This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Two students played a slow rolling drumbeat with a guitar melody in the auditorium of Carver High School of Engineering & Sciences (E&S) as their peers filed into the seats to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“More than 100 E&S students, representing more than 30 countries worldwide, will talk about their families’ countries of origin,” said Najifa Zaman, a Carver student and a native of Bangladesh. “What makes me especially proud of this event is that it is a student-sponsored celebration. This is the third International Day at E&S. I believe it is a wonderful opportunity for all of our students to learn about the customs, food, and human rights situations in the native countries of their classmates.”
Students from 7th through 12th grades moved between classrooms throughout the afternoon, listening to presentations by groups of students from a particular country. Student panels led discussions in the school’s library. The school newspaper hosted an event about the murders of journalists around the world.
In the auditorium, the day began with a screening of a student-produced film featuring students reading the U.N.’s articles of human rights and speaking about their experiences as immigrants.
The video was filmed by students and edited by senior Benjamin Ahanonu, who picked up his editing skills while making music videos in his free time.
“So many kids in my school have a story about coming to America,” Ahanonu said. “Two kids might look the same, but be from totally different places. That was beautiful to me.”
Ahanonu’s father is from Nigeria, and his mother is from Philadelphia. “They met somehow, I don’t really know how,” he said, laughing.
The student choir, a recent addition to Carver, sang to commemorate the occasion. The first song, “Vela, Vela,” is from South Africa – a song of greeting traditionally sung by the Xhosa people.
Carver went without a choir for years. Rollo Dilworth, chair of music education at Temple University, volunteered to help the school form its current choir, along with his teaching assistant. It is a collaboration with Springfield Township High School in Montgomery County, which sent its choir students to Carver for the joint performance.
Dilworth said the students “have enthusiastically embraced the music and the vocal technique.”
“The students have learned how to sing solid four-part harmony in just a matter of weeks,” he said. “We are so proud of them.”
After the performances in the auditorium, students cycled through various rooms where workshops were held by students about their native countries, including Indonesia, Jamaica, Australia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Japan, Bangladesh, and Mexico.
Human rights in Myanmar
Three boys from Myanmar dressed in traditional longyis. Each long, colorful cloth was wrapped around the waist, loosely covering the legs. They used news footage and personal artifacts to tell the story of Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities and the armed conflicts between the government and many of these minorities. Some minority groups have even officially seceded from Myanmar in certain areas.
Nu La and his family are members of the Kachin minority – a Christian ethnic group in northern Myanmar that has toiled for generations in jade and gold mines. He said the other main source of work in his homeland was fishing. People are increasingly desperate for work as the gold and jade mines are gradually depleted.
His family first sought asylum in Malaysia and was later approved to resettle in the United States.
La detailed the various armed conflicts, including that of the Kachin people, who in one area declared themselves an independent nation in 1962 after the Myanmar military government broke a 1948 promise that Kachin people would have equal legal rights and some degree of political independence. The Myanmar military invaded the northern Kachin province. In response, the Kachin people formed their own army, and the war has been ongoing ever since.
La explained the parallels between this conflict and others, such as the better-publicized crisis of the Muslim Rohingya people, who are also fleeing the military’s persecution. In both cases, there was hope that the de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who came to power in 2016, would put an end to the conflicts. But La was disappointed when the violence continued.
“People who are living in Myanmar think America is a second heaven, because of the living conditions we see in the movies,” La said, adding that the movies depict the United States as “this great place.” But those same movies that focused on U.S. wealth failed to mention its poverty.
“I was kind of disappointed when I first got here,” La said. “I also lived in Malaysia for two or three years before I came here. I felt like Malaysia was better than this, to be honest. Like the water quality, for example. In Philly, as soon as I got here, I saw trash everywhere. I’m like, ‘wow.’ I was not expecting this.”
La also shared candy from Myanmar and described traditional cooking, clothing, and sports in the country. He brought a blunt ceremonial sword of the Kachin people, but his teacher thought it best not to pass that around.
Zwe Tun is a 9th grader who immigrated from Myanmar but was born in Macau – a tiny island off the coast of China with a somewhat independent status, similar to Hong Kong. He grew up in Myanmar, but his family was dissatisfied with the private education there that was costing them a fortune – $300 a month, which is worth a lot more in Myanmar than in the United States.
“They do have public schools, but they are not great,” Zwe said. “I was 9 years old, so I didn’t know that much about the U.S., but I thought of it as a great place to be successful in life. … Here you can get a good education with scholarships and you’re able to have an impact on the world. But in Myanmar, there are limited resources, so you’re not really capable of doing the same things.
“I want to go to college to get a background in engineering, but also to pursue business. When I was young, I was always really interested in running a business. And I love to build things. I just want to build something I’m proud of.”
Discussion of journalists’ killings
Several students from the school’s newspaper, The Carver Times, ran a workshop on journalism and human rights, where they told the stories of each journalist killed so far this year.
They began their presentation by explaining Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
When they asked the class of sophomores whether any journalists were killed this year, the only name mentioned was Jamal Khashoggi – the Washington Post columnist from Saudi Arabia who was brutally murdered in Turkey. The killing is widely believed to have been ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
But their presentation focused on 30 other journalists killed this year. None of the students in attendance had heard of the other slayings, and before their research, the student journalists hadn’t heard of them either. Since they started that work, the number of slain journalists has risen to 52.
“I heard about Khashoggi a bit,” said 10th grader Jordan Williams, who writes for Carver’s newspaper. “But then me not hearing about everybody else who was killed made me think: His story played 24/7 – as it should – but then so should these other peoples’ stories. That got me really interested in doing this presentation.”
Williams said that she wasn’t sure about taking journalism class until she spoke with the teacher. Students spend days discussing what they are interested in writing about before diving in. Their teacher doesn’t discourage them from sharing their opinions, but encourages them to base those opinions on research and reporting.
Williams said she wrote a story about an interview with her aunt, a Philadelphia court clerk, that focused on disagreements they had regarding the criminal justice system, such as whether private attorneys are preferable to public defenders and whether the courts treat celebrities fairly.
Keyziah, another 10th grader, joined the newspaper because she is allowed to express her opinions in writing. She recently wrote an article about the lack of equity in education.
“It’ a great way to express how we’re feeling,” Keyziah said. “My article was about how parents and guardians have to make sacrifices for their kids to get a good education. But a good education should be something that everyone gets. You shouldn’t have to go across the city just to get a good education.
“This class made me want to dig deeper, find stuff I care about and share it with other people.”