On June 5, students from the New Roots Charter School in Ithaca travelled to Washington, D.C. to participate as finalists in the 2nd Annual National International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Youth Leadership Summit. The New Roots students presented their Action Campaign along with five other student groups selected from across the nation.
The American Red Cross introduced the youth program last year to inspire and engage the next generation on the humanitarian laws and principles that are at the core of the Red Cross mission.
This year’s IHL Youth Leadership Summit focused on child soldiers and international justice – topics that often go hand-in-hand. The students from Ms. Maria Gimma’s Spanish Language and Culture class at New Roots immersed themselves in the principles of humanitarian law and grappled with the stories of child soldiers from around the world. Together, they developed an interactive campaign that raises awareness of the global issues relating to child soldiers and international justice.
“Even though our campaign focuses specifically on the topic of child soldiers, our training and the other simulations we did with the Red Cross have informed us about the general topic of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said 15-year-old New Roots student and team leader Soren Mortensen. “That has certainly broadened my perspective of current events.”
Through a sequence of scavenger hunts and interactive simulations, the IHL campaign participants were placed in the shoes of 9- year-old “Jane” and led through a series of simulated events that explore some of the key issues that child soldiers universally encounter. These issues include the outbreak of war and its impact on the community, the loss of family and support structures, and a rise in emphasis on the bare necessities needed to survive.
Jane deliberates on whether she should join the military, weighing the pros and cons, and ultimately makes the decision for practical reasons. She completes military training and learns to operate a weapon she can barely carry. When Jane is caught stealing from a Red Cross Disaster Recovery Vehicle (following orders), she is captured and later finds herself at a war tribunal before entering a rehabilitation center for child soldiers.
The participants learned about the humanitarian legal provisions that date to the Geneva Conventions following World War II. Those provisions ensure standards of human dignity are protected during times of war.
“Everything that we put in our campaign is based on things that happen on a regular basis in the real world,” said Soren, who lives in Genoa in Cayuga County. “War is a chaotic thing. There are rules in place to protect civilians in the chaos of war, because even wars have limits.”
“Working on these campaigns, the children had tears in their eyes,” said Maria, the students’ teacher. “We were able to talk about these topics with a level of communication that we did not have before.”
The New Roots’ team is unique because it’s the only team that created an Action Campaign in two languages. In addition to an English version, the students produced a Spanish-language Action Campaign and conducted much of the research using Spanish publications and sources.
The ability to customize the program and tailor it to fit the needs of the New Roots language curriculum was one of the best features of the campaign, Maria said. Students at varying levels of fluency were able to participate and improve their language skills while learning about the principles of International Humanitarian Law.
The IHL program structure encourages independent learning where students take charge, conduct their own research and present their findings to the class. Team leaders selected from the group attend a weekend-long training with Red Cross instructors at the start of the campaign to learn about IHL and international justice.
Team leaders are entrusted with the task of sharing what they learned with the rest of the class.
“As a teacher, it was hard for me to step back and allow them to teach [in the beginning],” recalled Maria. “I’m amazed at how quickly they obtained the information this way. They were so totally focused on their task. They developed ownership of the learning. There was a sense of pride.’’
This is the second year that the New Roots Charter School has participated in the Red Cross IHL action campaign, and Soren said they hope to participate again next year.
“I noticed that everybody, even those who were the most skeptical, was moved by the campaign. That just testifies the power of this kind of learning,” Soren said. “They connected with it on an emotional level. And that’s how the message got through.”
When Soren and six of his New Roots classmates attended the IHL Summit in Washington, D.C., they were able to recreate their presentation in front of American Red Cross staff at the Red Cross national headquarters. School teams came from as far as Illinois and California, and on the day of their presentations all of the students were able to network and learn about the other campaigns.
Also during the Summit, the teams heard from Deng Abiel, a South Sudanese refugee who recalled his life experiences traveling to the United States from a country at war. Through that discussion, the teams were provided inspiration over the weekend for next year’s IHL sub-topics: refugees and gender.
"In a country that is relatively unaffected by war, I think sometimes we have the tendency to forget that things like that happen or to not lend enough significance to the fact that there are an incredible number of conflicts happening in the world, and I think that this Action Campaign really helps with that,” Soren said. “Even what you hear on the news can be quite detached.”
After attending the IHL Summit, the New Roots team members are better equipped to educate their community about the globally-focused American Red Cross youth program that has already impacted thousands across the country.
Regional Youth and Young Adult Coordinator Julie Mucilli contributed to this article.
All of the IHL Action Campaign students celebrate their visit to the White House in Washington, D.C.
The New Roots Charter School students explain their IHL campaign to American Red Cross staff at national headquarters.
(Photos courtesy of Julie Mucilli)