Letters from the heart




Monday next is International Human Rights Day. Colette Sheridan sees how a letter, written with love and compassion, can change a life forever

THE pupils of a Cork national school know that Christmas time is not just about writing letters to Santa.

One eight-year-old pupil of Whitegate National School is, along with her classmates, campaigning against the eviction of householders from Banga We, Angola, South Africa as part of an Amnesty International Ireland human rights programme that operates in over 200 primary and secondary schools around Ireland.

This sees children and teenagers writing letters of support to prisoners of conscience or to the authorities asking them for justice. Nora recently wrote a letter to the authorities in Banga We on behalf of a woman called Maria whom she learned about in class through Amnesty’s schools’ resource pack.

“Maria’s house was knocked down while she was at work,” says Nora. “They didn’t give her anything else except a little shelter; no water, no beds, no heating. Maria has a child. In my letter, I said that you should give Maria and the people decent houses instead of just shelters; houses with flowers and gardens and proper heating. Maria is living on the street.”

By focusing on individual cases, children like Nora are able to understand injustice and can, in their own way, relate to victims and send them friendly letters about their own lives or letters pleading with officials to treat people like Maria with respect and compassion.

Maria is one of over 500 people whose homes were destroyed by the Angolan government to make way for a new housing project, according to Amnesty International. No warning was given to the people of Banga We. Maria, pregnant with her third child, returned from work to see her home destroyed but refused to leave the site. She was threatened by the police. She and her neighbours built temporary accommodation. They have no clean water and their children encounter discrimination at school. The people of Banga We were promised new houses but many of them are still waiting for these homes.

Kay Foley is the principal of Whitegate National School which has 110 pupils and six teachers. She explains that the Letters of Conscience programme in her school “is part of a bigger initiative. We wanted to look at bullying in the context of positive friendships and relationships. We liked Amnesty’s resource pack on human rights stories. During our ‘Friendship Week,’ we introduced the Letters of Conscience last year and it has taken off from there.”

It’s all part of helping the children to develop a social conscience. “There’s the idea of them being citizens of the world as well as having their own community. The Amnesty programme works well with our religious programme as well as with our SPHE (Social, Personal and Health Education) programme.” The children also learn about other cultures which ties in with geography and history classes.

As Foley says, issues such as democracy are raised, as well as the injustice of internment without trial. “The children learn about the absence of freedom of speech in some countries. It makes them aware of what they actually have in this country. We have also started a students’ council in the school where we explore the process of democracy at a basic and very familiar level.”

William O’Shea, who teaches the senior class at Whitegate National School, has been helping his pupils to write to the Indonesian Embassy in London on behalf of one of Amnesty’s priority cases. Filep Karma is serving 15 years for raising a flag. A prominent advocate for the rights of Indonesia’s Papuan population, Karma was arrested for taking part in a peaceful ceremony in 2004 which included the raising of the Morning Star flag, a Papuan symbol.

Eleven-year-old John was incensed when he heard about Karma. “On the way into prison, the guards started beating him badly. He suffers from kidney stones and has bowel cancer. I said to free him. It’s a harmless crime. Filep was treated very badly. He didn’t do anything bad and he’s really sick.”

Little people, big changes

PROVING that the voices of young people can make a difference, Frances O’Connor, a teacher, recalls her school day campaigning at St Mary’s High School in Midleton. “Myself and my classmates saw a programme on television about apartheid in South Africa in 1975. We were horrified and decided the next day to do something about it. We joined the anti-apartheid movement which was very active in Dublin. We had the help of our teacher, Charlie Hayes. We were only 15 at the time. A few months later, we started our own branch of the anti-apartheid movement in east Cork. We started a poster campaign and we asked people locally not to buy South African fruit. We also wrote letters to people in prison. In those days, people would be interned for speaking out against the South African government. We each had our own person to write to. I wrote to Charles Chawanda who was in prison in Rhodesia which is now Zimbabwe. I just wrote about school. I couldn’t write anything political. But at least, it made Charles feel that someone was looking out for him. I’d maybe send a letter once a month and get one back. HIs letters back would be about his life before he went to prison. We’d also send non political books to the prisoners.”

O’Connor and Hayes built up a relationship with Chawanda. The prisoner of conscience started taking O-Levels from prison. “We campaigned strongly to have him released,” says Hayes. The authorities wouldn’t even talk to us at the beginning but we eventually managed to get Charles a place in UCC as a mature student. Charles was left out of prison but wasn’t allowed out of the country. We managed to get a firm of lawyers in South Africa to handle his case. Eventually, he was literally put on a plane with the clothes on his back, a battered suitcase and two dollars. He stayed with me and my young family.”

The Irish Anti-Apartheid movement managed to secure a scholarship from the UN for Chawanda. “He was completely set up. He studied arts. He’s now living with his partner, Treasa Galvin, from Kilmacthomas, in Botswana.”

As Hayes says, “what we call the little people can make a huge difference.”


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