Never Again: A Teen Takes Action to Honor These Words

“First they came for the communists,
And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me,
And there was no one left to speak out for me.”

This famous statement by Pastor Martin Niemoller is too often overlooked. When proper attention is paid to this quote, reflections to the Holocaust are made, and regret is felt for non-Jews and Jews alike, wondering how they could have changed this horrible outcome or spoken out. Although these feelings are important, they are not good enough. This quote may be old, but it is timeless – as timeless as genocide itself.

I recently participated in the BBYO PANIM Institute’s Human Rights and Genocide Teen Issue Summit in Washington, DC. I learned that since the Holocaust ended in 1945, there has been 46 genocides.

Who is responsible for these genocides? I’m not Armenian, Darfuri, or Cambodian – I would not have been affected. I’m not Hutu, a part of the Khmer Rouge, or a Janjaweed soldier  – I would not have committed any crimes. But I am a human being; and so are the victims and perpetrators. As all of the participants of this amazing Summit agreed, we are responsible for making a change in the face of global genocide, and the time to act is now.

As I had learned from nearly all of our guest speakers and organizations at the Human Rights and Genocide Summit, genocide is not a subject to be taken lightly and making a difference in the face of genocide is not as easy – after all, genocide is a problem that has no solution, still.

Some notable responses to recent genocides, as explained by a speaker from the Jewish World Watch, have been demanding a special envoy for Congo, demanding conflict-free solutions, and protecting the survivors of the Congolese upheaval with the construction of hospitals. But clearly “responses” do not stop a problem, just assist its solution.

And yet with every success, new questions emerge. As we celebrate the recent independence of South Sudan from Northern Sudan, we wonder, does this mean an end to civil war and the genocide of Darfur? Or instead, is this going to lead to further fighting between the, now, two countries? As I have learned from this Summit, wishful thinking is not enough; problems that are so deeply rooted need great action.

Genocide is almost universally agreed to be wrong – as indicated by the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights, and yet genocide is universal. If we can all agree on how wrong it is, what does it take for us all to step up and stop it?

My response is this: as the founder and president of my school’s Invisible Children Club, a club dedicated to helping children abducted and forced to serve as soldiers in Uganda’s rebel army, I will inform my peers and ask them to look beyond themselves, and to speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves. I will remind them that we cannot keep out of mind, what is out of sight and of how Niemoller’s regretted the thinking that if it is not about “you,” it is not “your” problem.

I will continue to lobby Congress for genocide relief, with the knowledge that while I matter, I am stronger when joined by friends. So, I ask, anyone that has ever participated in an anti-genocide club meeting, attended an anti-genocide rally, associated themselves with an anti- genocide organization, was a proud participant of the BBYO PANIM Institute’s amazing Human Rights and Genocide Summit, or read this article, to please join me.

Just as genocides are more devastating with larger numbers of victims, strides for anti-genocide also gain strength with larger numbers of advocates. During the Summit, I lobbied with nearly 100 of my peers on Capitol Hill; and now it’s time to tell someone, and invite a friend to do the same. Senators respond to what their constituents want and need, but only if such constituents have open communication. Our government is very powerful globally, but only when its people take action. We have the right and must verbalize our thoughts to those who represent us, and encourage other constituents do the same.

As Niemoller reflects, those not immediately affected by genocide reacted too late, when speaking out was no longer an option. Let’s learn from history’s mistakes and take responsibility as a human race. I will practice what I learned at my PANIM Summit, and I hope you will do the same.

Julianne Simson is a high school senior at a performing arts high school in Sarasota, FL. She just completed her term as North Florida Region’s N’siah (Girls’ President) and BBYO’s International Israel Chair, mobilizing BBYO’s premiere initiative for Israel advocacy, the Speak Up! campaign. She is a member of the National Honors Society and is the president and founder of her school’s Invisible Children club. Julianne is a recent recipient of the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award.