A family lives in a cramped and shabby shelter they created out of scrap. The youngest family member, Judy, helps her parents make and sell newspaper bags. Later, the owners of the lot where her family temporarily settles in arrive and seize the girl. They will sell her to human traffickers.
“What I have experienced for two hours is only a fraction of people living this reality every day,” Keystone Academy senior student Judy Zhu says of the Refugee Run program by the Hong Kong-based Crossroads Foundation. Judy joined this simulation during a summer camp in Hong Kong in 2018.
Judy and seven other participants took on different roles in a refugee family. This simulation, she says, exposed emotional connections and disconnections between people, especially during hostile situations.
“And that showed how powerful it was,” Judy adds. “This experience made me understand what refugees go through daily.”
Two years after that experience, Judy re-encountered Crossroads, this time at Keystone. The school partnered with the foundation for its first Creativity, Activity, and Service (CAS) Day, held on September 4 (Friday).
CAS is part of Keystone’s IB Diploma Programme (DP). Through this core component of the curriculum, high school students individually create a product or perform an activity to achieve genuine, real-world experiences and personal growth.
CAS Coordinator and Science teacher Sindhura Mahendran says the initial event plan aimed at conducting a similar Refugee Run simulation so more students could understand the meaning of empathy and the implications of human trafficking and refugee crises. The theme was adjusted later on and became “Be the Change.”
“We want students to internalize and become the change themselves,” Ms. Mahendran says. “Through their projects, they can bring that change to life.”
Crossroads Director David Begbie commended Keystone students for “choosing to step in” and showing care amid the complications brought about by the pandemic. “Your school has seen and understood correctly what it does look like to change the world,” he said in his virtual speech.
Keystone and Crossroads invited four speakers who talked about how they are trying to make a difference. In the opening session, Keystone Class of 2019 member Abdul Basir Talayee shared how his CAS project allowed him to empower girls in his home country of Afghanistan. During the summer break of 2018, Basir launched his soccer program, despite opposition from many conservative families. Now, as many as 70 girls are learning soccer and playing in a safe space, thanks to locals who support Basir’s initiative.
“CAS projects are your opportunity to create value in this world,” Basir told his younger peers. The alumnus also urged them to think of the issues they are passionate about and use them as a starting point. In his case, he wanted to level the playing field for young Afghans.
For Judy Zhu, the impact of Basir’s CAS project is far-reaching. Not only does the program change the girls’ lives, she says, but it also transforms the mindsets of teachers, parents, and other people who will “stimulate others to become changemakers as well.”
Judy is working on her CAS project—an upcoming sports day for her Keystone peers. Basir’s lead, she says, has sparked her courage and determination to “bring that sport spirit back to students” who need motivation during their crucial final years in high school.
“I hope that my project can encourage other students in the lower grades to rethink how they can do changes, and how that can make an impact,” she adds.
Keystone juniors and seniors formed small groups and watched virtual speeches in classroom sessions. Judy found the discussion of peace campaigner Zak Ebrahim on making choices the most rousing. Mr. Ebrahim, a son of a militant religious leader, wrote a book about the emotional traumas he faced in his childhood years in the United States. His message that “living in ignorance warps reality around your perspective – it warps your emotion” strongly resonated with Judy.
“No matter the level of violence you've been exposed to, it doesn't have to define your character. But in all of us is the ability to change our paths,” Mr. Ebrahim stated further. “As I mature, I realized the only way that we can overcome the challenges of our past, which at times can be crippling, is to help each other understand that hatred only produces more hate.”
A similar message was given by education advocate Jacometti David Livingstone, who survived abduction by rebels in northern Uganda. He spoke about this harsh reality in Central Africa and how an insurgent group has sparked a refugee crisis. Mr. Livingstone founded a non-governmental organization that helps orphans, abduction survivors, and internally displaced youths obtain education and develop technical and industrial skills.
“I have decided that I should turn my life into something useful, and that is what I have been doing,” he continued. “I turned it around to help vulnerable young men and women who have been raised in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps, [so they can] rebuild their lives and have a chance [to continue living], just like many of us are given [the same] chance.”
Book author Matt Friedman, meanwhile, touched on the closely related issue of human trafficking. Mr. Friedman has extensive experience developing and managing United Nations’ regional and global programs to counter human trafficking. He shared insights into modern slavery, saying that 40 million people worldwide are victims of trafficking or labor exploitation.
To put this into perspective, Mr. Friedman says that “one person somewhere in the world is entering into modern slavery every four seconds.”
“What are the things needed to address this issue?” he asked students during his virtual speech. “Well, the first thing is to educate, inspire, and motivate the world to care about this issue.”
Towards Actionable Change
During a virtual debriefing with students, Mr. Begbie emphasized that showing care is one significant move already, but transforming that care into an actionable change requires hard work. He asked students to turn to Keystone’s five shared values for guidance.
“If you’re asking ‘What can I do,’ the very first place where we must start is rén’ài (仁爱)— compassion,” Mr. Begbie explained. “If care is missing, many of our actions will be stunted. We also have to remind ourselves why we are doing what we do. But without lǐ (礼)—respect—our service and help for others won’t be very rich. Zhī (智)—wisdom—is critical. You have to seek wisdom to avoid mistakes.”
Twelfth grader George Qiao appreciated how the speakers shared stories that “touch upon fundamental human emotions and connections.” For him, people who live in developed or developing societies take for granted the realities of disadvantaged people. The speakers, he says, have reminded them that much of the world needs care.
For his CAS project, George is working on gathering speakers for an upcoming conference. On the side, he is writing a playscript. The CAS Day discussions, he says, had so much depth that he wrote “a lot of pages afterward” because they introduced him to “ideas I could never have thought about in my school life.”
Ms. Mahendran reminds students that impact “isn’t measured by the scale of their project” but how they grow from the process. Both Judy and George acknowledge that they face difficulties in their respective projects, but what is important for them are the lessons and the human connections they get from their experiences.
“If they can successfully help anybody in an authentic, meaningful way, and can improve skills or something about themselves, or even within their group, it helps a long way towards their projects and future—and beyond,” Ms. Mahendran says.