RESPECT supports refugees

Wed Nov 5 2003
By Martin Zeilig
Winnipeg Free Press

AS the founder and international co-ordinator of RESPECT International, Marc Schaeffer is helping to "build bridges between non-refugee students and refugee students" around the world through pen-pal letter exchanges.

Schaeffer, 33, a teacher in the literacy program at Stevenson Britannia Adult High School in St. James, began RESPECT (Refugee Education Sponsorship Program: Enhancing Communities Together) two years ago after seeing the work being done at the Winnipeg Refugee Education Network.

"It (WREN) does all kinds of great work raising funds for refugee-related charities and generally building awareness of refugee issues among people in Winnipeg. It also sponsors refugees (who move here)," says Schaeffer, whose wife, Kae Sasaki, is artistic director of RESPECT.

"At one point, I really wanted to help refugee communities directly in the refugee camps worldwide."

Besides the letter exchanges, RESPECT's other two stated goals are to increase awareness of refugee issues among non-refugee students in participating countries, and to encourage students to raise some funds for their sponsored refugee school.

Rylee Cizik, 17, was already a member of WREN when Schaeffer asked her to become involved with RESPECT two years ago. "I thought it would be a good opportunity to continue to put forward action for refugees," says the Grade 12 student at Westwood Collegiate, who is now a board member of RESPECT.

She's amazed at how RESPECT has grown into an international organization since its inception.

After coming up with the idea for RESPECT, Schaeffer searched the Internet for refugee schools in various countries that were connected on-line.

"I was introduced to a number of refugee communities and groups that work with them," states Schaeffer.

One of the organizations that helped him was the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

"I contacted them directly via e-mail. They kindly introduced me to a number of their partner organizations," says Schaeffer. "I really spent a couple of months on the Internet until I was able to build up a significant number of contacts in refugee communities and related NGOs (non-governmental organizations). My original dream was to get used school supplies like textbooks, microscopes and sports stuff, and have them shipped to these communities. But it occurred to me that it would be wise to first introduce students here to refugee students worldwide, firstly with a letter exchange, and then send small care packages."

Today, RESPECT has co-ordinators in 15 countries. Schaeffer mentions that several schools in Canada are also involved in the organization.

"The number of schools continues to grow," he says. "Students from a francophone school in Manitoba were introduced to refugee students in Cameroon recently."

He also notes that 30 Manitoba students attended a High School Refugee Awareness and Youth Leadership Conference sponsored by WREN in May.

"RESPECT put on a workshop and introduced those students to refugee students in Northern Uganda and Guinea," says Schaeffer, noting that Sisler High School, Vincent Massey Collegiate, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, among other groups, are also working with RESPECT.

For further information, contact Schaeffer at respect@respectrefugees.org.

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