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Friends for Fugees

Less than a year ago, says Brandon Cohen, a recent Pitt grad, he knew no one outside Pittsburgh. Now he's become a Pittsburgh point person for a non-profit group aimed at aiding African refugees.

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While traveling with Semester at Sea in 2003, Cohen opted out of the scheduled African safari to visit Kigoma in Tanzania, thanks to a charter flight organized by shipmate Kjerstin Erickson. "The plane lands and I'm in Mars," he says. "I thought I was on the pages of National Geographic."

 

Cohen and 18 other travelers visited hospitals, orphanages, schools and community centers. Noting the tattered clothes, hungry faces and bare feet of many townspeople, Cohen said, "All of us had the urgency to do something."

 

Erickson, a Stanford undergrad, founded FORGE, a program of the World Refugee Academy -- also a Stanford student organization -- focused on refugee outreach. Cohen became a charter member and returned home to finish his last semester at Pitt. But he spent the mid-April finals week organizing a book drive. He and 20 Pitt volunteers collected more than 3,000 books from students and faculty in only five days. The books, from social psychology textbooks to children's books to romance novels, will go to Books for Africa, which has shipped over more than eight million books in the past 16 years.

 

 This summer, Cohen will lead 10 college-age FORGE volunteers to the Dukwi refugee camp in Botswana, which holds 3,000 war refugees, a third from Namibia, and take another group to the Meheba camp in Zambia, where Angolans make up the bulk of its 32,000 residents. Both groups of volunteers hope to accomplish sustainable "micro-projects," Cohen says, from HIV/AIDS education to sports programs. Erickson hopes to create the first library in Meheba, which will hold 25,000 books -- including the 3,000 Cohen helped to gather.

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