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Bronx teens teach tolerance in Germany

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Four students chosen to represent the Bronx on a goodwill trip to Germany are overseas; ready to share the truth about their borough with their German peers.

After a sendoff on Friday, April 18, at Assemblyman Michael Benjamin’s office with Consul General Hans-Jurgen Heimsoeth, Bronx School of Law, Government and Justice students Angela Donkor and Nasais Veloz, as well as Eagle Academy for Young Men students Durrell Noel and Isaiah Holston, left for Europe on Sunday, April 20.

Chosen by essay submissions, the students will stay with host families in Berlin for two weeks. They’ll attend English-speaking classes as well as tour the country to create dialogues with local youth on issues of identity and tolerance.

The trip comes just one year after a controversial video of a German army instructor telling a soldier to shoot and yell obscenities while thinking of African Americans in the Bronx was made public and aired on German national television.

Bronx, city and United States leaders immediately condemned the obvious racism the film so vividly portrayed.

Congressman Jose Serrano wrote a letter to German ambassador Klaus Scharioth stating, “the people of the Bronx are owed an apology for this situation. They are proud, hard-working, law-abiding people and do not deserve to be stereotyped in such a hurtful and offensive way.”

Assemblyman Michael Benjamin formed a coalition of prominent African American community leaders to meet with Consul Heimsoeth, who attended five years of elementary school in the Bronx during his youth, before moving back to Europe.

With the help of his wife and chief of staff, Kennedy Benjamin, the assemblyman decided to spearhead an exchange program to foster global understanding.

Dennis Walcott, deputy mayor for education and community development, voiced his hopes for the program’s success at the send off. “We are very happy that after the incident, we are able to have this nice result,” he said.  

Veloz, who plans to attend Smith College this fall and study philosophy or political science, was excited about the upcoming journey. Hoping one day to be a litigator, she participates in mock trial tournaments and was on the debate team at Bronx Law.

In the 1970s, Durrell’s father, David Noel, served in the U.S. Army in Germany and thinks the trip will be a valuable learning experience for his son. “I think this was a great idea,” he said.

Durrell added, “We learned that some Europeans have a really bad impression of Americans and we can send a positive message.”

Consul Heimsoeth stressed that last year’s unfortunate incident would become an opportunity for growth in Germany’s relationship with both the African American community and the Bronx. 

Kennedy congratulated the students and remarked to their parents, “The essays these students wrote were absolutely remarkable.”

She said she felt the video’s negative image of the Bronx was turned into a way to bridge communities across the ocean.

She told the students, “As a representative of our nation, you will be able to bridge the gap between ignorance and knowledge.” 

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