Students travel to Peru, Sudan for break

Alternative spring break destinations give students life-changing experiences.

Riham Feshir

Four students. Two countries. Similar missions.

Three Save Yar and Ajak campaign members traveled to Juba, South Sudan over spring break, while business junior Leigh Kirschner volunteered in Lima, Peru.

After a 40-hour trip back to Minnesota, University students Robyn Skrebes and Kait Dougherty met Tuesday with the rest of the Save Yar and Ajak campaign to recap and start future planning. Gabriel “Kou” Solomon remains in Juba.

The students have worked on child protection advocacy efforts since October, when University student Solomon’s two nieces were abducted in South Sudan.

The students met with local child-protection organizations, including the United Nations Mission in Sudan, United Nations Children’s Fund and Save the Children, to learn more about the causes of child abduction and the country’s conditions.

Additionally, they met with the U.S. Consulate and members of local nonprofit organizations.

Dougherty and Skrebes said they were surprised by the poor infrastructure in Juba.

“Coming into a country that’s three years out of a civil war was a new experience,” Dougherty said. “It was not what I was expecting.”

They drove on bumpy roads without electricity and realized how poor communication methods were in some areas.

“Just getting out to the rural areas is difficult,” she said. “It’s hard to see child abduction as a major issue when all of those things are still happening.”

The infrastructure problems can be traced back to the 20 years of the civil war in Sudan, said Ellen Kennedy, outreach coordinator at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

“It really is a conflict about who can control the resources in the government,” she said.

She added that inequality of distribution and scarce resources lead to exploited, powerless groups, including children.

“Children from the exploited groups wound up being sold or abducted,” Kennedy said.

Skrebes said she knew what type of child abduction crimes occurred, but after several meetings in Juba she was able to identify three categories, including ethnic child abductions, which defines Yar and Ajak’s case.

Yar and Ajak come from the Dinka ethnic group, the largest in South Sudan. They were abducted by a Murle individual, she said.

Since UNMIS and UNICEF don’t have child protection budgets for implementation, they send reports to Save the Children, which sends field officers to areas in South Sudan for reporting and research purposes and to work on child tracing efforts, Skrebes said.

Solomon will remain in Juba to meet with local organizations as the rest of the group continues advocacy and education plans, said Barbara Frey, University human rights program director, who’s also on the campaign.

“We realized the significance on the ground,” she said. “You don’t get their full focus until you’re sitting with them in person.”

A similar mission

Kirshner’s desire for public service motivated her to take an alternative spring break in Peru.

As a volunteer in Puericultoria Periz Aranibar orphanage there, she said she took care of toddlers who needed attention in a facility that houses about 560 children.

She taught English to fourth, fifth and sixth graders, whose families often gave them to the orphanage because they couldn’t support their children; the families, however, often visit.

Kirshner stayed in the heart of Lima, but also visited the poorer areas where most of the children come from.

“You travel an hour and a half through a city and it’s one extreme to another,” she said.

Kirshner’s and Skrebes’ spring breaks may have been at different destinations, but their experiences were similar.

“It makes you think about where I’m coming from and being thankful for what I have,” Kirshner said.

“I’ve left with this profound sense of being grateful for things,” Skrebes said. “Whatever difficulties I face in my life are nothing compared to what people are facing over there.”