By Rick Sobey
LOWELL -- When Linda Biehl's daughter was murdered in South Africa about two decades ago, the American mother could have turned her back on the divided nation. Biehl could have put the devastation in the rear-view mirror and swore to never again step on South African soil. But that wasn't an option for Biehl. She faced the horror head on.
"We had to react. We had no choice," said Biehl, who has reconciled with two of the men convicted of her daughter's death and works with them to teach forgiveness and restorative justice.
"We could have said that South Africa is terrible, but would that have pleased our daughter?
"No, she was there for a very good reason, and we wanted to be there to support South Africa on its journey," she added. "We didn't want Amy's loss to be a detriment to that, so we reacted."
Biehl's human-rights work was one of three powerful stories told by world-renowned peace advocates at UMass Lowell on Wednesday. Three internationally acclaimed human-rights activists honored by UMass Lowell, including the recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, spoke to UMass Lowell and high school students, along with faculty and staff.
"Reflections on Peace-Building" included anti-apartheid champion Albie Sachs, UMass Lowell's 2014 Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies, as well as two of the past recipients of the honor.
The other activists who spoke in Mahoney Hall were Biehl, who now travels with the two men convicted of murdering her daughter, teaching restorative justice, and also Leymah Gbowee, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 after uniting Christian and Muslim women in a national protest that helped end the Second Liberian Civil War.
"Find that thing that keeps you up at night, that thing that gets your adrenaline going," Gbowee told the crowd. "Find what you believe in, and go for it.
"I have no regrets," added Gbowee, who is the executive director of the Women's Peace and Security Network Africa, based in Ghana. "Everything I've done has been to ensure my children don't have to go through the struggles."
Biehl, who co-founded the Amy Biehl Foundation in the U.S. and the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in South Africa, had similar advice for the audience, which included students from Greater Lowell Tech, Lowell Catholic High School, Westford Academy and Groton-Dunstable Regional High School.
"If you have a passion about something, go dive right in," said Biehl, who has also received South Africa's highest honor for a foreigner. "But you also need to dive in with an education."
As the 2014 Peace Scholar, Sachs, an influential member of the African National Congress, judge and author, will be in residence at UMass Lowell throughout April, engaging the university and the public in programs on advancing human rights.
Sachs, who lost an arm and sight in one eye when a bomb was placed in his car in 1988, was named judge to the country's first Constitutional Court in 1994, under then-President Nelson Mandela, helping establish South Africa as a democracy and draft its constitution.
"It was the insurmountable, and we surmounted it," said Sachs, whose lifetime pursuit has been to abolish South Africa's segregationist policies.
"Find your own ways and don't become cynical about possibilities," he added. "Anything can happen."
Sachs spent 15 years on the bench, advancing South Africa's recognition of human rights, legalizing same-sex marriage, striking down the death penalty and overturning laws that criminalized homosexuality, among other precedents.
The UMass Lowell Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies is selected annually in recognition of the honoree's "distinguished humanitarian achievements and ability to effectively promote peace and conflict resolution at the local, regional, national or international level."
Wednesday's panel discussion was the centerpiece of a series of events during Sachs' residency at UMass Lowell.
For example, the Nelson Mandela Memorial groundbreaking is today. Chancellor Marty Meehan, Sachs, public officials and members of the local African American Alliance will break ground on the city of Lowell memorial that will pay tribute to Mandela, who was Sachs' friend and colleague. The event will take place on the western lawn of the Tsongas Center at 11 a.m.
Another free and public event is on Sunday when Sachs will discuss his work to achieve peace in South Africa. The event, "Soft Vengeance in a Violent World," will take place at Concord's Congregation Kerem Shalom at 3:30 p.m.