Dear Future Volunteers,
In the spring of 2010, Trinity College offered a brand new course: LACS 285, also known as Cultural Rights. Led by the enlightening Professor Anne Gebelein, the class analyzed the rights of majority and minority cultures to maintain their traditions, religion, and language. We first engaged ourselves in discussions based on questions such as “what is culture?” and “how are cultural rights different than human rights?” These discussions progressed as we studied cultural rights violations around the world. From Latin America, to Europe, Africa, and even right here in the United States, we quickly saw that cultural rights’ violations occur daily.
With each new case study, our class was pushed to compare the rights of one culture to another. We analyzed national laws that inhibited practices of certain cultures and discovered societies that erased indigenous groups from their national identity all together. No two minority groups experienced exactly the same hardships, but each case did have one thing in common: their right to their culture was being denied. Everyday we were challenged to examine, investigate, and criticize – proving this new course was no easy “A”. However our greatest feat came when we were required to go beyond our readings and essays and face a case study hands-on.
Professor Gebelein explained to the class that we would partner with Catholic Charities and assist them in welcoming a Burmese refugee family to Hartford. Our job would be to furnish their apartment so the family would have a comfortable home when they arrived to the United States for the first time. As a class we brainstormed all the necessities every apartment must have, but at the time we did not realize the depth of the project in front of us.
Between fundraisers, Craigslist, and numerous Wal-Mart runs, our class had finally completed our goal. We set up the apartment, excited to see all our hard work pay off and eager for the Burmese family to move in. When they finally settled in, we had the pleasure to meet the family of five and hear their fascinating story. Even though generations of their Karen family grew up and lived in Burma, the government still considered them and their fellow citizens a threat to the nation. The Karen people’s ethnicity made them a target of the army, which routinely demanded their farm animals, raped their women, and burned their houses, crops, and land. The family we sponsored also had their hut and land torched, and were forced to move to a refugee camp where they settled for five years, on the border of Burma and Thailand.
Life in the camp was anything but pleasurable. The tight abodes had dirt floors, thin bamboo walls, and leaves thatched into roofs. The camp they resided in, like most, has 50,000 refugees, and there are about six camps along the border. Safety, food, and clean water were issues that never could be resolved in the camp. The only hope for this family was their UN refugee status application, which was finally approved in 2010, and they were assigned to Connecticut. Upon their arrival to Hartford, the family saw traffic and skyscrapers for the first time. While they will need time to adjust to life on what seems another planet, they were clear in their gratitude to Catholic Charities for their help and, of course, to our class for their lovely new home.
This project enabled us to get our noses out of the books and study cultural rights violations’ first hand. We urge other classes/groups to do the same and help a refugee family assimilate into the US. We hope this website can inspire others and assist with the actual process. Good luck!
Professor Gebelein’s Spring 2010 Cultural Rights Class