Do You Really Know Where Your Cell Phone Comes From?

From L to R: Ahmad Mehry, Nyaok Biluony, Soki Vihugho, Mi Nge, Iddy Manzi. Ni Win also participated but is not pictured.

That was the question posed by six 9th- and 10th-grade Englewood High School students in their submission to the 2016 Jacksonville Science Festival. All of the students in the group are part of our refugee youth program. But for two students in this project group, the issue is much more personal. That’s because students Soki Vihugho and Iddy Manzi, and their families, are refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). And that African nation is at the center of this cell phone question.

What does the DRC have to do with your cell phone? The electronics we use every day — cell phones, tablets, laptop computers, game systems — contain metals made from specific minerals. The DRC is rich in these minerals (namely, tantalum, tungsten and gold). Due to general instability in the DRC, several armed rebel groups are fighting for control of the country — and control of the mines. Illegal mining and smuggling of these “conflict minerals” reaps hundreds of millions of dollars for these militias each year, money which they then use to buy more weapons to terrorize and kill more innocent civilians. These militias practice horrible human rights violations, such as rape and the use of child soldiers.

As of now, there is no way to reliably trace the source of the metals in devices so we can make informed purchases. But the students’ project offered several helpful suggestions to help reduce the demand for these conflict minerals: learn ways to prolong the life of your devices, and be sure to recycle electronics so the metals can be harvested. There are also several groups advocating on this issue on a national level, such as Raise Hope for Congo, who are asking manufacturers and government officials to take action.

Our thanks to Lauren Watkins from White Oak Conservation Center , who served as the group’s professional mentor, and to The Foundation Academy for including us in the festival. The project was a great opportunity for our students to practice research, build their vocabulary and understanding, and practice their English speaking skills with complete strangers! Our kids learned a lot — and, hopefully, you just did too!


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