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Pazocalo social network connects students with survivors

Published: Wednesday, June 5 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Through Pazocalo, Thalkar's students sent and received messages each day in class from Darfuri refugees. They also made and exchanged videos as a class with another seventh-grade classroom in a camp in eastern Chad. His students went on to raise about $1,200 through projects of their own design, including a bake sale and walkathon, for school supplies for that class.

Because of the personal communication and education, Thalkar said he saw excitement and curiosity in his students, "this overwhelming sense of wanting to learn more."

"'What is life like? How could this have happened? What can I do — why did my country not do enough?' … They made this issue their own. I'm amazingly proud of them."

An online peace square

Internet connection is typically a province of the relatively wealthy — worldwide, only about 20 percent in developing countries have access, according to the International Telecommunications Union.

But when Yuen-lin Tan, a Silicon Valley developer and technology adviser, visited Darfuri refugee camps in 2007 with i-ACT, a grass-roots organization based in California's Bay Area, he saw a way to make that change.

Seeing the isolation and desperate straits the refugees were in, Tan — someone his colleagues call a "tech ninja" — felt that being connected to the rest of the world was an essential human right.

"That kind of connection should be thought of as basic infrastructure — everyone needs it, like food, water," Tan said. "We can use technology to provide it quite easily today."

Tan and the team developed Pazocalo (Spanish for "peace" and "square") to do just that: provide a connection between those with stories to tell and those with ears to listen.

Another of Pazocalo's innovation is that it can operate offline.

"For sites like Facebook or Instagram, you have to be connected to use it," Stauring said. "(Pazocalo) can be used offline, and then once it's connected it will automatically send messages — you're able to save satellite costs by being able to use it offline."

While users in other countries can access Pazocalo on their laptops or other computers, the refugees use something different, called a "CommKit" — satellite modem, computer, cameras and a solar panel charging battery packs — all contained in a backpack.

Impact

Currently, Pazocalo's largest use is with social media's biggest fans — middle and high school students across the U.S., due to the partnership with the Darfur Dream Team Sister Schools Program.

Since 2007, more than 300 sister schools have teamed up with the Darfur Dream Team to connect with 12 schools in Darfuri refugee camps.

Funds raised by sister schools go toward furthering education in the camps, purchasing desks, tables, books, e-readers and sporting equipment (soccer and handball are hugely popular).

"When I went to the camps in 2007, there was one level-six class, no secondary school, no grades 7 or 8," says Stauring. "Since then they've added grade 7 and 8, secondary school, teachers, teachers at the primary school who have gone through secondary schools, (and) an increase in education for girls — for girls it's been pretty phenomenal."

Construction on a preschool center is also slated to finish this week.

Williams of the Darfur Dream Team said it's a two-way street, and the U.S. students benefit just as much.

"It's easy for me to say, oh I want to tell the stories of the refugees. But to have refugees telling their own stories — they can tell it better than I can," said Williams.

"It's really powerful for people in the U.S. to get to learn about the other part of the world, to learn about Chad, Darfur, Sudan, to learn about the African continent, to learn about people," she said.

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