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Peace studies students raise awareness of the dangers of xenophobia

| Thursday, April 23, 2015

With a Facebook page, a photo and video campaign and a petition in the works, several graduate students in peace studies are trying to raise awareness about a recent outbreak of mob violence against immigrants in South Africa.

The attacks, in which people have been shot and stabbed and shops looted and burned, have left several dead and thousands of migrants displaced, The Guardian reported. Most of the victims are from nearby African countries such as Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. In the face of international backlash, South Africa arrested hundreds and sent its army to parts of the cities of Johannesburg and Durban, where the violence is centered, to quell the unrest.

The violence is the latest in a series of outbreaks over the past several years. Sarah Bosha, a second-year masters student in peace studies who helped form the Notre Dame campaign, said some South Africans, especially in poorer areas, believe foreigners take away South Africans’ jobs.

Francis Opio, also a second-year masters student, said he and other students from Africa had the idea for the project, which is unaffiliated with other campus organizations, last week after they talked with each other about what they had heard about the violence.

“We thought, not only as peace studies students but also as human beings, we needed to speak up,” Opio said. “How could this be happening to an African but also being orchestrated by an African? It was really horrible.”

The campaign, called “Students Against Violence,” began Friday outside the library, where students encouraged passersby to record a video message or take a photo with a sign that said “Say No to Xenophobia.” The students created a Facebook page to post the photos and discuss news from Africa.

The group will also collect signatures for a petition, which they will submit to the South African consulate in Chicago, Bosha said. Bosha, who is from Zimbabwe, said the petition stems from her and other students’ dismay at the slow response of international leaders.

“We felt like there’s a deafening silence from other African governments — I know my leader, President [Robert] Mugabe, didn’t say anything for a long time,” she said. “The South African president didn’t quite say anything for a long time, the AU took a really long time to say something, and it was disheartening to us because there were people from our country, people from other countries that were being killed, and it just seemed like it was business as usual. No one seemed moved, who had the authority to do something about it.”

The petition will remind the South African government about its obligation to uphold the right to life under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, Bosha said.

“The idea is to call upon the South African government to what it’s supposed to do according to its treaty obligations and also to call upon South Africans themselves that are committing the violence — it’s not all of them, but the ones that are — that this is against the values that we as a continent uphold,” Bosha said.

Bosha said the campaign will also address a general lack of knowledge about the situation in South Africa.

“It was interesting to see how something so huge as someone’s loss of life in such a terrible way like being burned to death or being decapitated or being murdered could slip by the eyes of the world,” she said. “It surprised me that some people didn’t know — but it’s not something that was blasted in international media.”

First-year masters student Christian Cirhigiri said after the petition is submitted, the campaign will go beyond the immediate problem of violence in South Africa. He said the social media platform will be a space both to raise public awareness of African news and for African students to talk about issues on the continent, such as attacks by Nigerian terror group Boko Haram or the killing of 30 Ethiopian Christians by ISIS.

“This is not just for South Africa,” he said. “We would like to create a space for a movement here on campus where African issues are brought to light, that the Notre Dame community gets to know or gets to feel that we are representing nations that are affected, and we would like to have their support as well as the support of leaders here.”

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About Emily McConville

Emily McConville is a news writer and photographer for the Observer. She is a senior studying history and Italian with a minor in journalism. She is from Louisville, KY and lives off-campus.

Contact Emily