Visiting speakers advocate for refugee empowerment through education

Nicholas Frakes/HIGHLANDER

From 7 p.m. to about 9 p.m. on Monday, May 15 in the Alumni and Visitors Center, the World Affairs Council of Inland Southern California, Global Issues Forum, Glocally Connected and UCR Undergraduate Education sponsored an event to discuss the current refugee crisis in Syria and Afghanistan and community involvement. The event, titled, “Re-envisioning Refugees: Empowerment Through Education,” was moderated by Dr. Reza Aslan, UCR creative writing professor and host of “Believer” on CNN, and also included a panel of three keynote speakers: UCR Ph.D. candidate Leen Kawas, Dr. Selin Nielsen, Dr. Jessica Goodkind and Sherry MacKay.

Kawas, the first speaker, originates from Damascus, Syria where she worked for nine years as a private school English language teacher, before migrating to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D. with hopes of serving her people back home. She spoke of her experiences while living in Damascus where she witnessed an internal migration within Syria of people coming into the city. She reflected that “a lot of people, especially women, did not have access to education. Nine-year-old girls don’t know what a school looks like.”

Kawas not only housed, but also offered free education to several displaced families, from whom she understood that the lack of education was generating a shortage of international political knowledge, an absence of multicultural experience and inadequate personal expression. “If those children of displaced families are educated or were educated, maybe Syria would not have reached this stage. Many of the rebels are of these families who do not allow their kids to actually go and get an education,” commented Kawas. “These conservative families have women who don’t know what’s happening, don’t know things outside of their own village.”

Co-founder of Glocally Connected and professor of education and global issues, Nielsen, spoke of the unique situation in Turkey, where over three million Syrian refugees have taken asylum. However, Turkey’s initial open door policy contained geopolitical limitations that only allowed them to accommodate refugees from specific countries, such as how Turkey “does not consider people coming to Turkey from non-European countries as refugees,” said Nielsen.

Instead, they are offered temporary protection status which does not provide as many rights as they would have under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Refugees who tried to resettle in other countries such as Greece, but the European Union (EU) negotiated a deal that would return the overflow of refugees back to Turkey. Nielsen considered this act a “very shameful deal” as well as incomprehensible because, as per the principle of non-refoulement, “a country receiving asylum seekers is forbidden to return a person who is in fear of their own country.” The speaker furthered the conversation by advocating for education services for refugee children in Turkey because “70 percent of middle school-aged children are not in school, 90 percent of high school children are not in school and 50 percent of elementary school children are not in school.” This might be attributed to the language barrier Syrian children faced because they did not speak or read Turkish, the main language of Turkey. She concluded by saying, “If you have an illness, it spreads and you want to be vaccinated and the vaccine is education in this case. You can block them and place walls but it doesn’t work that way because ideologies travel.”

Goodkind, the third speaker, is the director of the Refugee Well Being Project and a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico. “We need to move beyond thinking about individual refugees as problems or people with deficits. We need to think about the strength they bring,” said Goodkind. She spoke about the goals of the Refugee Well Being Project which addressed empowerment and integration through access to community resources, opportunities to learn English and other skills, mutual learning for refugees and Americans, valued social roles and social support and community responsiveness.

Goodkind’s project aims to tend to the many needs of refugees that range from mental health support from psychological trauma to cultural assimilation. The Refugee Well Being Project “brings together university students and refugees for cultural exchange, one-on-one learning, advocacy and special supports such as food, childcare and transportation,” said Goodkind. She concluded that this program has constructed a “visible impact on refugee participants who have increased their English proficiency over time, have increased access to resources, social support, improved quality of life and enculturation.”

The last speaker of the night, Mackay, is also another co-founder of Glocally Connected, as well as the director of Educational Programs at UCR Extension. She spoke extensively on the Inland Empire’s impact on incoming refugees and the many programs that have facilitated their resettlement, specifically through Glocally Connected. This program involves community events that bring refugees together to provide the skills necessary to thrive in the American community, such as driving, communicating and understanding international politics. The program even sponsors events that allow the women to sell quality cultural goods and food that they created at markets and fairs.

The event ended with questions from the audience and a short period of time for a public meet-and-greet with refugees that were in attendance.

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