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Kids Turn to Power of the Pen To Help War-Torn Burundi

The Burundi national flag hangs upside down on the flagpole near the entrance to Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter School. It's the first indication that something's a bit different here.

Step into the social-studies classroom for more clues. Instead of desks, three picnic tables are arranged in a horseshoe. A gigantic map of the world covers one wall. Across the room, a quotation by writer/philosopher Elie Wiesel stands out: "The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference ... Silence always favors the oppressors and never the oppressed." Posted nearby, "factoids" offer some grim news: Life expectancy in Burundi is 38 years for men, 42 years for women.

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Close as a sea breeze to the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by the luxury homes of California's bucolic Avila Valley, the Bellevue-Santa Fe campus is a world away from war-torn central Africa. Yet this brand-new charter school's students, teachers, principal, and parents are determined to help bring peace to that faraway region.

They launched a "peace offensive" in late November against the violence that's wracking Burundi. Since that day, the Burundi flag has hung upsidedown - the international sign of distress - to demonstrate the school's determination to help stop the genocide by rival African tribes.

Principal Paul White explains that at this elementary school, students don't just learn about the world. They work to make it a better place. "We courageously look at problems confronting mankind and confidently try to find solutions," he says.

Students have sent a declaration of peace to Burundi President Pierre Buyoya and President Clinton. They have written to the United Nations asking to speak to the UN General Assembly.

"We would absolutely give anything for the opportunity to address the General Assembly for five minutes," Mr. White says. "We want to show them in principle what's possible in practice."

The school's plan is simple - to "build things up the way they've been taken apart," he says. "Burundi has many needs in agriculture, health care, education. We have a community right here that's willing to pitch in."

His students agree. "This is all new to me because I never knew about Burundi very much," says nine-year-old Hayley McIntire. "It's good because we can do stuff for them and help. I think it's nice."

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The plight of Burundi also holds personal significance for the school community because of five-year-old Alexandra Gahungu, a kindergartner who fled that country in September and came to the Central Coast with her two younger siblings and her parents, Prosper and Alice.

Prosper Gahungu had earned his master's degree from nearby California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo some six years earlier and had kept in touch with friends. They offered safe haven from Burundi's violence if his family ever needed it. That offer was gratefully accepted Sept. 5, when the Gahungus learned of a US Embassy rescue mission that would bring them to California.

"Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter School is giving us hope," says Alice Gahungu. "It is giving hope to our children back home - telling them they are not alone."

Hope in the form of a "peace offensive" and resolution to the UN, and through personal letters to the children of Burundi.

The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders in White's social studies class - he also teaches at this small school - are assigned to write letters of "friendship and encouragement" to Burundi youngsters, and to enclose a small gift as a token of peace.

The classroom's picnic-tables-as-desks arrangement makes sense as the 21 students in the class get down to work on the assignment. They put their heads together, discussing various salutations they could use, how they would describe life in California, and what trinkets they would send.

Because there is no direct mail service into Burundi, the childrens' letters will be sent to the Burundi Embassy in Washington, and to the US Ambassador in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura, for distribution.

The Bellevue-Santa Fe kids worry that their letters will not be read because they are written in English. The languages of Burundi are French and Kirundi. Less than half the population can read or write.

White reassures them, saying that letters from the US would be a "big deal," and that someone would read and translate them.

After the students troop out for recess, White shares more of his school's philosophy, beginning with a quote by Tennyson: "When shall all men's good be each man's rule, and universal peace lie like a shaft of light across the land...."

He stops and smiles. "I never had a class like this in school - that's why I'm teaching like this," White says. "When I'm asked, 'what's your curriculum,' I answer 'everything.' "

Below is a sampling of the letters students from the Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter School in San Luis Obispo, Calif., wrote to Burundi children:

Greetings friend.

I have learned about the trouble in your country between the two major tribes. It appears that a solution would be difficult unless both sides can come to a reasonable agreement. My school is not on either side. We are on the side of peace. Enclosed I have put a seashell. I found it on the beach. (The beach is sand just before the ocean). To me the shell means friendship.

Your friend, Stephen Roese, sixth grade.

Dear Friend.

I think that it is amazing that there are so many wild animals in Burundi. I love looking at wild animals, but unfortunately there are not very many different kinds in California. It almost made me cry when I heard about all the danger in Burundi. I admire you for your extreme bravery. It would be so hard to wake up in the morning and not be able to know whether you were safe of not. I wish I were in Burundi so that I could comfort you.

Sincerely, Rachel Moroski, fifth grade.

Rachel enclosed a little pin - a pony dressed in dance clothes - because she loves to dance. "Whenever you start to feel lonely, you can look down at the pony and remember there is someone all the way in California who is thinking of you," she writes.

Dear Burundi friend:

I wish all the wars would end and the world would be at peace everywhere. I believe the best way to stop violence is to sit down and talk. That's just what the Hutus and Tutsis should do. Some of them probably forget what they are fighting about, and they are just fighting because they have been doing it so long. They should just sit down and talk before everyone dies. Gir' amahoro [May peace be with you].

Your friend, Danielle Saenz, fifth grade.

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