When we were in seventh grade, a school project meant digging for crusty glue out of the pantry and coercing Mom into making yet another shoe-box diorama. For seventh grader Mara Kessler, a school project was the catalyst for human rights advocacy.
After creating a school project about the persecution of the ethnic minority Rohingya in Burma, Mara wanted to raise awareness outside of her classroom. According to the United Nations, the Rohingya are one of the world’s most oppressed people. In the last two years, around 200 Rohingya have been killed and more than 125,000 have been displaced and are living in what have been described as concentration camps.
And after life-saving healthcare services were denied to the Rohingya this spring, further endangering this fragile population, Mara started a White House petition urging the Obama administration to take action regarding the Muslim minority.
“[After visiting Burma,] I picked Burma for a project at school and everyone was very optimistic about the changes happening in Burma at the time. Back then, I didn’t know much about the Rohingya,” Mara said. “But I went to an event at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum where I learned about them. I decided I wanted to try to get the Obama administration to take action.”
Mara said she feels a connection to Burma and to the oppressed Rohingya because she visited Burma with her family. She said the trip helped her to relate to daily life in Burma and also showed her first-hand the global silence surrounding the Rohingya. At the time of Mara’s trip, Burma was looking to create a democracy after years of military control. Opposition leader and National League for Democracy in Burma chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi was expected to lead the country to freedom as president.
“Since I actually went to Burma and saw the people living out their daily lives, it wasn’t such a foreign concept,” Mara said. “Everyone was really optimistic. They thought there was going to be a democracy once Aung San Suu Kyi became president. There was no mention of Rohingya.”
But Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely criticized for being silent on the plight of the Rohingya and there are few voices in Burma, or around the world, calling for action to stop the attacks against them.
Mara’s petition, urging the U.S. government to pressure Burma for equal treatment of the Rohingya, is one of the few voices demanding their protection. Her petition needs 100,000 signatures by June 25 to garner an official response from the White House. With almost 900 signatures now, Mara is more concerned with her message than the signature count.
“It is a big number, and I might not be able to get it. The number doesn’t matter as much as what I do to get people aware,” she said. “Even if people aren’t signing, they might think, ‘Oh, this is about the Rohingya.’ So if they see an article about it they might read it or send it to their friends.”
Though her short-term goal is to get as many signatures as possible, Mara’s long term ambition is to see an increased general awareness of the situation in Burma and those similar to it around the world. She urges people to take action outside of her own petition as well.
“You could write letters to your senators, whoever ever they are to get them to sign more bills about Burma,” Mara said. “It’s also really easy to start a petition. You can just tell more people about Burma, write letters, create posters and flyers, or even tweet about it.”
#Burma’s Rohingya ethnic minorities are under attack. Join the call for action by the @WhiteHouse http://ht.ly/xOaYS
Mara does not see being a teenager as hindrance to her mission. She believes that age is irrelevant in the battle against global atrocities.
“A lot of people who sign the petition don’t know my age. No matter what age you are, you can still help,” she said.
Mara plans to continue spreading awareness about the Rohingya, in the U.S. and across the world. She is most impressed, not by her own efforts, but by the well-intentioned audience responding to her message.
“I was really happy to know that other people are interested in it around the world. There were tweets about it in French and politicians in India were tweeting about it,” Mara said. “There are still some people in this world who care about other people.”