Ratz is leader on and off campus
Published: Monday, May 3, 2010
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 20:01
How many college juniors do you know who can say that they were influential in the successful release of two prisoners of conscience? While the numbers are nearly negligible, Boston College's very own Leon Ratz, A&S '11, is one of them.
As most juniors spend their time worrying about which Mod they want next year, or what resume-builder they are going to accrue over the summer, Leon Ratz is working to find solutions to some of the biggest human rights issues in the world today. By working hand-in-hand with groups like Amnesty International and the United Nations, Ratz has learned that he can make a difference in the world by using the power of his voice.
"A lot of my work and my passion for human rights stems from my refugee background," Ratz says. Born in the Ukraine, Ratz and his family came to the United States in 1994. "There, human rights were words on paper. They didn't mean much. By coming to the United States, I realized that they actually do mean something."
This foundation is what first inspired Ratz, a freshman in high school at the time, to take action. In 2004, he watched a television program that highlighted the deplorable conditions and lack of rights for patients in psychiatric hospitals in the former Soviet Union. From there, all it took was a Google search to find a report from Amnesty International, that called for reforms within this system and inviting people worldwide to write letters.
Ratz, along with a number of his friends, formed an Amnesty group at his high school, the Bergen County Academy, in Hackensack, N.J. Beginning with eight friends, this group soon grew to be one of the largest of its kind in the world, with about 150 students who would come together to write letters, lobby, and host information sessions, concerts, and fundraisers.
In 2006, as a junior, he was appointed to the position of student area coordinator. The following year, while continuing to put forth efforts on the grassroots scale, he interned at the Amnesty International headquarters in New York City.
Throughout his high school career, Ratz and his high school Amnesty team worked to improve the conditions of and give rights to the mentally disabled in the former Soviet Union, stop violence and kidnappings of women in Mexico and Guatemala, close down Guantanamo Bay, eradicate the death penalty in New Jersey, and free prisoners of conscience (those prisoned because of their identity or for speaking out against the government).
Ratz's work with human rights did not end after high school. The summer before he arrived at BC, Ratz focused mainly on the relationship between arms transfers and human rights violations – especially in light of the crisis in Darfur. "You hear all the time about these villages, where men come in and shoot innocent men, women, and children, " Ratz says. "And I couldn't help but think ‘where are they getting these guns?'"
Amnesty International was asking these same questions. As a freshman at BC, Ratz joined the Military Security and Police Working Group of Amnesty International. This branch of volunteers in the U.S. section of the organization focused on the issue, and related research possibilities. This organization gave Ratz a good introduction to the issue and prepared him to go to the Amnesty International Global Headquarters in London the following summer, under an advanced study grant from BC, to do research related to arms transit in Sudan.
"What I found was absolutely disturbing," Ratz says. "Arms transfers were coming into the Sudan well past the point of a United Nations Embargo from Russia, China, and Iran."
Following his summer in Sudan, Ratz was invited to do part-time lobbying for the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty. With this, he was able to go to the United Nations with the international team in the fall. By the following summer, he was doing lobbying work with NGO colleagues in Washington, interviewing people in the State Department and Congress.
Just this past fall, the United States announced that it would support negotiations with arms trade treaties. Naturally, Ratz has been involved with this decision through working with the Amnesty International staff and Non-Governmental Organizations to encourage the U.S. government to continue negotiations for an arms trade treaty.
With a resume most students could only dream of, Ratz still finds time to hang out with friends and stay involved on campus through both the BC Amnesty group and Hillel. Majoring in international studies, Ratz is able to incorporate his work outside the classroom, but he asserts that school will always come first for him.
According to Ratz, he realized that all his work was worthwhile in his junior year of high school. His student group had been writing letters to local congressmen, demanding the immediate release of a farmer, Gurbandurdy Durdykuliev, in Turkmenistan, who had been imprisoned for speaking out against his government. These members of Congress then all signed a letter to the president of Turkmenistan urging him to take action. Within three days, the prisoner was released.
To celebrate, posters with Durdykuliev's picture were spread around the school with the word "released" written across it. When students looked at these posters, they would remember the petition they signed and realize that their signature actually did something.
He recalls, "I'll always remember how I got involved – reading about a certain issue and thinking, ‘Maybe I can make a difference.'" Because of the opportunities he has been given by living in the United States, Ratz has become the voice for so many in other parts of the world who will never understand the true meaning of the freedom of speech.