UCI Breaks the Silence on Refugee Experiences
Students across several campus organizations led an awareness campaign last week called Break the Silence in order to introduce UCI to the local refugee community.
The week-long campaign included keynote addresses, panelists and refugees who shared their stories, as well as a candlelight memorial for refugees and victims of the recent earthquake in Nepal.
Break the Silence was a collaborative effort that brought together local nonprofit organizations as well as student organizations, including the including the Tiyya Foundation, Fresh START (Students Together Aiding Refugees Today), ASUCI, the Speakers and Debate Commission, the Pollination Project, Cambodian Awareness Organization, Students for Global Peacebuilding, UNICEF, Alpha Phi Omega, the Blum Center, Rotaract
Proceeds raised from the campaign went to a college scholarship fund for local refugee youth.
Fourth-year international studies major Stella Liu originally thought of creating a weeklong refugee awareness campaign at UCI after her experiences backpacking alone across Southeast Asia during her junior year.
She spoke with locals in Cambodia about the Khmer Rouge’s violent rule over the country. Liu returned to UCI with a plan to raise awareness about refugee issues around the world and in our local community.
“My vision for Break the Silence changed, evolved and expanded throughout the whole year of fundraising, organizing and executing the campaign,” said Liu. “I have realized that stories are the most efficient way to bridge the gaps between inaction, compassion and action.”
Meymuna Hussein-Cattan, founder and director of the Tiyya Foundation, provided the keynote address on Monday, introducing UCI to the refugee community in Orange County. Cattan’s nonprofit assists 575 refugees from 162 families, many escaping war and persecution in places like Iraq, Iran, Burma, Afghanistan and Somalia.
The second event on Tuesday, titled “Living Photography,” featured speakers from the Break the Silence social media campaign that launched several weeks prior to the week of events. Inspired by Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York, the exhibit featured black and white photographs of individuals holding signs with the words “Break the Silence,” along with audio clips of the subjects’ stories. At the exhibit, participants heard from peace and conflict studies professor Paula Garb, artist and humanitarian Sama Wareh, public health lecturer and doctoral student Pauline Lubens and Tram Le from the Vietnamese Oral History Project.
In 2011, Wareh bought a ticket to Turkey to aid a few of the 135,000 Syrian refugees who fled civil war to survive winter in neighboring Turkey. After taking a bus to the Syrian border and meeting refugee families, she established a school over the span of several days. There are over 350 students at the school and participate in art therapy to reflect on their experiences.
On Wednesday, refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Cuba spoke about their experiences.
Adja Victor, entrepreneur and spokesperson of Tiyya, recalled that events that forced him out of the DRC.
“About how I grew up, it was so crazy, because I remember when I was five years old, there was genocide in Rwanda. They were killing people who look like me and I’m Tuti,” said Victor. “When they came in the city, I was like, what is this? There were people dying in Rwanda, and they came in my city and still killing them and us. They used to say, you’re not like us, you’re someone else. I grew with fear of being killed.”
Also on the panel was Alia Hamza, an advocate for women’s rights and spokesperson for Tiyya. She left Somalia at age seven to stay with her sister in Kenya, but ended up in a camp. There, everyone told her that America was the happiest place, but she felt isolated in American schools not knowing English.
“The only thing I kept thinking is that my mom is not here, my dad is not here, my siblings are not here. I know I’m far away from them, so I was crying every single day. I believe it is good to have a community that, you know, (helps) special people that come to America.”
Following the event, over 300 people attended the candlelight memorial for victims of the earthquake in Nepal on April 25. Held on the Student Center Terrace, participants were invited to share their stories and several Nepali students and members from the community stepped forward to reflect on the tragedy.
“All of the people there, being under the rubble, all feels unreal, like a nightmare,” said fourth-year biology major Dristi Angdembey to the crowd. “Nepal will always be beautiful. Even when our temples are destroyed, we’ll recover because we are resilient. But having your support means so much to us.”
On Thursday, Fresh START hosted a refugee awareness banquet where performers expressed their stories through music and spoken word.
On Friday, the campaign closed on a note of community service. Large boxes were set up at Student Center Terrace and volunteers collected school supplies for refugee children in Orange County. The boxes will remain in the Student Center Food Court during week six.
Liu said that she envisioned the campaign as the first seed of change, and hoped to make BTS an annual program where multiple student organizations work toward solving social issues.
“I believe that disengagement and lack of empathy form barriers for positive social change,” said Liu. “My favorite quote that I tell people is that you can only build a mountain out of tiny stones. Expect that you will fail, that it will be hard, and that sometimes you may feel alone. But when you finish your project and you stand on top of a mountain that you built, you can look back at your experiences, the people you met and the change you enacted.”