Refugee symposium educates community

By Ryan Fitzgerald & Seán McGlone – Co-Editor-in-Chief & News Editor

Imagine being forced from your home or fleeing your country from terrorist groups with just the clothes on your back, and a cell phone. This image is a reality for millions of Syrian refugees. A daylong symposium on refugees titled “The Displaced” was organized by Associate Professor of Public Relations Dana Janbek, and held in de Witt Hall on Wednesday, March 23, to discuss this major global crisis. More than three million people have fled from Syria to neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, according to the United States Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Each session included a panel of speakers and a faculty discussant. Session three of the day titled, “Research with Syrian Refugees,” focused on statistics and facts on the reality of refugee life, the aid and work refugees need in order to survive, and the journalistic perspective on the crisis. The panel hosted three speakers, and Professor of Sociology Dr. Tessa le Roux as the discussant.

Harvard University graduate student Merissa Khurma started the session by giving her perspective, having lived in Jordan for five years.

“This is the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII,” said Khurma. “Since 2011, half of Syria’s population has been displaced. That’s five million people and 200,000 have died since 2011.”

She also explained their living situation. “When most people think of refugees they think camps,” said Khurma. “[But] 80-85 percent of Syrian refugees live in urban centers.”

International donor funding is not even half of what is needed for people in Middle East countries according to Khurma. “The Jordanian government spends $2.5 billion per year,” said Khurma. “This crisis alone has cost Jordan $7 billion over the last five years.” Jordan has an open-door policy on refugees.

The second speaker was Madeline Otis Campbell, Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at Worcester State University. She explained the challenge for Syrian refugees is finding work when they aren’t legally allowed to work. “The refugees we are seeing are more of economic migrants,” she said. “[They] need to work in order to survive but they are in need of the right to work. Economic livelihood is essential to refugees maintaining hope.”

The third speaker was Professor of Journalism at California State-Northridge, Melissa Wall. “These refugees are people who have lost everything and been traumatized,” said Wall.

Approaching them for an interview may seem like a tough task, but Wall explained the refugees are very inviting. “Every time we go to talk to them, they invite [us] in with incredible hospitality. They offer us a drink even if they know that means one of them will not have anything to drink [that night],” she said.

Wall cleared up certain stereotypes on refugees. Contrary to popular belief, these people are actually quite educated, do not want to enter countries like America or Canada but would rather return home to Syria, and have access to the internet so they can follow coverage of the crisis and see if articles written about them are fabricated.

Wall also feels it is very important for people, particularly journalists, to be properly informed about the refugee crisis. “You have to know who the refugees are and how the system works to be able to say ‘actually no, I don’t think that argument is right,’ it’s such an important political question right now and a social and humanitarian question,” said Wall after the panel.

le Roux said it was important to focus on one particular area in the discussion because it is where most Syrian refugees are right now and it is where there is the most press on the refugee crisis.

This was an eye-opening experience for many students who did not know the truths about the crisis. “I think it’s an important conversation for the school to have that a lot of people are guilty of ignoring,” said sophomore Lauren Ahern.

“I think [the symposium] exposed our students, staff, and faculty to all kinds of issues related to what it’s like to be a refugee in the United States and what the process is like for people to come here,” said Janbek.

The symposium was sponsored by Academic Affairs, the Communication department, Social Sciences department, Honors Program, Donahue Institute, and Fuss Center.

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