Friends & Neighbors - 'Standing with the Students'
Upon meeting Valentine Eben, one's first impression is that he is a man who smiles a lot.
His eyes seek out those of the person he is talking to, drawing them into the conversation.
As one listens to him tell his story, however, it becomes apparent that this is a man who has seen and lived through some pretty harrowing experiences in his 35 years on the planet.
A native of Ambazonia, a region located in the southern part of Camaroon, Africa that is seeking independence, he has been in exile from his homeland since 1997.
Though he has spent most of the intervening years in Europe -- eight of them in Germany -- Eben has been a resident of Detroit Lakes since August of this year, as a student in the computer network security program at Minnesota State Community & Technical College.
"I live right across the street (from the college)," he said in an interview earlier this week.
The reason for his political exile is that Eben is a social justice activist who barely escaped Camaroon with his life 10 years ago.
In 2005, Eben secretly returned to Camaroon to train activists there in formal consensus, a method of facilitating non-violent social change. While he was there, he was invited to take part in a student demonstration at the University of Buea.
Secretly carrying a cell phone-sized camera that he had smuggled across the border from Nigeria, Valentine filmed the events that occurred at the university over the next three days -- three days that would leave five students dead and dozens more injured.
The students were protesting in order to gain certain basic rights, such as working toilets and up-to-date textbooks. They were also protesting an inordinately large hike in tuition.
Though the students were protesting peacefully, police were called in to disburse the crowd. The students resisted.
What followed formed the basis of Eben's documentary, "Standing With the Students," which he completed after smuggling the footage he had taken with his hidden camera back into Nigeria, then to Germany, and eventually, to the U.S.
Eben's escape from Camaroon in 2005 was harrowing enough to warrant a documentary in itself: in a small wooden boat, he and 15 others traveled by ocean to a safe port far from the Camaroon border. He had fled the country in the middle of the night, with only his computer equipment and the clothes on his back.
"I had to leave the rest of my things there (in the hotel)," he said.
His documentary, which graphically depicts the brutality used by government forces in subduing the students' protest -- brutality which included the use of tear gas, ruthless beatings, and the firing of live ammunition -- has formed the basis of a campaign to get justice on behalf of the murdered students.
"There has been no prosecution for the soldiers (who shot and beat the students to death)," Eben said.
The documentary was screened at MSCTC on Wednesday, by an audience of about 50 students and faculty.
Eben's aim in spearheading this campaign in the U.S. is to bring pressure to bear on the federal government, in the form of public opinion, to stop the flow of aid into Camaroon until such time as that government agrees to prosecute the soldiers.
"I would like to appeal to the governments of donor countries (who supply aid to Camaroon) to cut funding until they prosecute the officers that killed the students," he said.
"It hurts to sit back and think about these kids being killed simply for asking for basics," he added.
And the injustice continues: Eben said he learned late last month of two other students in Camaroon who had been shot and killed in another peaceful protest, on the same campus where the original shootings had occurred.
The news was deeply distressing to Eben, who continues to hope that one day, his native country can enjoy the same kind of freedoms he has enjoyed since coming to the U.S.
"For us, the U.S. is not only a physical country, it's an ideal... an example we can copy from," he said, adding that he finds it exciting to live in a country where "citizens' opinions matter."
He has also been overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the people he has met in Detroit Lakes.
"I've made so many friends here," he said. "There are people here who really care about your well being.
"I really appreciate my experiences here."
At the same time, the humanity and kindness that he has encountered in his travels has been one more driving force to effect change in his homeland.
"I think... it could be like this at home if the political structure would just allow people to be human," he said.
For more information about Eben and the "Standing With the Students" campaign, visit standingwiththestudents.org.