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Facebook group raises awareness, support for Darfur

February 8, 2007

Over the course of three years, Facebook.com has taken the social world by storm with nearly 16 million registered users.

The Web site is a means of communication for workers, students and anyone with Internet capabilities throughout the United States and globally.

Users of Facebook are able to create groups based on a variety of topics ranging from beer drinking to sports. Others choose to use the vast network as a way to create social awareness about global issues. Jeremy Riddell-Kaufman, a student at California Polytechnic State University, is one of the people in the latter category.

Riddell-Kaufman is the creator of “400,000 Faces,” a group dedicated to raising support for Darfur, a region in western Sudan where conflict has been occurring since 2003.

The conflict started when non-Arab, anti-government rebel groups in Darfur began attacking various Sudanese government entities, including the police and military. The rebels believe that the Arab government is oppressing the non-Arab population. 

Soon after the fighting began, the Sudanese government retaliated using ties to the Janjaweed, nomadic cattle herders from the region.

According to the Coalition for International Justice, an estimated 400,000 casualties have resulted from the conflict, many of whom have been civilians. The death toll is heightened by the fact that Darfur is an arid region, making famine a significant contributor to the fatalities.

Various atrocities have been committed on civilians, including rape, torture, burning of homes and murder.  The U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, Mukesh Kapila, has labeled the conflict as a humanitarian crisis, while others consider it genocide. The United Nations has yet to label it as genocide under their terms.

Despite repeated attempts by the international community to end the conflict, the Sudanese government has constantly opposed intervention.

In his junior year of high school, Riddell-Kaufman spent a semester in Israel. While he was there he went on an informational trip about the Holocaust.

“At the concentration camp of Terezin, we were honored with a Holocaust survivor who spoke to us,” Riddell-Kaufman said. “At the end of the talk I approached her and promised that I would do everything in my power to never let such a horror occur again.”

During his senior year he attended a presentation at his high school about the situation in Darfur.

“There was a picture of refugees standing in line for food that hit me really hard,” he said. “I saw just how similar that picture was to the pictures of the holocaust. It was then when I decided I had to do something.”
Riddell-Kaufman then started a Web site called studentsfordarfur.org.

“The idea of the Web site originally was to be a hub for the activism work for Darfur done by students throughout the nation so that all of the little local voices would come together with one voice, Riddell-Kaufman said. “The other function of the site was to be a catalyst for campaigns nationwide.”

That particular Web site didn’t receive the kind of attention he had hoped for, but shortly after he joined Facebook he realized there was potential to reach a larger audience.
“I launched “400,000 Faces” on Facebook and it became an unbelievable success,” he said. 

Since the inception of 400,000 Faces, schools and students across the nation have joined, including several students from UW-River Falls.

“A friend invited me, and I have done some light research on the topic. I am glad to be in the group and support it,” UWRF freshman Kelsey Anderson said.

The idea behind “400,000 Faces” was to gain 400,000 members, and then have each member send in a picture of themself. Each picture represents one person who has died in Darfur. The goal was achieved in early January.

On April 28, an expected 200 schools will print out the pictures, 100 to a page. Students will lay the pictures out at public areas in their schools. A picture will be taken of each display, and all of the resulting pictures will be sent to U.N. officials, news organizations and other influential parties. 

According to the description of the group on Facebook, “The resulting packets of 4,000 pages will be sent to the officials that have the best chance in creating change.”

“400,000 Faces” is also in partnership with Amnesty International, a global organization dedicated to promoting human rights. 

Stephen M. Revis, vice president of Students for Darfur, spoke of Riddell-Kaufman’s accomplishment.

“He established the Facebook group and built the studentsfordarfur Web site, each of which has come quite far from when it was established,” he said.

The group did achieve 400,000 members, but some people left the group thinking that membership was limited to that number.  As of Feb. 7, the group had only 394,567 members.  400,000 Faces is not limited to 400,000 members, in fact Riddell-Kaufman and others encourage everyone to join.

“If all goes as intended this will wake the entire nation up to the situation in Darfur. The U.S. government has given a significant amount of support to Darfur, but they have been limited because of the lack of public support,” Riddell-Kaufman said.

“400,000 Faces” lists several other ways people can support Darfur besides joining the group, including telling friends, working with the administrators of the group, joining other youth activist organizations and taking other action using the Internet.

The primary goal of “400,000 Faces” is not only to raise awareness about the conflict in Darfur, but to create public support to the degree that U.N. peace keepers will be allowed into the region to end the fighting, and hold Sudan accountable for the crimes they have committed.