The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

Remembering STAND Alumna Kayla Mueller

In honor of Kayla Mueller, a beautiful soul taken from us too soon. Our partner Students Organize for Syria is collecting donations in Kayla’s name for their medical drive to support the Syrian American Medical Society‘s heroic and lifesaving work in Syria. We are honored to support these efforts and to share this reflection by STAND alumna Christina MacKenzie about her friendship with Kayla.

A few months ago my company moved from our old office building to a brand new one. We spent the weeks before the move paring down the items at our desks until it was all ready to be packed and moved from one building to the other. That Friday I took a lot of things home, but the most important items were in my crate, ready to be unpacked the following Monday. I keep very few pictures on my desk – one of my closest family friends, one of my mom and me together, a picture of my dad who died in 2002…

…and a photo clipped from the Chicago Tribune over two years ago. A 1×2 inch picture of a smiling girl wearing a multicolored scarf around her neck. A photo that was in every US newspaper imaginable between February 6th and 10th, 2015. A photo of my friend, Kayla Mueller.

It’s hard for me to put into words how connected I felt to Kayla, especially since we knew each other mostly through phone calls, email, and gchat, with only a handful of in-person meetings spread over the course of a year. The simplest way to describe our relationship is this: She was a kindred spirit. We met in college when we were both outreach coordinators for a student-led anti-genocide organization called STAND, and she was the one who helped me realize that there are different levels of activism, and we weren’t on the same one!

There are those of us who lead fundraisers to send money and supplies to help. Those of us who call our representatives incessantly advocating for policy change. Those of us who work our part of the puzzle from the country we were born in so that we can build a better world by advocating for the kind of change that causes the evolution of thought between generations and brings us one step closer to the true equality of humanity.

And then there are those who know in their soul that their feet need to be on the ground helping NOW. Those who work from within warzones and failing states to manage the crisis at hand. Who take the donations and turn them into something tangible and practical to feed and care for people whose lives were turned upside down by the uncontrollable elements of chance and circumstance and birth place.

I’ll let you guess where Kayla fit.

[(from left to right) STAND student leaders Nate Seeskin and Kayla Mueller, Enough Project co-founder John Prendergast, and STAND student leaders Marie Dienhart, Cassie Weigmann, and Brett Perl]

I remember the day I met Kayla so clearly. We were all going around the room describing what brought us to STAND, and when she started describing the protests she’d led and participated in to gain awareness for the genocide in Darfur I was taken aback. She was smart. She was bold and fearless. She was committed, and she was relentlessly determined to bringing awareness to the suffering of others. And I could see she wanted to relieve their suffering too.

From that first weekend I met her during our senior years of college, I knew that Kayla was the kind of activist and humanitarian who would not stay Stateside for long. When she talked about humanitarian conflict and suffering I could hear in her voice and words that her heart was breaking for people half the world away who she’d never met, and that she felt her true power to help and alleviate their suffering would only be achieved by being there. That she would only feel she was truly helping when she could be in the same room with these people she’d never met, doing something to help.

And she did just that. In our last gchat before graduating she told me, “Well…first I’m going to India…then I’m not really sure maybe Zimbabwe or Palestine.” As a child of the world, she followed her heart, and she went to those places that called her to do what she could to heal suffering. To be a light to the world and all of the people in it. And she touched and cared for so many people.

Though our communication was sparse after she left for India, every time I thought about my friend or emailed her to see where she was and what she was up to, I knew she was somewhere doing good. And it still breaks my heart that the email I sent to her on April 7th, 2014 will never be answered…and that now I know why.

When I cut out and placed Kayla’s photo at my desk two years ago, I did so as a reminder to never forget to live life how Kayla lived. To work hard and to love selflessly and without abandon. To always put myself in the shoes every person I encounter. To be compassionate and kind, always. To give the benefit of the doubt. To learn and to use that knowledge to love and help people. When I look at her picture I don’t just see a picture of my friend. When I look at Kayla’s picture, I feel an overwhelming connection to the world as Kayla saw it – a world of people joined through the common experience of being alive and having a deeper purpose. We are all connected, we are all in this together, and we should all strive to foster and learn from our shared humanity.

In the days after Kayla was killed, I sent an email to some members of STAND with the following words:

‘I do not know what to say right now, other than I will miss her, and I hope I can embody even a fraction of the compassion and selflessness she possessed.’

This is still a hope I hold. That I can be as kind and selfless as my friend. Her photo at my desk is a daily reminder…just be good. Be kind and compassionate. Learn, and use that knowledge to love and help people. Those are the things Kayla would want.

To my friend: I still love you, I still miss you, and I am still striving to be like you.

Christina MacKenzie is a STAND alumna, a former member of the STAND Student Leadership Team, and former STAND chapter leader at Northern Illinois University.

One Month After the Warrant

April 4th marks one month since Omar al-Bashir, the wanted president of Sudan, suspended the licenses of 13 international aid groups and 3 local ones, forcing them to abandon their work in Darfur.

Right now, the UN continues to struggle to deliver aid throughout Darfur and has been forced into transporting and distributing goods via the peacekeeping troops to recoup the losses of 50% of aid forces.  The Government of Sudan (GoS) has said it will fill the aid gaps.

It can’t.

Many reports noted a “deteriorating” situation during March, as a result of the aid expulsion.  Eric Reeves reasserts the UN and humanitarian reports – “there is simply no replacement available for the accumulated Darfur-honed knowledge and skills of the expelled organizations.”

A recent report from the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance provides the following numbers for Darfuris affected by the aid expulsion: 1.5 million without adequate health care, 1.16 million suffering from reduced water and hygiene facilities, and 1.1 million with reduced access to food.  The rainy season is approaching, undoubtedly bringing with it epidemics of malaria and cholera, not accounting for outbreaks of disease that already exist in camps.  On top of this is the worry that not enough rain will come, and Darfur will face a worsening drought . And, with less and less fuel for water pumps being delivered every day, the camps may face serious shortages of drinking water.

President Obama has risen to the cries of activists and has recognized that restoring the aid groups is paramount to policy in Darfur.  The White House Office of the Press Secretary released the P resident’s remarks after a meeting with US Special Envoy Scott Gration and Sudan advocates this week, putting weight on the necessity of “[figuring] out a mechanism to get those NGOs back in place,” reversing the expulsion, or somehow avoiding the impending humanitarian crisis.  This statement echoed the tone of his meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on March 10th, and highlights the President’s willingness to lead the international community against the travesties in Darfur.

The dire humanitarian crisis in Darfur even attracted the attention of the Arab League summit early this week.

Though the League quickly issued a statement denouncing the ICC warrant, one of the most pressing issues addressed at the summit was the extreme humanitarian decline in and continued marginalization of Darfur.  Some nations recognized the importance of allowing human rights in Darfur to go unhindered, with some providing fierce criticisms of Sudan’s actions against Darfur.  Queen Noor of Jordan called the Arab League’s support for Bashir “perverse.”  Though she was empathetic in her juxtaposition of reaction to Darfur of that to Gaza and Lebanon, she said that if western reaction to the latter two had been different, the League wouldn’t feel so compelled to support Bashir despite the “obscenity” of Khartoum’s actions against the Darfuris.  She was stern in her review of the Arab world’s double-standard toward the issue, echoing Ban Ki-Moon’s summit-opening statements.

In spite of all this, it has been recognized that restoring the aid groups is paramount to policy in Darfur.  The White House Office of the Press Secretary released the president’s remarks on a meeting with US Special Envoy Scott Gration and Sudan advocates this week, putting weight on the necessity of “[figuring] out a mechanism to get those NGOs back in place,” reversing the expulsion, or somehow avoiding the impending humanitarian crisis.

I Will ACT For Change

Between March 23rd to April 1st, three Darfur activists will be in Chad as part of i-ACT 7.  Interactive-ACTivism is a project of Stop Genocide Now, “a grassroots community dedicated to working to protect populations in grave danger of violence, death and displacement resulting from genocide.”  They sent their first i-ACT trip to the Chad/Darfur border in November 2005, and have sent six other trips to the area since.

You can follow their detailed day-to-day updates, but let’s get you caught up now:

Day 0: Gabriel, Katie-Jay and Yuen-Lin leave for Chad after weeks of urging everyone (from those at the dinner table to our members of Congress) to act towards making a difference in Darfur.

Day 1: Gabriel blogs about getting UN permits to visit the Darfuri refugee camps, as well as the mounting unrest in Chad.  Katie-Jay (Ktj) pens a moving piece on the necessity of international action fueled by activism.

Day 2: The team finally gets their permits and start preparing to leave the capital (N’Djamena) to visit the camps.  Ktj explains the problems caused by the fuel shortage in the east, and gives some background to the camps they’ll visit and the hardships that have occurred there.  She describes her Darfuri friends’ accounts as “astonishingly terrible”.

Day 3: Ktj describes the necessity of thinning down their already minimal luggage before the flight to Abeche.  Gabriel worries about rebel actions against the camp while the team is there (because it’s happened before).  Yuen-Lin (YL) describes the daily-rations for the refugees and how dire the circumstances in Darfur have become since the expulsion of the aid groups.

Day 4: Ktj gives a heart-wrenching description of the refugee children, suffering from malnutrition and a lack of water.  According to Gabriel, 60% of the people in Djabal camp (described by YL as one of the safest and most advanced) are children.  The children in Chad are the “lucky ones”.

Day 5: The team encounters refugee friends from their last visit.  Ktj reflects on all of the advantages we have at home – mainly clean water and medicine – as she weathers a cold in the dry Chadian air.  YL talks about the 4 children they will profile over the next few days, meeting their families and seeing their school.

Day 6: Gabriel’s blog “With the children” gives an emotional observation of the memories these Darfuri children will have to live with – ones of violence, loss and survival.  Ktj says the children are smaller than they were last year, that the differences in appearance and demeanor of the children are those of night and day.  Both Ktj and Gabriel expressed hopeless frustration at what an individual can do to act against the sad, hard lives these children have been forced into.

Day 7: The team connects Darfuri children in Djabal camp with students from a Save Darfur Club in Georgia who have written letters to them…giving a glimmer of hope in a place where there is little to hope for.

Those are the brief updates – Today is Day 8!  Continue to track their 10-day journey by visiting the i-ACT 7 website.  Roll over each day and click to select it for the blog posts, videos and pictures.

On Wednesday, Day 9, we have the chance for a conference call with the team!  At 9pm EST they’ll share more about their experiences and answer your questions about their trip to Chad.  We’d love to have you on the call: (269) 320-8300, access code 349902#.