Wellesley Public School students and teachers who attended the We Day celebrations in Kitchener Feb. 17 were so moved by what they saw and heard, they decided the rest of the student body needed to become more aware of global issues.
As a result, the school spent the past week participating in Toronto-based charity Free the Children’s “Five Days for Freedom,” a campaign organized around four pillars of awareness – freedom from poverty, exploitation, thirst, and disease.
Each day of the week was devoted to recognizing one pillar; on Monday students wore pink and purple to acknowledge the presence of poverty, on Wednesday the students and teachers accounted for every drop of water used at the school to gain a better sense of how much they use, and Thursday every student wore a bandage on their writing hand to remember how widespread disease and illness is around the world. Friday was spent celebrating their increased awareness throughout the week.
But on Tuesday, when the school made a point to recognize global exploitation, the students in Grades 5 to 8 experienced one of the most profound aspects of the week: a visit and motivational talk from Michel Chikwanine (Chick-Waa-Knee-Nay), a former child-soldier in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and refugee before coming to Canada.
“As an educator, I believe in the students and that they can make a difference, so this was a great opportunity for them to start to believe that they could,” said Lisa Martin, a Grade 6 teacher who attended We Day in Kitchener with the Wellesley PS We Team. She helped organize the week’s activities.
“His (Chikwanine’s) story moved us very deeply when we attended We Day, and we very much wanted him to come and share his story with the rest of the school.”
His story was one of humour, poignancy, but also contained some terrible imagery about his life as a child soldier, and his hardships of living as a refugee before finally coming to Canada in 2004.
When he was five years old, he was playing soccer with his best friend Kevin and he disobeyed his father’s rule of “always be home before 6 p.m.” While they were playing, a truck of rebel soldiers took the boys to a remote area of the jungle.
When Chikwanine got out of the truck, he landed on a pile of human bones without any skulls.
The leader of the group slashed his wrist and covered it with a mixture of gunpowder and cocaine to drive him insane, before blindfolding him, giving him a gun, and ordering him to shoot.
After he shot, they removed the blindfold to reveal that he had shot and killed his best friend.
“I remember looking at Kevin on the ground and he wasn’t moving, so I started shaking him and there was blood flowing out of him and he wasn’t saying anything,” said Chikwanine.
“I kept asking them to wake Kevin up, and they kept laughing at me.”
Chikwanine then told the students of how he managed to escape two weeks later by running into the jungle and hiding for three days and three nights before finding a way back to his village. He also described his life as a refugee, talked about his family – in particular his father, who was a human rights activist prior to being murdered by the rebel army in 2001 – and telling the students about the work of Free the Children and its founders, Marc and Craig Kielburger.
The students sat in near-silence for the entire talk, riveted by Chikwanine – now 23 – and his story, and many stayed after the assembly was over and gathered around him to ask him questions.
Aside from raising awareness within the school, the We Team has also set the goal of collecting 1,000 health kits to be delivered to Free the Children for distribution in Haiti and Kenya. Each kit will have one tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, a bar of soap, a wash cloth, a hand towel, a comb, and a box of band-aids, all in Ziploc bags.
Anyone interested in donating a health kit is welcome to do so, but it must be soon as the kits have to be delivered to Toronto by May 1.