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Pasadena teens reach out to Africans in need

Polytechnic School students are raising money for an auction and dance-a-thon to aid people in Sudan.

May 31, 2007|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Half a world and almost immeasurable economic differences separate the privileged students of Polytechnic School in Pasadena from the nomads of Niger and the genocide victims of Darfur. Yet the three groups have a common bond, thanks in part to one student's visit to Africa last year.

In March 2006, Leslie Brian, 17, and her parents joined Wodaabe nomads in the Niger desert in a "volunteer vacation" offered through the Nomad Foundation, a 10-year-old nonprofit organization based in Ojai.

Their mission was to hand-carry supplies -- including thimbles, embroidery thread and scissors -- to remote encampments and return with handcrafted items to sell in the United States. The proceeds benefit the Nomad Foundation's work building schools, restoring wells and supporting women's cooperatives.

The Brian family spent two weeks in landlocked Niger, an impoverished country in western Africa. They moved with the Wodaabe nomads, a cattle-herding people who measure their wealth by how many cattle or zebus (humped cattle) they own. The family observed the five wives of a Wodaabe chief sitting in dusty, stark encampments and embroidering beautiful headbands and patches.

Now, in an effort to help the sewing cooperative and injured and displaced victims in war-torn Darfur, Leslie Brian and several schoolmates are stitching Africa-shaped patches made by the Wodaabe women onto brightly colored T-shirts made in Los Angeles. They are selling the T-shirts to raise money for a June 8 dance-a-thon and silent auction. The money from that event will in turn support the Darfur Peace & Development Organization, an Indiana nonprofit that sets up schools in refugee camps and provides other humanitarian aid in the troubled Darfur region of northwestern Sudan.

The Wodaabe women, meanwhile, are making $5 per patch, a princely sum in a country where that amount can feed a family for a day.

"The thing that's miraculous to me is that these girls, coming from the opposite end of the spectrum, are willing to reach out and touch the other side of the world in this way," said Leslie Clark, president of the Nomad Foundation.

The Polytechnic schoolmates have latched onto an issue that has galvanized students across the country. In the past couple of years, students at Cleveland High School in Reseda, Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles and Temple Israel Day School in Hollywood have been among those raising awareness about the Darfur crisis.

Darfur has been the scene of warfare since 2003, largely between the region's Arab nomads and villagers who belong to farming tribes. Arab-led militias widely believed to have support from the Sudanese government have been blamed for instigating much of the fighting, in which at least 200,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million displaced.

Leslie Brian, who is wrapping up her junior year, said she became aware of the Darfur genocide in 2005. She is founder of Polytechnic's anti-genocide coalition, STAND, part of a nationwide organization. "I didn't know it was going on," she said, "but I felt I had to do something and not just be sorry about it."

On Wednesday, Leslie and a handful of schoolmates sat cross-legged on the floor of the school's art studio, patiently sewing patches, just arrived from Niger, onto shirts. Amanda Fink, 17, who had been doing work for Darfur at her synagogue, the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, helped come up with the idea for a dance-a-thon and is serving as the fundraising and entertainment chairwoman.

She said that she and her friend Elizabeth Dervan, the silent auction chairwoman, agreed that, as Jews mindful of the Holocaust, they needed to fight genocide wherever it might occur.

"So many people don't know about Darfur," said Dervan, 16. "This project forces the rest of the school to take notice. And we hope to get the word out to the larger Pasadena area."

In the Brian household, helping impoverished and displaced Africans has become a family affair. Leslie's older sister, Allison, 21, plans to write her senior honors thesis at Stanford University about marketing the Wodaabe-patch T-shirts. She plans to travel in the fall to Niger.

Brad Brian, Leslie and Allison's father, will soon head to London to help train Sudanese lawyers to prosecute cases involving human rights abuses, helped by funds from the American Bar Assn. and the MacArthur Foundation.

At Polytechnic, the goal is to prepare more than 200 T-shirts for sale at the dance-a-thon, which will start at 5 p.m. June 8 at the Pasadena Masonic Temple. To support the event, the public can donate an item to the silent auction, sponsor a dancer at the rate of $30 per hour or buy a $15 ticket to the dance. The public may also bid on silent auction items, which will include an afternoon on a 42-foot sailboat with crew and provisions, with an estimated value of $4,000.


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