Mahar students plan fundraiser for Rohingya refugees

  • Ralph C. Mahar Regional School seniors, from left, Amanda Calderon, Ally Frasier, Emma Currier, Lauren Henne, Jeanne Grutchfield, Tori Tenney and Ali Lundgren have spent their senior year researching the Rohingya refugee crisis. They will hold a fundraiser April 24. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/16/2019 11:33:34 PM

ORANGE — Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people have been displaced from their homes in the last decade — murdered by government forces, confined to concentration camps, their villages burned in their native Myanmar.

The U.N. has called the crisis a genocide, a government-sanctioned cleansing of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya in the majority Buddhist country.

Rakhine state — where much of the Rohingya population has fled from in hopes of reaching neighboring countries like Bangladesh, is 8,000 miles from Orange, Massachusetts — but the persecution happening there is close to the hearts of seven Ralph C. Mahar Regional School seniors.

“We talk a lot about genocide, we talk about the Holocaust, and people don’t realize that genocide is happening right now, today,” said Ali Lundgren, 17, a member of the Mahar group Recognize Rohingya.

Seniors Lundgren, Amanda Calderon, Ally Frasier, Emma Currier, Lauren Henne, Jeanne Grutchfield and Tori Tenney have formed Recognize Rohingya in an effort to raise awareness and money for the south Asia crisis.

On April 24, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, the seven students will give a talk on the Rohingya Refugee crisis, which they have been researching for nearly the entire school year.

The symposium will also include a silent auction, with items donated from businesses like the YMCA and Boston Aquarium, to raise money that will go to Rohingya refugees in the city of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where, according to the U.N., more than 727,000 Rohingya have arrived since 2015.

The project was born from a new class offered at Mahar, Seniors Honors Project, facilitated by teachers John Speek and Lauren Cerillo, who has been working closely with the Recognize Rohingya team.

“It’s geared toward being an innovative, student-led class,” Lundgren said. “I’ve never taken a class like it.”

At the beginning of the year, Lundgren said, students in the class each chose a topic of interest to research, write an essay about and then present to the class. Students then chose two of the presented topics, and divided into two groups, one tackling the foster system in the U.S., the other researching the Rohingya refugee crisis.

Female perspective

Lundgren said the Rohingya refugee crisis was an ideal topic to focus on because it is nuanced and encompasses a variety of different issues. Lundgren, for example, originally gave a presentation on civic engagement, addressing issues of public concern — the Rohingya people are stateless and are not legally citizens of Myanmar.

Other issues, like orphanism and violence against women play a role in the crisis. All of the members of Recognize Rohingya are women, Lundgren said, which gives them a feeling of connection to the crisis.

“As young women, we learn about children being taken from and separated from their families, and learn about rape being used as a force to drive people out. A lot of it is about women and children, so it connects to us in that way,” Lundgren said.

The group has raised around $500 through a “gofundme” campaign, and is hoping to raise $3,000 in addition to money raised at the symposium.

However, Lundgren said raising awareness of the refugee crisis is just as important as raising money. She said she expects around 100 people at the April 24 symposium, who will hopefully donate or spread the word.

“I didn’t know much about it. It was quite shocking when I started digging into it,” Lundgren said.

Lundgren said there was some initial nervousness among the group about how to approach such a large issue.

The group met with University of Massachusetts professors David Glassberg and David Mednicoff, experts in history and human rights issues, to gain insight into the topics they have been dealing with.

“It was difficult to come up with what to do because it is a genocide and we can’t just go there and fix it,” Lundgren said. “Despite being discouraged, we realized no one is doing this so just talking it is something.”

The symposium, in addition to including auctioned items like gym memberships and aquarium passes, will feature recorded talks from subject experts from the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh and human rights lawyers, produced and provided specifically for the Recognize Rohingya project. There will also be refreshments at the beginning, and a question-and-answer period at the end.

But it doesn’t end there, Lundgren said. The whole team has become passionate about the issue, and has been going door to door at businesses in Orange to ask for donations or invite people to the symposium.

There will be a month of classes left after the symposium, and during that time the group will continue to raise money. Lundgren anticipates the team will continue to raise money and awareness of the topic even after graduating.

The project, Lundgren said, has shaped the group members’ goals for college, including what subjects they may study. Lundgren herself said she is planning on attending a community college for two years, then transferring to a university, and is considering studying political science or history, or even joining the Peace Corps.

“With this, none of us had ever had a chance to go out into the real world and do this. That’s not how high school classes work,” Lundgren said. “Many of us are now interested in doing things with civic engagement.”

To donate to Recognize Rohingya’s online fundraising campaign, visit

Reach David McLellan at or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.

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