On the morning of Friday, March 23, hordes of college, high school, middle school and elementary school students packed the house in what was a memorable experience at the 11th annual Human Rights Conference, titled Seeking Refuge: Immigration and Forced Migration Around the World. Multiple human rights activists took the time to speak to all of the students who would then leave with a newfound knowledge about human rights and why it is necessary to prioritize.
Students of all ages emptied yellow school buses parked adjacent from the entrance to Wilkins Theatre. Chatter, laughter and joyous personalities were quite visible as they entered the theatre in single file lines. When all of the students were inside of the Wilkins Theatre main lobby, they were greeted by plastic tables dressed in colors reminiscent of Kean University's colors of navy blue with the school seal facing those who approached the table.
On these tables were vivid and colorful posters displaying the Seeking Refuge conference cover picture, which showed a displaced child refugee in an attempt to emotionally appeal to the visitors from other schools. Students and members of the Human Rights Institute at Kean University greeted the tables' attendees and informed them of what the institute is responsible for as well as who they benefit. Students from Kean University were also seen signing into the event at a table right next to the left entrance for their respective humanities classes, as they anticipated the next informative couple of hours.
As the event kicked off and the students were all seated, the lights dimmed and the first presenter, Lauretta D. Farrell, Ph.D., the director of the Human Rights Institute, welcomed Kean's new visitors and the rest of those who attended the event. A sentimental video was then played by an overhead projector onto a screen that descended from above the black stage, showing images, sounds and descriptions of the six million immigrants displaced around the world.
Sound bytes from news and radio clips surrounding stories about America and the millions of yearly immigrants and refugees that are struggling in their home countries and in their journeys to a new country for a better life. The video also showed the positive things that organizations are doing worldwide in the fight to make sure that human rights are applied everywhere. After the video ended, the director of the Human Rights Institute introduced Dawood Farahi, Ph.D., the president of Kean University, to speak to the group of young students about the importance of diversity and fighting for one's dreams, no matter their background or story.
The president spoke about the origins of the Human Rights Institute at Kean University, and its beginnings as of May of 2010 in collaboration with the Holocaust Resource Center held in the Nancy Thompson Library at Kean. After commemorating the group's effort in promoting the awareness of human rights everywhere, he spoke directly to the many students inside of the theater about understanding that everyone is an immigrant, regardless of their birth in America.
"What we are doing this morning is to give you all general information about this issue of immigration. Every single one of you [students] in this room have roots," Farahi explained. "Immigration is a very difficult thing to understand and most people think that they have to be American to have certain opportunities. If you all watch television and listen to what is going on in America, the immigrants are the engine of innovation, creativity and the engine that moves this country forward. Just imagine if they were not here. All of the things that could be done would not be done."
After President Farahi finished his speech on the contributions that immigrants present to countries they move to in order to have better lives, he was met with thunderous applause and a handshake from Farrell, Ph.D.
The Human Rights Institute director then handed the microphone to the next speaker, Koang Doluony, a former south Sudanese refugee and founder of the Omaha Talons Basketball Academy. Omaha Talons Basketball Academy is a non-profit organization that serves at-risk South Sudanese teenage immigrants and refugees in the Omaha metropolitan area by providing a positive and safe environment for these children, as well as promoting leadership, citizenship, health and educational skills through mentorship and community support.
A former basketball player at Indiana State University, Duoluony's journey to the hardwood inspired his passion for wanting to become a social activist. After migrating to America at the age of nine, basketball proved to be his way out of a country that kept him captive as a child when he was subjected to living in a refugee camp. The activist's speech captivated the minds and hearts of the young people in attendance listening to his life story.
"The camp [that I grew up in] was really in the middle of nowhere. There was a lot of land and a lot of areas that human beings have not really touched. I began to really spend every single day in nature and over time I got to the point where it was really hard to be around people. A lot of the things happening in the camp slowly started to make sense," Douluony said. "Every time that I went out into nature, there were times that I was gone for days and would find all kind of fruits and fish. Being at those places of nature really kept me away from all of the chaos that was going on. When I got back to the camp, people were always complaining about how they did not have enough food to eat and that the United Nations did not show up."
His life changed forever, as he said, when his father gave him a bible and a sense of hope when he moved to Omaha, Nebraska, when he was just in the fourth grade.
"I remember the day that we left, it was pretty much a celebration. I had everybody that I got to be really close to at the camp at the party. It was truly for everybody. You had a family that got a chance to get to a place that was going to have opportunities," Duoluony mentioned. "I remember sitting down with some of my really close friends, regretting the fact that we were not going to be able to see each other again and what America really was. One of my friends called America the greatest country in the world, and he said that me going to America was awesome, because of their cool running shoes. Those could take you anywhere!"
Chuckles of laughter were heard from the crowd after his joke, and as he finished his presentation about life as a refugee and activist, explaining that each and every person has the potential to make a difference in the world around them. Farrell, Ph.D., took over the podium and was greeted with applause. Farrell, Ph.D., then brought Donya Nasser onto the stage, who was the 2015 and 2016 Observer to the United Nations, so that she could give her take on immigration and human rights.
A viewpoint that got the attention and minds of the young people in attendance, Nassar spoke about her beginnings of getting involved at a young age. She emphasized thinking out of the box and not being too young or old. Anyone can make a difference in the world by voting or invoking one's own political say in an argument. She mentioned that age should not determine experience as well — a general point that met mutual agreement with the crowd.
Lastly, the final speaker Sally Bruno gave not only the final speech, but also a lasting impact on the students that attended as well. Bruno is the active founder of One World, One Love which is a volunteering organization that aims to help refugees and immigrants in the New Jersey area obtain food, shelter and care. Keeping love, dignity and respect as top priorities was Bruno's main message, as she spoke to the students about the ways that they can become human rights activists early in their lives.
As the event concluded, all of the speakers were given prestigious awards commemorating their efforts in the fight to preserve human rights. Farrell, Ph.D., was the one to hand out these awards to the speakers. Duoluony was named the Outstanding Human Rights Activist, Bruno was awarded the title of Outstanding Human Rights Community Activist and Nasser was honored with the Outstanding Human Rights Young Adult Activist award.
Furthermore, the active New Jersey Commissioner of Education, Lamont Repollet, M.A., Ed.D., received the Dr. Hank Kaplowitz Outstanding Human Rights Community Educator award, as well as the Human Rights Club at Warren Hills High School, which was given the Outstanding Human Rights Student Activist award.
After leaving the event, these young students left with renewed understanding and motivation to help preserve human rights — something that all of the speakers at the event wanted for them the most.
For more information on the Human Rights Institute at Kean University, visit the official Kean website.