McKenzie Manney and her fellow seventh-graders at Greenwich High School found a new perspective on life after reading the book, “A Long Walk to Water,” by Linda Sue Park.
The short novel includes the true story of refugee Salva Dut, a Sudanese Lost Boy, who was forced to run from his home in South Sudan when war broke out in his village. Park used the book as a platform to support Dut’s program, “Water for South Sudan,” which raises money to bring clean water to Sudan.
“Even if you think you have the worst life in the world or live in a small apartment or something, other people don’t even have homes or are running from war all over the world, like little kids, like young kids like you,” said McKenzie, 12. “I can’t even imagine what that would even be like, to not have your family, anybody, just you alone.”
After reading Salva’s story, the ELA students from Emily Aierstok’s class began researching the stories of other refugees, using the United Nations Refugee Agency website. Each student chose one refugee to research, and the classes created more than 90 refugee profiles, telling stories of refugees throughout history and from around the world.
“They were so connected to his story, and I wanted them to see that his story is not isolated, that this is something that’s happened to millions of people,” Aierstok said.
The project, called “The Refugee Experience,” is currently on display at the Greenwich Free Library, which will host an open reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday in the library’s community room, 148 Main St. Several students will present the stories of refugees they researched.
The exhibit will be accompanied by the song “I Was Me,” by Imagine Dragons, a song discovered by 13-year-old Graham Genevick, who did even more refugee research on his own during winter break. The 2015 song was released to the iTunes Stores for the One4 project, with proceeds going to the UN Refugee Agency to support fleeing refugees.
“I watched the whole video,” Graham said. “I watched it multiple times and I thought this is perfect for what we’re going to do. So I told Mrs. Aierstok about it.”
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The research project had a profound effect on all the students, said Aierstok, who said some of the kids cried while reading about the lives of the refugees.
“The goal is to get them to see beyond just what we see in the media or in the news and really get to know who refugees were,” said Aierstok, who said the political side of the refugee crisis never entered into their conversations.
The project opened the eyes of the students, said Declan Kelleher, 12.
“Some people think that they have it really bad,” said Arianna Boyce, 13. “I thought I had it bad. Then I saw what they went through, and I couldn’t even compare it.”
Annie Miller, the director of the library, who also happens to be school board president, said a lot of people have already visited the display at the library and commented on how wonderful it is.
The exhibit gives the student an “authentic audience,” said Aierstok.
“We were opening ourselves to these stories that are pretty heartbreaking and I think the stories moved us emotionally,” Aierstok said, “and I wanted the kids to see that it can impact our whole community.”
The students also raised money for clean water for South Sudan by filling water bottles with coins. They used empty water bottles for symbolism.
“It’s happening today,” said Maeve Kelleher, 12. “As we speak, there are people trying to leave their country and homes to get to a better place in the world. And it’s hard for them to do that because they don’t know where to go.”