Human rights drives McKellar's passion for life
Camden — Once a bystander, Alison McKellar has become an active participant in the fight to end human injustice thanks to a trip of fate more then a decade ago.
“When I was a high school student at Camden Hills Regional High School (class of 2002), I had the opportunity to go on a trip to El Salvador with Our Lady of Good Hope Catholic Church, although I wasn't a member of the church or religious in any way at the time,” McKellar said. “It completely changed my perspective on life and my place in such an unequal world.”
It was after that trip the transformation began as she left the naivete of living in small-town America behind and began to use her knowledge and determination to make change on a much larger stage.
“I set out to learn Spanish and use my good fortune in life as a vehicle for change, determined to tell the stories of people who weren't born in places like Camden, so full of resources, lifelines and supportive community members,” she said. “I have done a lot of work with various nonprofits, mostly volunteer translating, speaking, fundraising, website development, teaching, et cetera - all in Latin America, mostly in Colombia and El Salvador.”
Around the same time as her life-changing experience in El Salvador, she began a class with teacher Liz Dailey called Human Rights. According to McKellar, the part of the curriculum she remembered most was the heavy emphasis on the history of the Holocaust and the concept of "bystander behavior."
“I remember studying the Holocaust and all the different theories about how the world could have allowed this to happen, and I also remember wondering what things people would be studying in 50 years when future generations looked back at our society,” she said. “At that time, recently having returned from one of the poorest and most unequal places in the hemisphere, I was focused on the global inequity and poverty. It's hard to reconcile how we can live here with such wealth and comfort, while children literally die of hunger.”
The "bystander effect" has been studied in depth and it is widely documented that the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely anyone is to act.
“We all assume that someone else will do it, I suppose, but this is our test,” she said. “When every major humanitarian organization declares a disaster, an unparalleled crisis, and the whole world can see all the details with their own eyes via photos and video, how can we fail to do something? However small.”
McKellar's passion is now focused on Syria and how to help displaced women and children who have no place to live or none of the basic necessities. During the three-year conflict in Syria, 5.5 million children have been affected and close to 3 million are no longer able to attend school. With more than 1 million children living as refugees in neighboring countries, more than 8,000 children have arrived at the Syrian boarder without parents.
“Today, the problems continue, but the situation in Syria is far beyond anything else that has occurred in my adult life,” she said. “I casually started following the uprising 3 years ago, when it first began, cheering on the young people who protested peacefully in the streets for the right to speak freely, to criticize their government.”
She added, “I think many of us expected the uprising to follow the same trajectory of the other "Arab Spring" countries, but instead, [President Bashar] Assad doubled down on his repression, meeting protests with guns and bombs.”
She feels Syrians expected the world to come to their aid and said the war has been called the most transparent war in history.
“Everything has been broadcast practically in real time on social media, yet still the world has been unable, or unwilling to stop the violence, and worse, we've fallen totally short when it comes to providing aid to refugees,” she said. “By all accounts, this is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, the worst of my generation, the worst since Rwanda."
Inspired and searching for a meaningful way to assist in the humanitarian effort, the idea of recycling shrink wrap used for winter storage of boats, McKellar thought, would make great material to construct temporary shelters.
“The stuff is technically recyclable, but I've learned that many marinas simply throw it away massive amounts of it every year,” she said. “I was looking at some covered boats one day, and thought, wow, those look a lot like tents, so I took a few pictures and sent them to my contact, Nadia, at NuDay Syria and asked her if she thought it would be worth saving the stuff to be used as shelters to send on their containers and she told me that I should definitely do it and that many internally displaced people have absolutely no shelter.”
She began by going around to boat yards and boat storage facilities like Wayfarer Marine, and Yachting Solutions and asking them to save the heavy plastic for her.
“At first, they looked at me like I was crazy, but now they've been really helpful. The trick is getting to them before they uncover the boats and explaining the need to carefully remove the plastic without cutting any more than necessary,” she said. “Some of them are perfect tents already in their current form, complete with ties, zipper doors, and vents. Others need some repairs and cutting, but it's well worth it.”
To find out more about McKellar's mission go to alisonmckellar.blogspot.com or caringfund.com.
Dwight Collins is a reporter/photographer for The Camden Herald.
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