The importance of including students in the annual Camden Conference has grown over the past 30 years, bringing new perspective to a local institution that was created when a group of retired state department and CIA officers first came up with the idea of inviting experts to a small town in Maine to discuss issues of worldwide concern.

This past year, 102 students from nine Maine high schools attended the conference on “Refugees and Global Migration: Humanity's Crisis,” including graduating seniors Lili Bonarrigo, Molly Mann and Clara McGurren.

Bonarrigo, Mann, and McGurren participated in the Conference as part of their Global Studies course with Camden Hills Regional High School social studies teacher Megan Bendson.

In the past few years, a pilot program "Camden Conference in the Classroom" has resulted in significant growth in the numbers of high school student attending Conference. The program provides special training and resources to Maine public school teachers who want to organize courses in their schools based on the Conference theme, along with opportunities for students who engage in these courses to attend the Conference. The Camden Conference curriculum for high school students can be used for a full-year course, a theme or a topic within a course, or mentored independent study.

Because the students are prepared in the classroom before the Conference, they are ready to absorb the information and the atmosphere in step with the older attendees, according to Charlie Graham, who is coordinating student participation in the Camden Conference.

At CHRHS, Bendson included the topic of the refugee crisis in her Global Studies course. Students researched individual refugees, learned their names and personal stories, and mapped out their journeys. Students wrote opinion pieces and sent them to newspapers and media outlets and a number of students attended the Camden Conference.

Full-time students can attend the Conference at any satellite venue at a significantly reduced cost. Teachers who bring three or more students also receive the special rate, and the Conference is approved for 1.5 continuing education units for teachers.

Bonarrigo, Mann, and McGurren, viewed the Conference along with a full house of attendees at the Strand Theatre in Rockland, or from three satellite venues where the event can be viewed around the state.

For Bonarrigo, attending the Conference was a tangible action she could take in the face of an overwhelming, international crisis, and a living example of educating oneself by seeking fact-based information from credible sources.

It was also an immersion in an environment where she was exposed to perspectives and the expertise of presenters from around the globe. She noted the diverse perspectives presented, from a woman who is refugee and mother of two children, who came to the stage after their mother presented, to Kelly T. Clements, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, who spoke about a United Nations effort in 2016 to have member nations sign on to a non-binding declaration regarding rights and protections for refugees and migrants.

Bonnarigo understands that people might not want to think about the refugee crisis, or to face the terrible realities of what is going on, but she feels the need to do something.”It comes to a point where this is something I need to take into my own hands.”

“We might not want to think it but the refugee crisis is very close to home, no matter where you are. It's truly and completely worldwide,” she said.

She also was impressed with the Conference attendees. “The Strand was so crowded,'' she said. 'It was great that so many people came out for this. That was heartwarming, Everyone was so passionate about it, even the people who were catering. People really care about this.”

Prior to attending the conference, she researched and mapped out the journey of a young man between the age of 18 and 21, whose parents paid smugglers a lot of money to get him out of Afghanistan. He walked for 20 days from Afghanistan to Iran. In Iran he took a bus and then he walked another five hours into Turkey. On a boat from Greece to Italy, drinking water ran out, and he had to drink seawater. The boat's GPS broke, and the refugees thought they were stranded and going to die. A young boy took over as captain, and was able to steer the boat to the Italian coast. The young man survived his journey and was relocated with a family in Malmo, Sweden.

Bonnarigo also takes direct action by participating in a local Maine-based volunteer effort to assist Syrian refugees, gathering medical equipment and supplies, clothing, food and other supplies, through the Maine Syria Relief Program, organized by Camden resident Alison McKellar. She sees her involvement in this project, in which Mann and McGurren also participated through aCHRHS National Honor Society community service project, is another example of taking a local action, to address a global crisis.

McGurren researched and mapped the journey of a young man, his pregnant wife, and mother-in-law from Syria, who ended up seeking shelter in an abandoned shopping center in Lebanon. The shopping center was abandoned while it was being built, and was a shell of the building, housing more than 1,000 refugees. At one point, the refugees were asked to pay rent, and the three refugees, who had spent all of their money getting there, had to leave. They ended up living in a junkyard owned by a former refugee.They were very food insecure, McGurren learned, and did not know where their next meal was coming from. The man envisioned that his next step was to make money and get a house, but he did not have a job.

McGurren was impressed with how many people attended the Conference at the Strand, and how that demonstrated the effort of the community as a whole to invest time, and learn about and discuss the refugee crisis.

She found the panels both valuable and powerful, providing exposure to "high profile speakers with a lot of experience" who were "solution-oriented."

"The speakers at the conference were aware that their audience was educated but they were also aware that we haven't been face to face with the refugees.

"The speakers have had these personal experiences, visiting the camps," McGurren said. "There's so much value to bringing that experience to others around the world. Even in this small community in Maine there are a lot of people who will put time in to educate themselves," she said.

In her opinion piece, McGurren drew on a personal experience with a medical scare in her own family, to humanize the situation of an individual refugee.

She wrote, "We must be compassionate about the refugee crisis — both to those facing such severe persecution and violence that they are forced to leave their homes and to those with whom we disagree. While we may not necessarily relate to one another, we must empathize. We may not be living in a war zone. We may not be forced to leave our country, but we have all encountered the emotions at the root of these experiences — fear, revulsion, the kind of crippling pain (and grief) that seems to stick to our souls and take up space in our hearts. The refugee crisis is, in the end, a human issue."

For Mann, the refugee crisis is not just a distant tragedy depicted in the media. Before graduating this June, she worked as a high school senior to create a community service requirement for National Honor Society students that can be fulfilled by volunteering with the Maine Syria Relief Fund. Students help organize and pack medical supplies, food, water and clothing into a tractor-trailer truck container, which are then shipped from the port in Boston Harbor, directly to Syrian refugees. She also established the community service project so that it will continue in coming years.

Involvement with the local volunteer effort has given Mann an emotional connection to people who are displaced by war half way across the globe.

In her opinion piece for her Global Studies class, Mann writes about the impact of seeing photographs of Syrian refugees carrying the donations shipped from Camden, and coming across the photo of a sleeping child, "A toddler nestled between two sticker-laden barrels of water."

She writes, "I remember scrolling through Facebook and seeing the photograph of the toddler and the water barrels. To you, an every-day Facebook-scroller, this image would inherently come along with some emotional tags. Perhaps, you realize that this may be the first time in months that this little girl has had access to clean water. Perhaps, you notice the rips and stains on her clothing. Perhaps, you understand that despite being so young, this child has seen and experienced more horror than any child should have to bear.

"When I saw this photograph, I was struck with a deeper, overwhelming emotion that resonated on an extremely personal level. I recognized those water barrels, specifically the multicolored stickers covering the barrels' surfaces. A few months before, I had taped those same stickers on those same barrels in order to ensure they would not fall off during the journey from Maine to Syria."

Mann described how going to the Camden Conference for three days “felt like going to school for a whole week or two.”

“The conference was almost overwhelming, in the amount of information, and the breadth of topics that came up, and all of these different emotions,” she said. Mann described her emotions as ranging from helplessness, to passionate, to empowered.

She also feels fortunate that the students were given scholarships to attend.

At the Camden Conference, Mann related to the theme of empathy in the keynote address by Paul James, an Australian professor who directs the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University.

"He was extremely intelligent, knowledgeable, matter of fact, but it was clear he felt emotion about the issue," Mann said.

The main thing she took away from his speech was that James talked a lot about bringing ourselves to feel human empathy for the refugees, humanizing them.

"That's a huge thing I took away from the conference," she said.  "That we're seeing these refugees as a number, and not as individual people, with individual problems and stories.

“The definition of a refugee is that they are forced to leave their country because they do not feel safe,” Mann said. “It is such a humanitarian issue. There are economic and political aspects, but the humanitarian part is the most important. That's how I view it.”

Mann and the CHRHS students witnessed an unscripted controversy that erupted at the Conference one day. “During one of the panels, a man in the audience brought up the idea of American Exceptionalism, and how we can squash that,” she said. In response, a panelist who was scheduled to present at the Conference the next day spoke “about how American Exceptionalism is real, what the United States has done for refugees and how we've taken in the most refugees,” Mann explained. “Next, there was a crazy moment where you could hear everyone in the audience muttering, and then people started yelling 'No.' It was a kind of mini-uprising in The Strand, she said.

Then, James spoke, saying there was nothing exceptional about the way the U.S. treated refugees and immigrants. And then everyone in the Strand cheered and applauded.” His remark was backed by statistics comparing the number of refugees taken in by much smaller European nations, and other countries, compared with the United States, she explained.

In recalling this moment, Mann found it interesting the next day when the panelist, gave his presentation. She saw the clashing of ideas as realistic because people have different views, and because misinformation is an issue as well, she said.

The Camden Conference invites teachers and students to attend the 31st annual Camden Conference, New World Disorder and America’s Future February 16-18, 2018. The Conference is presented live from the historic Camden Opera House and streamed in HD to the Strand Theatre in Rockland,  the Hutchinson Center in Belfast, and USM’s Luther Bonney Auditorium in Portland.

For more information, visit