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Cheek joins Grimsley students in highlighting plight of Darfur

by Jordan Green

Speed skater Joey Cheek told students at Grimsley High School to consider the possibilities, and by his example suggested that the goal might be set beyond winning Olympic gold and silver – that they might strive to actually change global conditions governing life and death.

Standing on a corrugated metal stage on the school grounds on April 27, a balmy Friday evening, he and a handful of student organizers cut through the atmosphere of frivolity and self congratulation to make an urgent appeal for attention to the estimated 2.5 million refugees and internally displaced persons under attack in the genocide underway in the Darfur region of Sudan.

That two freshman, Maggie Clark and Audrey Smith, contacted Cheek to enlist his support for the rally, and lined up support from a host sponsors – including VF Corp., Rice Toyota, 107.5 WKZL FM, the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro and Republican Party activist Aldona Wos – could be considered an article of their good faith – evidence that their commitment goes beyond resume building for maximal advantage in college admissions.

“Although I think it’s absurd, because I can skate fast in circles I can go in and talk to these congressmen, and they listen to me,” Cheek told the crowd, which included upwards of a hundred students and residents from surrounding neighborhoods. “If you do nothing about this, your life will not be all that different. You’ll still go on to be great scholars, athletes and businessmen. Take a stand for someone you may never meet. I still get goose bumps thinking about it. I think it’s the most significant way to spend your life.”

Cheek, a Dudley High School graduate who now resides in Washington, said he became aware of the situation in Darfur from watching television news while traveling in Europe for his sport. When he returned to the United States the same horrifying and galvanizing images were absent from television programming – a situation he called “tragic.”

“It’s hard to let go of how completely nuts Britney Spears is,” Cheek said, “but in the world there’s some great things going on and some terrible things going on.”

Cheek briefly earned a flurry of international attention after donating the proceeds from his winter Olympic performance in Turin, Italy in February 2006 to Right To Play, an organization that serves refugee children in Darfur and other parts of Africa. Since then Cheek has traveled to China and Turkey to plead on behalf of the Darfurian people, and met with former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to discuss their plight.

He was going through what he characterized as “a crisis of faith” born of uncertainty about whether his efforts were making a difference when he received Clark’s phone call. Outside obligations had also made him wary of committing to a trip to Greensboro. Talking to Clark, whom he called an “inspiration,” changed that. He promised to come.

Clark and Smith credit a teacher at the Canterbury School, an Episcopal institution in north Greensboro, with bringing the situation in Darfur to their attention. Last May they visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and saw a small exhibit focused on Darfur.

Clark received an e-mail from the Save Darfur Coalition, asking her to organize a rally at Grimsley, Smith said. The coalition staged a concerted effort to have simultaneous rallies around the world during the week of April 23-30 to spur international action on Darfur.

The two Grimsley freshmen, their celebrity guest of honor and a UNCG student who shared the stage with them stressed the message of combating one’s own complacency and engaging with the suffering of people in other parts of the world.

“We’re in this little town in the South that is pretty nondescript,” Cheek said. “Most of us have it pretty good. For some of us, it’s not that good. This country certainly has its problems. I was able to come from Greensboro, North Carolina and win the gold and silver in speed skating. It’s totally absurd.”

He asked the audience to imagine themselves as victims of genocide.

“Imagine someone comes by in a helicopter gunship and lays waste to your neighborhood,” Cheek said. “You don’t have your cars. You run from your house and men on horseback are shooting at you. Sometimes people escape. They run down the men and kill them. They round up the women and there’ll be gang rapes. Children will be beaten black and blue.

“It’s inconceivable to us,” he continued. “It’s such a beautiful day. Apathy when something terrible is happening is a subtle crime.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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