to area students at Lake Ridge

NORTH RIDGEVILLE — There aren’t too many people who can say when they were certain what their lot in life would be.

Author and human rights activist John Prendergast said it came for him one afternoon in high school.

CHUCK HUMEL / CHRONICLE
John Prendergast answers questions from students and faculty

He was in detention when a teacher strongly suggested he spend the time perusing literature on the atrocities others face in the world.

Now 45, Prendergast said before that incident, he had never stepped outside the comfort of his own middle-class American upbringing to realize others in the world aren’t as fortunate as him.

But after seeing the anguished faces of child rape victims and refugees displaced by genocide, it was like a switch turned on, and he knew he had to do something.

Prendergast addressed nearly 300 students from more than 30 schools this week at Lake Ridge Academy. His message was that students are not too young to get involved. While much recently has changed in Darfur, a region in crisis in Sudan, more can still be done, he said.

“Don’t be bystanders,” he said. “You can help save lives. I know. I’m a witness.”

Getting involved doesn’t start with the “how,” Prendergast told students. It begins with the “why.”

“Who among us in this room is not moved just a little bit to see a homeless woman and child living in the park? Now, imagine walking through a park and seeing 100,000 women and children all with heart-wrenching stories of pain, suffering and survival,” he said. “How could you not be moved to help?”

The conflict in Darfur started in early 2003 after a rebel group began attacking government targets, saying the region was being neglected by the capital city of Khartoum. The rebels say the government is oppressing black Africans in favor of Arabs. It is believed that the Janjaweed militia are trying to “cleanse” black Africans from large swathes of territory while the government is doing nothing to help the civilians. Many believe the central government is in control of the militia.

The genocide in Darfur during the past four-plus years has claimed more than 400,000 innocent lives and displaced more than 2.5 million people from their homes.

After Prendergast’s lectures, students eagerly peppered Prendergast with questions, specifically wanting to know how they can make a difference in a situation halfway around the world.

“You can read about what to do, but seeing someone so passionate about what they are actually doing is a great motivator,” said 17-year-old Rubina Ratnaparkhi, of Amherst.

Ratnaparkhi is a member of Lake Ridge’s Humanitarian Aid Society, a student group that started after the 2001 earthquake in India. Since then, the group has held an annual culture festival to raise money for humanitarian causes. They have helped fund a hospital in Africa and donated to the construction of a school in Bangladesh.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 653-6268 or lroberson@chroniclet.com