Mark Hanis had been closely following the news of the conflict in Darfur since it started in 2003. The grandson of four Holocaust survivors, he knew he had to do something.
But Hanis was just 20 and a junior in college. What could he possibly do about Darfur? The crisis was enormous and growing - as many as 200,000 people have now died and about two million people have been forced from their homes by pro-government Arab militias who rape women and burn villages. The violence has been identified as genocide by numerous world leaders and called “the world’s worst human disaster” by the United Nations.
"I had been trying to answer that question: 'what can I do?’” Hanis said. "What can we as citizens do? I'm excited to say: 'a lot'."
In 2004, he co-founded the Genocide Intervention Fund (GIF) with a fellow student at Swarthmore College, Andrew Sniderman. Their aim was to raise funds to support the cash-strapped African Union troops who were beginning their roles as peacekeepers. Now GIF is among the leading organizers of support for peace in the Sudan, sponsoring public awareness campaigns, fundraising, lobbying, and monitoring progress on the ground and in international policy.
Hanis is part of a flourishing global citizen's movement that’s pressuring fellow civilians and the international community to act ethically to protect the people of Darfur.
Thousands of students and concerned citizens from around the world have come together over the past several years to work for peace in Darfur and to send humanitarian relief to victims. At Harvard, students, faculty and alumni convinced the Harvard Corporation to divest its $4.4 million holdings in PetroChina Company Limited, which has been active in Sudan. Their success sparked similar divestment movements at U.C.L.A., Swarthmore and countless other colleges.
"It's unbelievable, I've seen nothing like it since the anti-apartheid movement in the '80s and early '90s," said John Prendergast, a former U.S. State Department advisor and a member of GIF’s advisory board.
Experienced advisors were key to GIF’s growth as an organization. The students who organized GIF recognized their limits and recruited as many experts as they could, including Anthony Lake, former Assistant National Security Advisor, author and human rights advocate Samantha Power, whose book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide inspired the group, and Gayle Smith, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Senior Director of African Affairs at the National Security Council.
Hanis said that Smith, in particular, helped make GIF a reality. She acts as a liaison to the African Union, which agreed to accept GIF's donated money - the first time it had ever worked with private citizen donors.
Putting that kind of lofty network of experts together required some fierce determination on Hanis’s part. "Don't take no for an answer,” is his advice.
But don’t think you have to launch a global campaign to have an impact either. Hanis hopes people will join the cause in whatever capacity they can.
He suggests holding parties to raise money and educate people about Darfur. And to be creative. He recalled a fundraiser that stood out for its inventiveness: a man in Britain organized “Salsa for Sudan,” donating proceeds from his dance classes to the victims of the violence.
Reported by Regan Morris
What do you think?
Darfur continues to suffer, despite a heightened public awareness and the hard work of organizations like GIF. Can the actions of concerned citizens around the world tip the balance toward peace in Sudan?
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