Alex Marembo, a 17-year-old Burundi native who spent years in a refugee camp in Tanzania, is passionate about raising awareness of those less fortunate back home.
Now living in Cincinnati, Marembo worked with several classmates to produce a video that is a fictional reenactment inspired by true tales of child soldiers.
The work was encouraged by the American Red Cross and its International Humanitarian Law (IHL) program, and the video marked the culmination of the school’s first IHL Action Campaign.
“I’d seen the Red Cross a lot in the refugee camp in Tanzania, but I had no idea about IHL,” Marembo said. “I thought the Red Cross was mostly for medicine and that kind of help.”
After his teacher, Maria Hidalgo, showed a video about child soldiers and spoke about IHL to the class though, Marembo became interested in learning more and joined a team to participate in the Action Campaign.
“I spent all my life living in a camp, so when I came here I kind of made myself forget,” he said. “But this program reminded me of that, and now I really want to help.”
Through a series of unanticipated, interactive scenarios – including simulations of refugee camps and prisoner of war interrogations – participants are exposed to common wartime situations. A debrief at the end of the program helps them apply the lessons to their everyday lives.
“Right now, we’re planting seeds,” said Jessica Lane, the youth and young adult coordinator for the American Red Cross Central New York region. “This program changes them. It gives youth a new mindset from which to act.”
The IHL Action Campaign aims to improve young people’s awareness of and attitudes toward the principles of IHL, and to inspire them to spread their knowledge to their peers. It also provides an important link to understanding the global mission of the Red Cross.
“The Red Cross is so huge, with so many facets. We are one of 188 national societies, and that can be confusing. People don’t automatically see the connections between all of our services, from disasters, to blood collection, to international, etc,” Lane said. “Protecting human life and dignity is what holds all of this together.”
Indeed, Marembo became eager to support that mission when he realized his connection to the Red Cross went even deeper. After fleeing war and becoming separated for more than 20 years, Marembo’s father and uncle were reconnected by the Restoring Family Links program a few years ago. The two brothers will reunite in Texas soon.
Marembo is not alone in his desire to continue learning and teaching his peers about the Red Cross mission and IHL.
“We thought the Action Campaign and the video we did were a good expression of where we came from,” said Sirak Araya, a former refugee from Eritrea and Marembo’s classmate. He and his family arrived in the United States three years ago after traveling throughout Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, unable to return home.
Araya, Marembo and all of the other participants serve as a reminder for Lane about the importance of the role the American Red Cross plays both at home and abroad, and she’s eager to see what Action Campaign 2014 brings.
“We need to come back to our roots and understand why we exist as an organization,” she said. “When people can draw those connections, that’s when it all starts to make sense.”