Story by Jai Punjwani, Greater New York Region, IHL Action Campaign Team Lead
A loud screeching sound filled me as I was about to score the winning goal for my soccer team. Startled, I opened my eyes and looked across at Dennis. He looked back at me. After a long minute of staring, he broke out into a smile that could only mean one thing: we finally reached Washington DC.
For months, my team members and I have been learning about child soldiers and their protection under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). To raise awareness for the issue in our school and community, we had run an action campaign, which was selected for national recognition. My team members and I were beyond excited to visit Washington DC and present our campaign to the American Red Cross staff at National Headquarters! After checking into our hotel and unpacking our bags, we immediately gathered for a very important group activity: a game of volleyball.
Later that day, after various ice breakers and a very delicious dinner, all of our group members met to prepare for our IHL Action Campaign presentation. On the run-through of our PowerPoint, Sammuel kept saying his lines incorrectly, Dennis kept reading off his paper verbatim, Sharon and Evelyn were constantly laughing, and I was about to go back and score that winning goal I was dreaming about earlier. Kanhong, our team leader, stared at us hopelessly. We were doomed.
The next morning at 7 am my eyes burst open. My alarm didn’t go off, so why did I wake up? I glanced at my window and saw a bright ray of sunlight enter my room. I quickly got dressed and went down for breakfast. No one said a word. We soon boarded the bus and sat back in our seats anxiously. When we arrived at the National Headquarters, we took group photos and proceeded inside. First up was our coffee break presentation, which we forgot to prepare for.
I nominated Evelyn to speak during the coffee break, since she is our best public speaker. She was reluctant to speak, but Kanhong reassured her that she would do just fine. Before our group’s turn, another group brought up three people to reflect on their campaign. Evelyn was quick to notice this, and asked me to come speak with her. Now I was the one who needed reassurance.
“And now the group from Greater New York,” the host announced. I took a few deep breaths, looked at Evelyn, who seemed calm, and went with her to the front of the room. We briefly introduced ourselves, and took turns talking about the three parts of our campaign: the bake sale, classroom presentations, and social media campaign. Surprisingly, we barely stuttered as words flew out of our mouths with ease.
I talked about my role as president, and how it helped me develop during the last two years of high school. I also talked about why my team members and I started this campaign. We wanted to teach students about a very important body of law that protects many innocent lives.
Unfortunately, there have been numerous violations of IHL around the world, especially with the usage of underage child soldiers. We encouraged students to appreciate their access to education and stand up for human rights. I ended the mini presentation with a little joke about having to hassle my school administrators, and everyone gave Evelyn and me a warm round of applause.
Two months later, I am sitting in a chair taking an online course on Women’s Health and Human Rights. The course relates to one of next year’s IHL Action Campaign topics: gender roles. Having gained invaluable leadership experience, I am excited to start another action campaign at my new institution, Adelphi University. Through a second campaign, I hope to inspire students to think deeply about humanitarian issues and ways to solve them.