Karen Heller: Teens on a mission of caring

Afaq "Fofo" Mahmoud at a Global Youth United meeting last week at Central High. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

If you despair of the direction of today's youth, the general torpor and indifference of so many, head to Central High. Visiting this school, one of the region's academic treasures, a United Nations of young talent, always makes me feel better about teenagers, Philadelphia, and, well, almost everything.

There should be a dozen Centrals, and the day that occurs, we can claim success.

Central is home to many remarkable students, including sophomore Afaq Mahmoud, whom her friends call Fofo, pronounced "Fufu."

"My country was like heaven," Fofo tells me. "It was the happiest place on earth."

Her country is Sudan, specifically the region of Darfur, rarely described as heaven.

The moment her feelings changed was when Fofo, born in Yemen, returned to Darfur in 2000. Her father, Ibrahim Imam, a noted doctor and activist, treated many residents, defying government authority. Fofo, only 4, and her older sister, Emtithal, "Emi," witnessed unspeakable violence, the horror of the terrorist militia, the Janjaweed, and the young girls' parents and uncles covered in blood.

But speak Fofo does. This is her mission. "When the Holocaust happened, we said never again. When Rwanda happened, we said never again," Fofo says. "Well, it's happened again, 400,000 people killed. I've been to Darfur and learned not to be afraid of it."

Fofo speaks in a soft, sweet voice that sounds even younger than her 15 years, the juxtaposition making her message all the more powerful.

"My voice is quiet," she says, "but my spirit is loud." She and Emi write poetry about Darfur and hope to help their country, Emi as a doctor and Fofo possibly as a lawyer and activist like her parents.

Fofo is a member of Global Youth United, a school-based, student-run organization engaged in social issues. The group was founded two years ago by Len Finkelstein, a Central graduate and longtime educator. In September, only three students attended the GYU meeting. Now, there are 20, led by Fofo; Alisha Chacko, born in India; Idorenyin Udoeyo from Nigeria; and Ruba Idris, also born in Yemen to Sudanese parents.

"I want them to pick the area they want to fix," says Finkelstein, who attends many GYU sessions in Central's two-story library, as well as its meetings at Science Learning Academy and School of the Future. "We're intentionally not designing a direction for them. We're asking them to do the identification, the problem-solving."

Central's GYU picked the global drinking-water crisis, raising funds for Charity: Water. And Darfur awareness. And domestic violence. And human trafficking. Fofo adds: "And poverty, and hunger, not just global but here in the United States."

Fofo has been to Darfur twice, the second visit in 2005 when she was 9, the destruction everywhere, many villages burned, the drinking water intentionally tainted by the Janjaweed.

To have her children witness all this "was very painful," says Fofo's mother, Amira Tibin. "They are writing from their insides. They take out the pain every day writing. They empower themselves and others." Tibin, who is studying bioscience at Jefferson, lives in the Northeast with her daughters and two of her three younger boys while her husband acquires additional surgical training in Serbia.

Emi, a senior at Masterman, was one of five national winners of a Leonore Annenberg Scholarship, worth up to $250,000. She hopes to attend Harvard or Johns Hopkins. "We take education seriously. If we're educated, we can educate others," Fofo says.

"Some people say they are too young to know about Darfur, but if there are children over there who are not too young to die, then you're not too young to know," she says. "Not knowing is worse than knowing. After I tell stories, people say they have nightmares about the things going on. I think it's worse to have happy dreams and not know. To turn off knowledge is just stupid."

For Finkelstein, "my goal is to get the next generation involved for the 21st century." Fofo and her GYU friends don't need much prompting.


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller.