"We wanted a service project, not poverty tourism," says Brandon Cohen, 22.
On May 10, 30 members of FORGE, a group Cohen co-founded in 2003 while he was a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, will fly to Zambia to spend seven weeks in three refugee camps. One member plans to spend the entire year there, ensuring the sustainability of FORGE projects.
In 2003, Cohen and about 18 other Pitt students were traveling the world by ship for Semester at Sea, a multi-country study-abroad program Pitt administers. But when they docked in Tanzania, they decided a safari wasn't the best use of their time in Africa. Rather than ogle zebras, they decided to head to a refugee camp and do some good. Led by Stanford student Kjerstin Erickson, they started collecting donations from their shipmates, from food to condoms to cash.
"Before we knew it, it was the night before we were going to dock in Dar Es Salaam," Cohen says. "It was unbelievable; I was nervous."
Before the group could proceed, they had to meet with U.S. embassy officials in Tanzania. They learned that United Nations rules prohibit anyone from actually entering U.N.-administered refugee camps without approval, but they chartered a small plane to Kigoma, in the western region of Tanzania, home to four camps of refugees fleeing violence in Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.
"It was like landing on Mars for me," Cohen says. The group met with orphans, refugees and NGO workers. "We were just blown away."
Back on the ship, the group gave a presentation that had their shipmates in tears. Many more expressed interest, and FORGE (Facilitating Opportunities for Refugee Growth and Empowerment) was born, with Erickson as co-founder. Back in the States, the group raised $80,000 to return to Africa the next year.
Today, FORGE is an operational partner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with full access to camps. The group headed for Zambia this month includes nine members from the Pittsburgh region and others representing 11 universities across the United States and Canada.
Participants, mostly college students, raise their own funds. Cohen has held events at the Shadow Lounge in East Liberty and even barbecues in his parents' backyard in Monroeville.
Each FORGE member has his or her own self-designed project, promoting everything from art, music and literature to women's empowerment, AIDS awareness and education. Last year, they built the world's largest library in a refugee camp, in Meheba Refugee Settlement in northwestern Zambia.
Taku Ohkawa, a 23-year-old Pitt student, will be staying in the Kala camp in northeastern Zambia for more than a year, long after the others fly back home. He recently spent a year in Florida building houses for Habitat for Humanity through Americorps, so public service isn't new to him. Africa, though, will be. He'll be working to renovate a Kala library that's inadequate for the 24,000 people it serves, restocking it with books, upgrading the thatched roof to a waterproof one, installing solar energy panels -- and one other thing.
"We'll be the first ones to introduce laptops into a refugee camp," he says.