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Write-a-thon raises awareness, honors local leaders

VISTA — Students and community members gathered on Dec. 4 at Rancho Buena Visa High School to write letters that they hope can make a difference.

The letters are part of the annual Amnesty International Global Write-a-thon, which raises community awareness and works to free prisoners of conscience. Global efforts generated over 3 million letters last year.

This year’s goal for the high school gathering is 1,000 letters.

“It’s really a wonderful opportunity to give everyone a simple tool to make a difference in people’s lives around the world, just by writing letters,” Alessandra Colfi, Amnesty International volunteer, said.

The local annual event is open to the public, and co-hosted by Amnesty International North County Chapter #471 and the high school Amnesty International Club.

Organizers provide paper, pens, case information to write about, musical entertainment and pizza.

Participants are invited to write appeals to government officials to release prisoners of conscience, as well as solidarity cards that are sent directly to the people suffering human rights violations.

“This year amnesty has adopted 12 cases,” Muna Sharif, associate field organizer of Amnesty International Western Region, said. “We write letters to the prisoners, the government officials, and the prison in hopes that the prisoner will be released. Amnesty has been successful in the past in releasing prisoners and we hope to keep this long standing tradition.”

Colfi said the nonprofit regularly hears that letter-writing efforts make a difference.

Last year a blogger in Saudi Arabia, said letters sent in protest to his flogging stopped it from happening.

“It’s a good example of how these letters do change people’s lives,” Colfi said. “They spare them from more severe circumstances.”

The event also honors human rights leaders, and looks ahead at work that still needs to be done.

This year’s North County Digna Ochoa Human Rights Defender Award was given to Reverend Bill Jenkins, Pastor Jean Elise Durandisse and the Christ United Methodist Ministry Center.

Jenkins and Durandisse were recognized for their efforts to assist thousands of Haitian refugees who came to the U.S. via the Tijuana border this summer.

Under their leadership the Christ United Methodist Ministry Center, in San Diego’s Normal Heights, opened its doors to provide shelter and humanitarian services to thousands who fled political and economic corruption in Haiti for a safe life in the U.S.

Most of the refugees traveled through Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela before they reached Mexico and finally the U.S.

Hundreds slept at the port of entry so they would not loose their place in line as they were slowly processed to enter the country.

Upon their arrival in San Diego they had no money, no instructions in Creole, and no one to turn to. That is when Durandisse, a lay minister of the Haitian Methodist Ministry of Exodus United Methodist Church, got a call and stepped in.

She said when she drove up in the Haitian Methodist Ministry van the refugees let out a cheer because someone had arrived who spoke Creole.

Initially church members allowed refugees to temporarily sleep in their homes. Then the church partnered with the United Methodist Church, Catholic Charities, and the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium to seek long-term solutions.

Efforts of Jenkins and Durandisse were honored on Dec. 4, and are ongoing.

Amnesty International began 55 years ago in London, England. The nonprofit was recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977.

Today more than 3 million volunteers have joined the group in its efforts to stop human rights violations.