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Three hundred eighth-graders filled the auditorium at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, 325 S. Kenilworth Ave., as human rights activists Bakary Tandia and Biram Dah Abeid spoke to students about their push to end slavery.
Abeid, who is president and founder of the human rights organization IRA-Mauritania, is a descendant of a slave. He said that since the age of 8, his father talked to him about slavery and what it means.
"They are exposed to hard work, they are not allowed to go to school and can be physically punished and sexually abused." Abeid said. "They are taken away from their parents to be sent to these different places. Those who are the victims are black and those who are responsible are white.
Tandia, who translated for Abeid, added by saying that slaves are treated like merchandise.
"There is a system of denial that slavery still exists," said Tandia. "It used to be a crime to say it exists in Mauritania. It was abolished seven times in 2007, it is meant for public relations purposes to come in and project a positive image in handling this situation. By funding the government you are supporting slavery."
Students were given the opportunity to ask questions about their country and their mission to end slavery. Eighth-grader Connor Ostrow, 13, said this experience showed him how this differs from textbooks — talking to people with firsthand experience of slavery.
"Having a person who was a part of it makes it seem more real," he said, "more in your face and noticeable. To help transform youth makes a stronger connection with the audience, not that slavery [once] existed but has been for centuries."
The idea to have Tandia and Abeid speak at the school started with a student talking to a parent, who then talked to a teacher. Teacher Lisa Hendrix, 49, who teaches integrated studies said this shows that word-of-mouth can bring change to a school.
"This age, they are starting to think more," Hendrix said. "They need real-world experience and having them speak is a perfect example. The kids were interacting and fascinated by what they were speaking about, and they need that immediacy."
On Dec. 10, Abeid received the 2013 United Nations Human Rights Award for his work with IRA-Mauritania, which led to the release of hundreds of slaves. The award is given every five years to individuals who advocate to protect human rights. He's in good company with other human rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., former president Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela.
Tandia and Abeid said there is more work to be done to change the world and they appealed to the students to write letters to their elected state representatives and ask them to oppose slavery in other countries.
"I was in a subway in New York, and on the wall I read that youth are 50 percent of the population and 100 percent of the future. It is up to you to make the change," Tandia said.
The assembly lasted 30 minutes as the speakers were late due to weather and traffic, but students did not seem to mind the wait. After the assembly, Tabdia and Abeid were invited to the staff lounge for lunch with teachers and students.