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Conversation with Burmese leader inspires high schoolers
Islander Alix Clarke tried for more than 20 minutes to place the call to Myanmar, but each time she dialed one of several secret phone numbers she’d been given, she heard a beeping, recorded message or dead air. Clarke began to worry that the crowd of more than 50 students and parents anxiously waiting by may not get what they arrived at Vashon High School early that morning to hear.
“You could hear a pin drop in there,” she said. “I was thinking this might not go through.”
Finally, though, Clarke made a connection, and at the other end of the line came what listeners would later describe as pearls of wisdom from the mouth of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese political leader who just weeks before had been released from seven straight years of house arrest.
“It was amazing,” said high schooler Emma Zimmerman. “It was probably one of the most awe-inspiring and simultaneously humbling things that has every happened to me.”
The call was arranged by Clarke, who advocates for political prisoners such as Suu Kyi and taught English in Myanmar, also called Burma, for several years before returning to the Island in 2005.
At the beginning of the school year, Clarke gave a presentation on Suu Kyi to Vashon High School’s Amnesty Interact club, which participates in local charity projects and works with Amnesty International to advocate for human rights around the world.
Just weeks later, she and the club members were surprised to learn of Suu Kyi’s release. They were even more shocked, however, to learn that when Suu Kyi said she wished to speak with international youth, one of Clarke’s connections in Burma told Suu Kyi about Vashon’s Amnesty Interact club.
“It just fell into place,” Clarke said.
During the Dec. 10 phone conversation, which lasted about 20 minutes, Suu Kyi responded to questions from the teens, telling of the political climate in Myanmar, her efforts to bring democracy to the country, what inspires her work and how other countries can help.
Malaika Caldwell, one of the club’s vice presidents, said everyone was blown away by what the Burmese leader said in her first conversation with an American audience since being re-leased.
“She just has this amazing sense of wisdom about how the world works, and she’s such a compassionate person. … It was really inspiring to hear from her. She’s such an important figure for the whole world,” Caldwell said.
All were especially taken aback when at the end of the conversation, Suu Kyi asked the students to each name their three favorite books.
“We thought she was going to ask us what are you doing to save the world,” Caldwell said, “but she wanted to know our favorite books. … It reminded us that we are all human.”
Harris Levinson, one of the club’s advisors and a teacher at VHS, said Suu Kyi, who attended Oxford University, is in fact a big reader.
“She wants to know what the young people think is important in terms of literature and what is important to them,” said Levinson.
The question may open the door to further conversation between the high schoolers and Suu Kyi. The club sent Suu Kyi a donated Kindle loaded with their favorite novels, from “The Great Gatsby” to “The Color Purple,” as well as a few paperbacks. They recently received word that thanks to another one of Clarke’s connections, the package bypassed Myanmar officials who usually interrupt the mail and was delivered.
Though the students know Suu Kyi is very busy, they hope to see her choose one of the books to read and discuss with the club after they’ve read it as well.
“We don’t know, but it sounds like we might have the possibility of a book group with Suu Kyi,” Levinson said.
Meanwhile, the Burmese leader’s words have motivated the Amnesty Interact club to continue building connections with Burmese refugees who live in the Seattle area.
Inspired by what they learned from Clarke about Burma, the club’s approximately 50 members held a drive last fall to collect clothing, toiletries and kitchen items for the refugees.
With help from Coalition for Refugees from Burma, a Seattle organization Clarke is involved with, club members recently attended a Burmese church service in Kent and personally delivered the items to families in need.
Emma Lodes, the club’s co-president, said it was rewarding to personally meet the Burmese people and see how grateful they were for the gifts, especially in light of the club’s conversation with Suu Kyi.
“We feel more connected to the issue,” she said. “After talking to her we wanted to help her and her whole country.”
Two weeks ago, members of the club met with Vashon’s Unitarian fellowship to discuss their telephone conversation with Suu Kyi, the books they collected and sent to her and their growing concern for Myanmar, considered one of the poorest countries in the world.
“This was an unbelievable experience,” Brooke Kipling told the small congregation gathered at Lewis Hall in Burton.
Next, the club plans to focus their efforts on the Burmese youth, many of whom know some English, but struggle to adjust to life in the U.S. and keep up in school.
Lodes said they plan to hold an event this spring that will allow Vashon high schoolers to socialize with the Burmese youth as well as give them some extra help with their schoolwork.
“They struggle a lot, and a lot of them have to drop out,” Lodes said. “They’re looking for tutors, especially for seniors who are trying to get into college next year.”
Lodes is pleased to see the club take up this and other hands-on projects, especially since its efforts in past years have largely focused on writing letters to free political prisoners.
Last fall, the club organized an exhibition of photos taken by youth in El Salvador and sent the proceeds to the children to use for bus fares to get to school. They also fundraised to send much-needed stoves to the country.
“(Letters) are great, but what I like about what we’ve been doing this year is we’re taking projects that we’re passionate about and working hard at them,” Lodes said.
Caldwell and her fellow vice president Emma Zimmerman were invited to attend Amnesty International’s annual general meeting in San Francisco last month.
Though the two weren’t able to present the video of their club speaking with Suu Kyi because Amnesty secured its own last-minute conversation with her, Caldwell said the conference allowed them to hear from former political prisoners and journalists who had been imprisoned abroad.
“It was really cool because I didn’t know how big of an impact Amnesty has on the rest of the world,” she said.
Caldwell hopes that the club will continue its work with the Burmese refugees and also contribute to Amnesty’s efforts to free the more than 2,000 political prisoners still in Burma.
“That’s why the Burma campaign is so cool,” she said. “It’s international and local.”
To view a video of VHS’s Amnesty Interact club speaking with Aung San Suu Kyi, visit http://vimeo.com/17772284.