Red Cross teen volunteers spread awareness about the impact of armed conflict
By Marcia Antipa
“It’s just better for humanity that everyone knows about it.”
Bay Area teen Janaki Rakesh is talking about International Humanitarian Law (IHL), a set of rules developed under the Geneva Conventions designed to limit the impacts of armed conflict.
Rakesh and 40 other students in the Northern California Coastal Region are studying IHL through the Red Cross Youth Action Campaign (YAC).
Kimberly Cui says she signed up for YAC because “I just wanted to explore more about what other people in the world were facing.”
In past years, the campaign has focused on the effects of war on healthcare workers and on education. This year’s theme is cultural property.
“The destruction of cultural property’s permanent, so when it’s damaged or when it’s destroyed it has a direct impact on that particular community,” says Sarina Vij, Coordinator for the Bay Area YAC.
Vij says cultural property “is something that is of great importance to a particular community. It could be a statue; it could be a monument. “
For example, she cites the Taliban’s destruction in 2001 of two giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan that were 1600 years old.
Some teens are surprised to learn that the Red Cross is involved in International Humanitarian Law.
Harshita Gabri says, “Initially when I heard about Red Cross I thought of it as an organization that was in charge of blood donations.”
“Before I knew anything about the details about Red Cross, I always thought of it as an organization that provides humanitarian aid,” says Priyanka Supraja Balaji. “I wanted to be a part of spreading that mission and really being one of the people who is helping others.”
And Rubikka Satchidanantham says, “I thought this campaign was the perfect opportunity. Not only am I able to learn more about IHL, but I’m also able to educate others.”
Janaki Rakesh said she is passionate about teaching others about IHL, because she has followed the story of Malala Yousafzai. Malala is an outspoken advocate for girls’ education who survived being shot by the Taliban, and won the Nobel Peace Prize at age 17.
“I read all of Malala’s books. She’s a girl from Pakistan. Her life was destroyed by war.”
The YAC teams spread awareness about IHL through Instagram posts and Zoom game nights, where participants answer questions about war and cultural property.
Sreekrishna Gelle posted on the group’s Instagram feed about a firebombing during World War Two, “where American and British bombers basically flattened the entire city of Dresden in Germany which was a center of cultural, architectural and artistic history.”
“I have never seen a more creative group of individuals,” says Sarina Vij. “They are very good at coming up with different ways to navigate and problem-solve. “
One team held an online scavenger hunt, sharing food, clothing, and souvenirs from other countries. Victoria Liu says that made her appreciate her own Chinese heritage – and what cultural property means to others. “It represents a lot about people and if you destroy these properties, you’re destroying peoples’ identities.”
And the work doesn’t end when the games do. “We used feedback forms and heard back from people that they want to make it more engaging,” says Shivani Ravindra. “So we’re working on improving those for the next event.”
YAC presentations are all virtual for now, but team member Tejasvini Ramesh says that is their secret weapon.
“We’re able to spread awareness about it a lot quicker than we would through in-person events because with the power of social media we can reach lots of people from different parts of the world.”
Beyond teaching their classmates about IHL, several teens say they find the concepts comforting.
“During war, we think it’s all chaotic,” says Charisse Zou, “but I found it really fascinating how there were actually laws to protect the people and cultural property.”
“It gives me a really safe feeling,” says Priyanka Supraja Balaji. “Things that have such a personal attachment to you like a place of worship or anything like that won’t get targeted.”
Anyone can learn about IHL and take part in the teams’ online events. Just visit: