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HIGH LIFE : Students Do Homework on Rights Abuses

January 09, 1988|JOE BELBRUNO | For The Times

In what appears to be a return to the student activism of the 1960s, membership in high school chapters of Amnesty International is on the rise.

Last year, the number of high school chapters--called "adoption groups" by Amnesty International--more than doubled in the United States. There are 413 such groups, with 83 added just last month.

Like their adult counterparts, the student groups stage letter-writing campaigns against human rights violations throughout the world.

Amnesty International, established in London in 1961, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 after helping to win the release of more than 10,000 people imprisoned for their political beliefs, race, religion, sex or ethnic background.

In the past year, several Orange County high schools have begun on-campus Amnesty groups, including Connelly, La Habra, Irvine and University high schools.

The growing number of teen-age members comes on the heels of the "Conspiracy of Hope" benefit concert caravan, which toured in May and June of 1986. Performers such as U-2, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Bryan Adams participated in that campaign, which helped attract 250,000 new members to the organization, said Joan Marcus-Colvin, Amnesty's western regional membership director.

Such concerts have boosted youth memberships.

"Many people first heard of us through these concerts and then joined," said Monika Gyulai, 17, a member of the University group. "Some say that we are so big because it is becoming popular, but everyone really does care. We are all working for a common cause here. Nobody is here because it will look good on their college transcript."

The benefit concerts have also helped spread the organization's goals.

"It's hard to describe the kind of impact that the concerts have had," said Tom Senbejas, faculty adviser of the 25-member Connelly group. "People used to say that students are kind of apathetic, but I just don't see that. I feel they're very concerned."

The word is out that Amnesty International is a nonviolent, apolitical, humanitarian group.

"We are not political; we are not terrorists," said Kari Christiansen, a senior at University. "We need to let people know at the very beginning that we are a humanitarian group."

Teri Sorey, University teacher and adviser of the school's group, said, "Hearing the words 'Amnesty International' isn't enough to attract students. They assume that it is some type of radical political group. I think teen-agers today are interested in human rights more than ever."

University's 5-month-old group is perhaps the best example of Amnesty's growing popularity at the high-school level. Well received by students at the outset, its 98 members make it one of the largest clubs on campus.

For some, the choice to join was a personal one. Carolina Miranda, 16, the Amnesty student coordinator at Irvine High, knows, personally, about unfair political imprisonment.

"The cause here is more personal to me because my uncle went through violations of his freedom," Miranda said.

Her uncle is Erich Schnake, exiled Socialist Party senator from Chile, who returned to his country for a meeting in Santiago in September, 1987. At the meeting, which was organized by opponents of the military government of Chilean President Augusto Pinochet, more than 100 foreign lawmakers called for free elections and denounced human rights abuses in the country.

On the third and last day of the meeting, Schnake and others were arrested, and when the legislators protested the police actions, they were sprayed with tear gas.

"My uncle was (later) legally admitted back into the country," Miranda said. "But he was flown to the south of Chile, dumped into the snowy Andes by order of the president, Augusto Pinochet. He found an old shack and built a fire and was later found by the Argentine border patrol."

Schnake lives in Chile, where he is relatively safe because his story is well known. He is active in the human rights movement.

Gyulai said her native Hungary has been a repeat offender in Amnesty International reports.

"I am very active in the club because I know what can happen," she said. "I used to think that Americans were not interested in these types of things because they were never exposed to it. Now I know they are interested in politics outside their world."

Last month's write-a-thon at University attracted 60 students from around Orange County.

Though hundreds of letters have been written so far by her students, Sorey said they have not received a single response.

"I think getting no response is the real dose of reality," Sorey said. "They begin to appreciate the rights we have guaranteed in the United States."

The Irvine chapter, with 60 members, followed the write-a-thon that December evening with a candlelight vigil.

Sixty-four members of the school's group and surrounding community took part in the 3 1/2-mile march. Though winds kept extinguishing the candles, marchers said their optimism burned strong.

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