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Genocide Awareness and Action Week: Connecting, Informing and Inspiring

(Posted April 17, 2013)

Senior Zeljana Varga, chair of Genocide Awareness and Action Week

Juniata has devoted a week to raising awareness, inspiring action, and bearing witness to genocide. Last week Juniata observed Genocide Awareness and Action Week through a series of speakers including Juniata professors, activists, survivors and scholars. This year's chair, senior Zeljana Varga, shared her role in organizing the events, her goals through the week, her personal connection to genocide and her hopes for the future of Genocide Awareness at Juniata.

Q: How much and what kind of work did you put into preparing for this week? What were some of the struggles?

A: Genocide awareness and action week is in its third year now and every year we learn what works and what doesn't work. As the chair, this is an independent study for me which I thought was great because I get three credits and time allotted to organizing events and attending meetings. In terms of organization, my faculty advisor, Alison Fletcher, and I got together to brainstorm on our committee.

This year we were very fortunate that the Baker Institute, the President's Office, Hillel, and AWOL got involved and brought in great speakers. Genocide isn't an easy topic to discuss and it's April and students are already burnt out. As the chair, burnout is also a problem. Getting attendance is sometimes difficult too. As an incentive, we provided free food at all the events and at every single event we had at least 20 students. Another aspect is the diversity of students both involved in the planning and in attendance of the events. We don't want a stigma that only PACS and Politics students are involved. The diversity of our speakers helped to do this because survivors connect, scholars inform, and activists inspire.

Q: How is this year's Genocide Awareness Week different from past years?

A: Every year is different because the last two years have been run by different chairs. I've always had my reservations with doing hands-on activities like past years with the identity project. Some people see it as a game and lose the whole idea. This year I wanted to bring in an activist. You get pulled in by the survivors and their story, but you get challenged by the activists. We also did a lot more lunch-time lectures. I wanted to challenge students to think, discuss, and act.

Q: What is your biggest goal or hope through the events of this week? What message do you want people to take away?

A: We had two goals going into the week. The first was to start incorporating the greater Juniata community. We did a Lunch-and-Learn with the staff and I hope that continues. My other goals were to help people understand that as students, we're removed from areas that might have a lot of refugees, genocide survivors, in their areas. Students who haven't experienced these sorts of things can feel very disconnected. They're worried about finals and social life and I wanted to help people understand. It's a bit frightening, but if you pull back the layers of your identity chances are that at least one of your ways of identifying has been a victim of genocide. I wanted to help people understand that not only can you be a victim, but as a human you can also be a perpetrator.

Q: What was the most interesting, distressing or profound thing you learned from the speakers?

A: We had three very different speakers and they were all amazing. I haven't had time to really sit down and process things from the week. I know people who have been through things as grave as the Holocaust. I know the strength it takes to retell and relive your story and I have the utmost respect for Judith Meisel. For her to still have so much faith in humanity and promise in our generation, was very empowering. Listening to someone who's studied intently into the gruesome aspects of genocide, I have the utmost respect for Robert Lifton. For him to share his knowledge with other people to help them understand and act is really great. Sasha Lezhnev was able to incorporate a little bit of humor to make the topic a little easier to understand.

Q: What personal connection do you have to genocide?

A: I was born in Bosnia in 1991 and war broke out in '92. Today is actually the anniversary of when my mother took my brothers and I and fled. Some of my family members were in camps that were more brutal for political enemies. Luckily we didn't have a single death in my immediate family. The area we were in was used for slave labor camps. I am in the U.S., at Juniata, and studying PACS because of my personal and family experience. And that's also why I wanted to get involved in Genocide Awareness Week and run it.

-Hannah Jeffery '16, Juniata Online Journalist

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