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Swain student raises money to help those half a world away

By Michael Beadle

Darfur may seem a world away from Bryson City, but a group of Swain County High School students is raising awareness about the horrific refugee crisis going on in the east African country of Sudan.

The Save Darfur Student Coalition, a group of about 15 Swain County High School students, will be raising money for the hundreds of thousands of refugees starving and at risk of disease in west Sudan in what world aid agencies are calling an overwhelming humanitarian crisis.

Sudan, which has endured civil war and famine over the past two decades, found itself in turmoil once again beginning in February 2003 after opposition groups in Darfur demanded fair treatment in the country’s political process and launched a rebellion against the capital in Khartoum. In response, government troops backed by Arab Janjaweed militias began systematically attacking black villagers in Darfur, a desert region roughly twice the size of North and South Carolina put together. These militias have been burning crops, poisoning water supplies, and murdering, raping and terrorizing villagers.

Marnie Bryson, a senior at Swain County High School who attended the prestigious North Carolina Governor’s School this summer, is spearheading the “Save Darfur” event in Bryson City. While studying social science at the Governor’s School, she went to hear a guest speaker discuss the situation in Darfur. Bryson and other Governor’s School students got involved with a Save Darfur Coalition and sold T-shirts that raised about $3,000 for the cause.

When school started back this fall, Bryson got together some fellow students at Swain County High School and showed them a PowerPoint presentation about Darfur. Generating student interest, Bryson helped start a local chapter of the Save Darfur Student Coalition. They sold dark green Darfur T-shirts with a message on the back: “Break the silence. End the violence.”

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The group decided to do more public awareness events, but in December, Bryson had to have brain surgery to remove a benign tumor, so she was out of commission for about a month. She came back to school this month with 50 stitches and medication, but she’s still charging ahead with exams and college plans to major in international relations and perhaps join the Peace Corps.

Bryson is no stranger to activism. She admits to getting on her soapbox every now and then, speaking against big-box stores like Wal-Mart and the ever-present McDonald’s. Learning about the crisis in Darfur, Bryson was outraged at the horrific ethnic violence against innocent civilians.

“It’s the government killing its own people,” Bryson said.

About 400,000 men, women and children have died in the Sudanese genocide that human rights groups are comparing to the Rwandan massacres in the mid-1990s. Some villages in Darfur have been burned not once but twice. Even as hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into neighboring countries and out of their home villages, the Janjaweed militias have continued to attack refugee camps and prevent humanitarian aid from reaching families in desperate need of food and fresh water.

An estimated 2.5 million people have been displaced from their homes, creating unsanitary refugee camps that could leave hundreds of thousands of women and children suffering and dying from disease.

The African Union, which has 6,000 peace-keeping troops in Sudan, is running out of funds, and the United Nations’ force of 10,000 peacekeepers and police has been unable to stem the violence. Meanwhile, the United States has done little to intervene, Bryson said.

“I think we have so much on our plate right now,” Bryson said, referring to the Iraq war and massive post-hurricane reconstruction along the Gulf Coast. “I just think we’re afraid to go into another small country.”

Nevertheless, Bryson wants to get the message out that the people in Darfur will not be ignored. The Jan. 21 Save Darfur event is aimed at educating the public and sending support.

“I’m going to open up the show with a PowerPoint, so everybody knows why we’re here,” Bryson said.

The Save Darfur Student Coalition is also planning to raise money for Darfur with a chili dinner from 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Everett Street Diner in Bryson City. Tickets for that night’s dinner will be $5 per person, and all proceeds will be sent to Darfur. For more information, go to the Web site

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