Students advocating for human rights travel to Southern Sudan

Kait Dougherty’s last day in America for two weeks wasn’t entirely focused on her pending departure to Sudan. About half her attention, the global studies sophomore said, was focused on an early morning midterm.

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Likewise, Dougherty’s travel partner, public policy graduate student Robyn Skrebes, spent her last morning eating breakfast at Hard Times Café and studying for a final.

By the end of the day both students were airborne on a 23-hour flight to Uganda.

Southern Sudan may not be in the average college student’s top five for spring break destinations, but Dougherty and Skrebes are making the trip to support a cause they’ve been working on since fall.

The pair will arrive in Kampala, Uganda at about 2 p.m. CST this afternoon and fly to Juba, Sudan with their travel companion and University graduate student, Gabriel Kou Solomon on Saturday.

Solomon’s nieces were abducted from their home in Bor County, Jonglei in October, and the Save Yar and Ajak campaign was started with help from students in Solomon’s human rights advocacy class.

Members of the campaign met on the West Bank to send Dougherty and Skrebes to the airport on Wednesday afternoon.

Both Dougherty and Skrebes said they know this trip likely won’t save the girls, but they hope to lay a foundation toward future advocacy against child abduction in Sudan.

The security measures of spending spring break in a country labeled “dangerous” by the U.S. State Department don’t worry her, Dougherty said.

The campaign had to put together a petition to gain special permission from the Education Abroad Suspension Committee in order to travel to a country with a U.S. State Department warning.

Meredith McQuaid, associate vice president and dean of international programs, serves on the EASC and said the students from the Save Yar and Ajak campaign gave the committee a two-inch thick binder of information about their trip.

“They have to be pursuing an experience that cannot be satisfied anywhere else,” McQuaid said. “And since they’re talking about the abduction of children by a particular ethnic group in Southern Sudan, it seems unlikely they can research that in any other country.”

The EASC had to take a second look at the State Department’s travel warning for Sudan, she said, because Southern Sudan has its own government.

“We wanted to make sure they weren’t putting themselves in any danger unnecessarily,” McQuaid said.

Barbara Frey, director of the Human Rights Program at the University, said their travel proposal included information about the purpose of the trip, where the students would stay and details of an evacuation plan.

Frey said Dougherty and Skrebes will probably face some barriers because they are white women going to speak with government officials. Solomon will act as a cultural interpreter, she said, but the group has prepared as best they can, and they hope their work will still be viewed on the same level “because of the track record of the campaign thus far.”

Dougherty and Skrebes will be staying in Juba, the capital city of Southern Sudan, with Solomon’s uncle and have meetings scheduled with national and international government officials, Frey said.

The campaign hopes to “get their ideas for what steps need to be taken by the international community to prevent these kinds of abductions,” she said.

Dougherty and Skrebes have special permission to miss five days of class in addition to spring break; they are scheduled to return to Minneapolis on March 25.

Dougherty said she didn’t sleep much the night before she left.

“It’s been a very bipolar day,” she said, sitting at the airport before their 4 p.m. flight.

Between trying to pack and prepare for the midterm, “the first thing I thought of was, ‘I’m glad I woke up on time,’ ” Dougherty said.

Skrebes had a similar situation, saying her attention was split between a final in her regression analysis class and preparation for the trip.

While other students planned last minute trips to the tanning booth and stocked up on bikinis and flip flops, Skrebes said she packed needles for shots and vaccines and made sure she had enough mosquito netting.

Neither Skrebes nor Dougherty is a stranger to foreign travel. Their combined past destinations include Ecuador, China, Honduras, and Jordan.

Dougherty said the pair would spend some time on the 23-hour flight going over background information and journal articles as preparation for their interviews with the officials in Sudan.

The interviews themselves are the only thing Dougherty said she is nervous about.

“I feel like we’re going to be fine,” Skrebes said. “We keep having people ask us, ‘Are you scared?’ or saying things like, ‘Please don’t die.’ That really can get to you after a while.”

Skrebes said she thinks the trip will be a good opportunity for herself and Dougherty to learn about the political and social factors in Sudan and for the student group to make connections in Sudan.

“(It) will increase the legitimacy of our campaign,” she said. “We’ll be able to say that we’ve been on the ground and done research on the issue from Sudan.”