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Tragedy in Africa Sparks a Friendship and Provides a Calling


Even though they went to the same school in northern California, Annalise Blum and Katharine Kendrick, both 18, did not know each other very well throughout most of their high school days.

But then, during their senior year, they were brought together by a shared, visceral reaction to a film about the violence in Rwanda in the 1990s. Now, people in the war-torn Sudanese region of Darfur are now benefiting from the girls' friendship.

The two young women understand the meaning of the word "empathy." Katharine, for instance, has never been to Africa. She grew up in a prosperous suburb of San Francisco, and has never experienced hunger, all-consuming fear, or violence. Yet, when she saw the film Hotel Rwanda, and learned about the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994, she says she cried. "I think I had never seen such a conflict depicted so realistically," she recalls. "I left it feeling more devastated and helpless than I had before. But I also felt like I needed to translate that into something productive."

She found a way to translate her devastation into something productive when she met Annalise Blum, a globetrotting teenager who had just returned from a trip to Guatemala when the movie came out -- and when the extent of the violence in the Darfur region of Sudan was just starting to come to light.

"I [had] met a lot of amazing people [in Guatemala], and later, after being friends with them, learned the story of the horrific events that had happened during the civil war in the 1980s," Annalise explains. "[It was] unbelievably frightening for them. And so coming back to the U.S. and reading the paper about what's happening in Darfur made me realize that I really didn't want that to be happening to people there."

Annalise and Katharine launched a fund-raising campaign in their school - eventually generating enough money to buy 1,200 chickens, which they then sent to a refugee camp in Darfur.

But more important than the money, they say, is the global awareness they have been able to engender among young people. The green ribbon campaign the girls launched at their school has expanded to include several schools in the San Francisco Bay area. The ribbons, which are meant to remind people of the needless devastation in Darfur, can now be found pinned to the backpacks, baseball caps, and shoelaces of countless California teenagers.

And it is not just a frivolous fashion trend, Annalise and Katharine say. The girls have worked hard to make sure their peers understand what us happening in Darfur - bringing in speakers, showing documentaries, and according to Katharine, helping to make the mind-numbing statistics readily available in the newspapers seem real.

"I think it's important to try to translate the realities of the situation in Darfur into numbers that resonate more within our own community," she says. "So even the statistics like '400,000 killed,' or '2.5 million displaced,' [we] tried to express in terms of our community, or the San Francisco Bay area - what that number represents in terms of things we're familiar with."

Katharine Kendrick and Annalise Blum insist young Americans can and do care about what is happening in their world… when they are given the opportunity to learn about it. And that, the young women say, is the key. They realize most Americans their age probably could not even find Sudan on a map, let alone articulate the extent of the devastation there. But they say that is because young Americans are exceedingly fortunate. Their country's distance from the conflict - and its economic prosperity - have sheltered and protected them from some of the more ugly realities of life on earth.

"Americans hear a lot about what's happening in other parts of the world - we definitely don't hear all of it - (but) it's hard for it to seem real, especially if you haven't traveled," Katharine says. "I wish that I'd had more chances to travel than I have. And that's the biggest challenge. We tried to figure that out in our project, and it's something we really focused on."

It is something the two young women say they will continue to focus on as they begin their adult lives. Katharine Kendrick just finished her first year at Yale, where she writes for an undergraduate news magazine that highlights global poverty issues.

Annalise Blum is still in Thailand, where she has been spending a gap year working with tsunami victims. She will start college at Stanford next September. "I'm really interested in working on ways to help Americans in general learn more about the rest of the world," she says, "And understand that we really are all the same, and that we should care about what happens to people in other countries."

It is a goal Annalise Blum and Katherine Kendrick are already well on their way toward achieving.

For earlier profiles in VOA's
American Profiles series click here