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Camped Out to Raise Awareness

Activism: It's not as bleak or as cold as Afghanistan, but tent city erected at UC Irvine attempts to symbolize the struggle facing 1.5 million refugees.

November 27, 2001|KIMI YOSHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They realize that November in Irvine isn't exactly the freezing winters of Afghanistan and that their water-resistant Coleman tents are a far cry from the tarp-covered excuses for shelter the refugees use. Not to mention their cell phones, portable CD players and the bathroom that will stay open all night for their convenience.

But for four days, about 15 students and staff members at UC Irvine are living in a "tent city" smack in the middle of campus--all in an effort to draw attention to the plight of about 1.5 million refugees who have been displaced in Afghanistan.

They plan a rally at noon today and they plan to show documentaries about refugee camp conditions Wednesday night. As the week progresses, they hope more people will join their dozen or so tents, said organizer Jen Boyle of the sponsoring group Act for Global Justice.

To add to the realism, they will construct at least one makeshift tent with a few pieces of wood and a plastic tarp thrown over the top--but won't sleep in it. They also have a photo exhibit of recent images from a refugee camp: children with dirty and scabbed faces and families crammed into tiny spaces with dirt floors.

"Clearly, our tents are like heaven," said graduate student Karen Kendrick, 35. "They're warm. People are going to have sleeping bags and mats and long underwear."

Although some have said they plan to fast at least for a day, the tent community will be served dinner and breakfast by organizations and individuals who did not want to sleep outdoors, but wanted to show their support.

They won't pretend that they can understand the refugees' plight. Their goal, instead, is to get people talking and demonstrate what happens when people are displaced by war.

Not the Usual Image of Irvine

Maybe it has something to do with Irvine. In a city known as middle-class suburbia, forgoing a few of life's amenities has recently proven popular.

Recently, 125 Irvine High School students participated in a three-day experiment in homelessness, living in cars and without showers and cell phones as part of a school project. By the time it was over, the students reported they had learned a valuable lesson in classism, though most of them refused to give up showering.

At UC Irvine, this will be 18-year-old Lorissa Rinehart's first major experience with social activism.

"I'm trying to be as minimalist as possible," said the Santa Barbara native. She pointed to her "ghetto" tent with the broken door. She said she was bringing her sleeping bag.

And while she's not giving up all the things that make life easier, she said the camp-out is making her realize how fortunate she is to be able to attend college.

As the students put up the tents and prepared for the days ahead, they were getting odd glances and a few questions. One student passer-by wanted to know if they were selling tents, and then, when they explained their demonstration, asked whether they were anti-war.

"It's small, but it's symbolic," said Sandrine Zerbib, 33, a sociology graduate student.

"This is not a campus where you see a lot out of the ordinary. This should definitely look unusual and get people to see what we're doing."

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