On a hot afternoon in February, Adam Joe and two dozen friends walked to the lawn by the Huntington Beach High School quad, flopped onto the grass in unison and played dead for 10 minutes.
It was lunchtime and the campus bustled as usual, with students chatting, texting and heading back from the cafeteria. Only a few stopped to look at the group, who wore mostly black shirts with messages taped to the fronts and backs:
“Women and young girls are raped every day in Darfur,” “80 infants die every day in Darfur due to lack of nutrition,” “I am a victim of the Darfur Genocide.”
When the bell rang, the members of Huntington Beach High’s Operation Save Darfur Club got up and went back to their school days. The “die-in,” as Adam called it, was the first such demonstration the group had done. This one had netted minimal attention, but Adam, a junior and the club’s president, had started making plans to publicize the next event before he rose from the grass.
“It’s a little warm today,” the 17-year-old said. “But knowing that it’s for a good cause, I was happy to do it. I want to do it again.”
The HB Reads program, which takes place every winter in Huntington Beach, spotlights a book about human relations in a blighted part of the world. This year, the organizing committee chose “They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky,” a memoir by three young Sudanese men who fled their country’s violence in the 1990s and emigrated to America at the turn of the century.
HB Reads isn’t the first local program in recent years to campaign for awareness about Sudan. When the volunteer committee started by resident Fred Provencher began lining up events for this winter, it had two groups in town ready to help.
Huntington Beach High, where a Darfur club was launched three years ago, will host the climactic event of this year’s program, in which two of the authors of “They Poured Fire On Us” will meet with students Thursday night in the campus gym.
And Orange County for Darfur, an offshoot of the nonprofit Living Ubuntu, distributed information at three documentary film screenings at the Huntington Beach Central Library in February.
Provencher had never heard of Orange County for Darfur or the high school club before the planning started for this year, but he called them a pleasant surprise.
“It’s always good to have your world enlarged,” he said. “There are a lot of great programs in the county for all sorts of purposes.”
HB Reads, which grew out of Huntington Beach’s Human Relations Task Force, aims to encourage understanding and tolerance in a city once renowned for hate crimes. Next year, Provencher said, the program will likely choose a book about a different part of the planet; the selections for the last two years dealt with Central Asia and the Arctic.
But long after HB Reads wraps up its program this week, the local activists for Darfur expect to continue their advocacy for one of the world’s most ravaged countries. And none of them can say when their job will end.
A life of advocacy
Barbara English hasn’t had a vacation in ages. She believes it has been four years, although it could be more. The licensed marriage family therapist, who founded Living Ubuntu in 2005, sees paying clients one day a week and spends the other six working without pay.
Ubuntu — whose name comes from a South African word that loosely means “inter-connectedness of humanity” — has an overall mission of easing trauma throughout the world. Sometimes, that means leading exercise classes at Orange County emergency shelters. Sometimes, it means hosting workshops for people to deal with grief and anxiety. And sometimes, it means campaigning for political action in Darfur, which English says takes up nearly half her time.
English and Anshul Mittal, the co-founder for Ubuntu, have lobbied members of Congress to oppose the Sudanese government, even posting letter grades on their website indicating the leaders’ level of commitment. They’ve organized photo shoots in which dozens of people spelled out anti-genocide messages with their bodies on the beach, then turned the images into postcards and mailed them to politicians nationwide.
With the unrest in Darfur dragging on year after year, English admits the work can be frustrating.
“A lot of groups started in 2005, 2006, and they thought in a year, they’d be done,” she said. “They thought, ‘We’re going to hold a big rally, we’ll tell our Congress people, and next year, the genocide will be over.’ They’ve really gone through a lot of disappointment, because they thought it would be turned around faster.”
She and Mittal added, though, that Ubuntu’s work won’t be done even if peace arrives in Darfur. With conflicts raging in Myanmar, the Congo and elsewhere, they see trauma worldwide. And after the violence ends, millions of people will still need healing. One of Ubuntu’s long-term goals is to found recovery programs in Darfur and other wounded regions.
“We started with a simple question: ‘What does it take to stop genocide?’” Mittal said. “The cycle of violence will go on and on unless we’re able to stop the cycle of trauma that continues from generation to generation.”
‘No idea’ about genocide
Beth Theriault, the faculty advisor of Operation Save Darfur, also knows that educating people about genocide can be slow going. She got a taste of that a few months ago.
At the start of the school year, Theriault said, she went to Wells Fargo to open an account for Save Darfur. A woman at the bank asked where Darfur was — and, for that matter, what a genocide was.
Theriault, after the initial surprise wore off, explained as well as she could.
“She was shocked,” Theriault said. “She had no idea.”
The club, founded in 2007 by a student who has since graduated, comprises about 40 members this year.
When Theriault called the first meeting in September, not all of the students could locate Darfur on a map. But the cause became their passion outside of class.
Operation Save Darfur has set out collection jars around campus, advertised events on Facebook and during the school’s morning announcements, and held a roller-skating night to raise funds.
Last month, the club’s new T-shirts, featuring a map of Africa with the Sudanese flag and a superimposed AK-47 arrived in the mail.
Sophomore Kayla Scott, the club’s secretary, expects that image to remain on campus longer than she does.
“As much as I love my club, hopefully it won’t be around very long,” said Kayla, 16. “But the way things are going [in Darfur], this club may be around another five, seven years.”
One step at a time
Although violence has raged in Sudan for decades, the current crisis generally dates to 2003, when rebels in Darfur attacked government property. The government responded with force against rebels and civilians.
The United Nations estimates that more than 300,000 people have been killed and 2 million driven from their homes, many of them seeking refuge in other nations.
In recent years, the government and rebels have started peace talks and called cease-fires, then abandoned them; world leaders have debated whether the situation constitutes genocide or civil war.
The United States has yet to deploy troops to Darfur, while U.N. Peacekeepers and the African Union have provided the bulk of the security.
Still, English, who won a 2009 fellowship from the Genocide Intervention Network to help her grass-roots efforts, believes groups like hers have made a difference for people in Darfur.
“You find victory in less violence and fewer people killed,” she said. “You don’t find victory in it stopping entirely, even though that would be a long-term goal.”
The Operation Save Darfur members have grown accustomed to small victories.
Last fall, the club adopted a school through Darfur Dream Team, a charity that pairs American schools with those on the Darfur-Chad border. Operation Save Darfur’s fundraisers have paid for school supplies and teacher salaries; Theriault and her students sent the school a packet of letters after Christmas. The school’s name indicates reverence for the United States: the Obama School.
Club members haven’t received any materials back from the Obama School, but they’ve seen pictures of the students and their classrooms, which, according to Adam, consist mostly of huts. Part of the club’s goal is to raise enough money to build a schoolhouse on the land.
“It’s one of those things where there’s really no limit,” said sophomore Kylie Hasegawa, 15. “You can always go a step up from what you’ve done the year before.”
If You Go
What: Lecture and book signing by authors of “They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky”
Where: Huntington Beach High School gymnasium, 1905 Main St., Huntington Beach
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 11
Information: (714) 374-5307