A ‘Fresh START’ for Refugees

Fresh START at UCI hosted its inaugural Refugee Awareness Banquet at Pacific Ballroom D on the evening of Tuesday, May 28. Students and faculty were invited to take part and join the gathering, with students signing up for the free event after taking a short survey posted on EEE. The event’s sponsors included the Center For Living Peace as well as UCI Student Affairs.

In attendance at the event was a list of guest panelists featuring: Professor Richard Matthew of the UCI School of Social Ecology and the School of Social Sciences, along with former refugees Duc Nguyen, Fadia Afashe, and Tiyya Foundation founder Meymuna Hussain-Cattan. All of the featured speakers spoke to the assembled guests about the experiences of refugees fleeing from their home countries to America, and the hardships they face in seeking asylum — and after receiving it.

“My family and I came to the United States in the early ’80s as refugees. To see the transition that my parents went through and the obstacles that they faced, I was really inspired to give back,” Hussain-Cattan said. “My focus is more so on the children. Any of these programs that we have are things that I wish I had, like a mentor that helped me with homework, or being part of a soccer program.”

Cattan became the founder of the Tiyya Foundation, an organization established in honor of Cattan’s mother and her work. The Tiyya Foundation offers free programs to help integrate and mentor refugees as well as youths from refugee backgrounds such as Afghanistan and Iraq to Russia and Somalia. The foundation is currently seeking assistance and involvement from concerned individuals.

Guests in attendance were handed slips of colored paper at the door, corresponding to where they are seated. Some were given purple cards, others blue, and others yellow. Those with purple cards represented the more privileged individuals in the world who had a country and the social comfort afforded to them at least by being part of a developed and stable society. These individuals received full, multiple-course meal. Individuals who received blue cards represented refugees, and were served bean and rice, while yellow cardholders were the stateless, and were only given rice for the duration of the banquet.

The last two representations were aimed to bring to attention the plights of individuals who fled their countries due to natural disaster or conflict, and are in a state of refuge or in a stateless condition in another country.

“The refugee crisis is actually one of the largest human rights issue but it has very low visibility,”  Soraya Azzawi, a fourth-year neurobiology and political science double major and UC Irvine’s 14th Dalai Lama Scholar, said.

As a co-founder of Fresh START (Students Together Aiding Refugees Today) at UCI, Azzawi’s organization is established as a student volunteer group aimed at working with refugees to offer them mentoring and assistance programs. The Dalai Lama Scholar hopes that the event raise awareness amongst students by exposing them to the plights of refugees and the humanitarian issues of refugees, stateless persons, and displaced individuals as a whole.

“It’s different when you read it on paper, but it’s another thing when you look people in the eye and hear their stories for yourself,” Azzawi said.