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On Wednesday night, Gaithersburg, Maryland became the epicenter of the grassroots movement to end the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The small, unassuming town reminds you of something out of a scene from "Gone with the Wind." Complete with an old train station and a main street lined with small storefronts, Gaithersburg isn’t the place where you might necessarily expect neighbors, students, community leaders, and Congolese immigrants to gather to discuss how their community can affect change in the Congo. In the coming weeks, we will see this community join State Delegate Shane Robinson to make Maryland the second state to pursue going conflict-free.
Father Jean Claude, a Congolese priest who has dedicated his life to helping the people in his country, addressed a crowd of over forty people and talked about the current situation in the Congo. He urgently explained that the deadly conflict in the east is perpetuated by militias who control the exploitation of valuable minerals in the region that are eventually sold to Western companies to produce popular electronics. Stories of widespread sexual assault, slave labor, and children being forcibly taken from their homes to join these militias surprised some in the audience, but many were all too familiar with the horror.
In the crowd, one woman from South Kivu, a province in the Congo where the violence is among the worst, held her infant granddaughter and nodded as Father Jean Paul spoke. The event drew several Congolese immigrants who immigrated to the U.S. to flee such violence. Many of these diaspora represented their larger community across the state in solidarity with partner organizations, such as A Thousand Sisters, the African Women’s Council, She’s my Sister, United to End Genocide, and the Governor’s Council on African Affairs.
Father Jean Claude then shifted tone, exalting that the power to end these injustices rested in our hands. As end consumers of these minerals, Americans can demand from these companies that their products be free of conflict minerals from Congo and instead use minerals from the region that benefit the people. These demands can happen through letters to companies or elected representatives or through communities declaring their commitment to becoming conflict free. Eighty college campuses across the U.S. and Canada are working on such resolutions. California has passed state legislation on the issue as well. And at this event, State Delegate Shane Robinson declared that Maryland would be the second state to make this commitment to conflict free.
Delegate Robinson, who represents the 39th district of Montgomery County, has a long track record of supporting humanitarian causes in Africa. In 2001, Robinson enlisted in the Peace Corps and spent three years working in public health and education in Zambia, where he says he “witnessed the power of what communities can achieve despite a lack of economic resources.”
Robinson explained to his constituents that he and nine other delegates are sponsoring this legislation to help bring peace to eastern Congo. The legislation would encourage companies doing business in Maryland to procure minerals from certified conflict-free mines that benefit rather than destroy communities. In doing so, Maryland would be on the front lines of defending human rights and dignity in the Congo through increasing the demand for conflict-free minerals.
With the Maryland State Legislature in the third week of its 90-day session, Robinson’s ground breaking legislation has attracted interest in the state Senate. Both the Maryland House of Delegates and Senate are expected to take up the bill in the coming weeks. To stay connected with the growing movement in Maryland, join efforts with Delegate Robinson.
Photo: Father Jean Claude and State Delegate Shane Robinson with members of the Congolese community in Maryland