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Rocky River grad carries human rights passion from Africa to the United Nations

Daniel Owens with students of the Nibakure Children's Village in Rwanda.

Daniel Owens and South African students

Rocky River

By Sue Botos

Any observer can see that Rocky River High School graduate Daniel Owens carries a spark when it comes to the topics of peace and human rights. But it took a class during his freshman year at Hope College, in Holland, Mich., to really ignite his enthusiasm and ultimately lead to an appearance at the United Nations in New York City, as well as travels to South Africa and Rwanda.

“In high school, I was active in ‘Save Darfur,’” he said during a recent interview, referring to the organization which calls attention to the killing and displacement of African farmers in the Darfur region of Sudan by Arab militias.

Now heading into his senior year at the Christian liberal arts college, Owens, 21, recalled that it was a class called “The History of Modern Africa” that transformed him from an “idealistic high school student” to an active participant in the promotion of human rights. “I learned so much, but I felt like I knew nothing,” he stated.

Owens’ interest was further stoked when had the opportunity to work with the professor of the course, Tamba M’Bayo, a native of Sierra Leone, on a research project through Hope College’s Mellon Scholarships, a humanities honors program.

“The idea is to do research, and then use digital tools to share the information,” he explained.

During the summer following his sophomore year, Owens worked with M’Bayo on the professor’s “African Renaissance” project, which he explained as “a vision for the renewal of Africa.” Owens recalled that the experience was more than the traditional one of a student assisting a professor with research. “It was unique because it was really him helping me,” Owens said of the six-week experience.

That work also led to Owens’ paper on peacekeeping in Liberia, which he presented at the annual meeting of the Academic Council on the United Nations System June 13-15 in New York City. “That was a real highlight,” stated Owens, who is no stranger to public speaking, having also given a presentation, with a fellow student, at the International Studies Association annual conference in San Diego in April. His paper on Liberia has also been accepted by the National Conference on Undergraduate Research and the Human Development Conference at the University of Notre Dame. Despite the recognition, Owens said it is still a work in progress, having reached 15 of a planned 20 pages.

But Owens’ research has not just been accomplished by plowing through libraries. During his fall 2011 semester, he spent August through December in South Africa, where he attended classes at the School for International Training, which partners with Hope College.

In addition, he had an internship doing research on behalf of ACCORD (African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes), a South Africa-based organization working to bring solutions to the many conflicts in Africa. The 20 students in his group, representing colleges throughout the United States, stayed with different families ranging from city dwellers to Zulu tribe members. Although he appreciated the diversity of the country, Owens was struck by the stark contrast between the wealthy and poor. “In the U.S. there is poverty and wealth, but generally, there’s a barrier between. In South Africa there’s utter opulence and utter poverty right next to each other. That’s just the nature of it,” he explained.

The poor state of education, outside of exclusive private schools, also made an impression on Owens. He said that while learning English is mandated by the government, there are few available to teach the language to rural tribes. “It’s a messy situation. Students are taught in their native tongue,” he said, adding, “Because English is so prized in business, parents want their children to learn it.”

Owens returned to Africa this summer, spending four weeks in Rwanda, which usually conjures up images of the 1994 genocides and poverty. “The starvation is real, but what I’ve tried to do is demystify it,” said Owens, referring to his senior thesis, which will deal with a country which he found fascinating, but faced with challenges.

Owens worked at the Nibakure Children’s Village (NCV), which is supported, in part, by donors associated with Hope College. “Our ultimate goal is to have (Hope) students stay here,” said Owens of the orphanage, which opened in 2011 and is home to 17 children, while supporting 13 more. Owens said he began as an intern for the NCV project, known as Behope, and is currently project director.

Contrary to what Owens says is portrayed in the media, he found Rwandans to be friendly, although he was often referred to as a “mzungu,” Swahili for “white person.” He added that it was not appropriate to ask a person’s ethnicity.

“They just say they’re all Rwandan,” he stated.

“They have some serious challenges, but there is also hope. It’s so eye-opening,” added Owens, stating that the people were excited by the prospect of his writing about the progress of their country, and attempting to remove the stigma.

Asked why he uses his energy for Africa while there is so much injustice in the U.S., Owens’ spark flares. “That’s a fair question. For me, personally, that’s where my talents and passions are.” He continued, “I’m not overlooking local (problems), but in Africa, the scale of impact is greater. That’s what I’m passionate about. For me, human dignity is the important thing.”

Although Owens says he is uncertain of his post-college path, the blog (www.danielandchrisgotorwanda.wordpress.com) from his Rwandan trip gives a hint. In his last entry, he wrote, “Everyone at NCV seemed pretty confident I’ll be back in Rwanda at some point. Sounds good to me.”

 

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