Panel Discusses Refugee Crisis and Solutions During Fresh START’s Refugee Awareness Night

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Fresh START at UCI held “Refugee Awareness Night” at the Calit2 Auditorium on Mon. April 11 to discuss the ongoing refugee crisis — including the economic, social and mental hardships faced by refugees, long-term repercussions of prevailing attitudes toward refugees, and potential solutions to the refugee crisis — and to highlight the work UC Irvine and members of the local Orange County community are doing to address the crisis.

Fresh START, which stands for Students Together Aiding Refugees Today, is a UCI-based mentorship program that was established by 2012-13 Dalai Lama Fellow Soraya Azzawi through a partnership with The Tiyya Foundation, a nonprofit in Santa Ana that helps refugee families resettle in Orange County. Student mentors volunteer their time to tutor refugee children weekly in the Student Center and also host a variety of recreational activities.

unnamed-2“Refugee Awareness Night” featured keynote speaker Dr. Richard Matthew, Professor of International and Environmental Politics and Faculty Director of the UCI Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation. The event also hosted a panel of speakers including Dr. Dara Sorkin, Meymuna Hussein-Cattan, Citlalli Ochoa and Duc Nguyen, who spoke about the mental, economical, legal and social implications of the refugee crisis respectively.


Matthew spoke about his experience working with refugees directly in Northern Pakistan, and about the physical and mental challenges refugees face. He discussed the importance of addressing the refugee crisis on a global level not only to alleviate the suffering of millions of displaced individuals, but also because of the effects the refugee crisis may have on other countries not equipped to handle a large influx of refugees.

According to Matthew, countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Iraq are not able to handle the large number of Syrian refugees. Jordan, for instance, has a population of 6.5 million people of which 700,000 are refugees. Matthew believes this crisis may lead other parts of the world to collapse, causing current problems to worsen with additional wars, climate change and population growth.

“We know the system isn’t working. This is an opportunity to figure out how do we forge a system, how do we update the goodwill we created [for refugees] in the 50s so it meets the demands of the 21st century,” said Matthew.

Matthew also sought to dispel commonly held misconceptions of refugees, namely Syrian refugees, who are often seen as a security and economic threat. He described that while 53% of Americans oppose refugees, only 0.042% of Syrian refugees reach the United States. Moreover, of the 859,000 refugees who have entered the United States since 9/11, zero have committed any acts of terror.

Matthew discussed ways to address the problem, including holding discussions based on evidence, sending mail to politicians, expanding awareness and refugee assistance in local communities and even considering a national humanitarian tax, which he holds is a better alternative than wasting trillions of dollars on wars.

Sorkin, who has been working at the UCI Medical Center for 20 years, spoke about her research with the Cambodian community in Long Beach. Most members of this community are refugees from the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s, and even though more than 40 years have passed, Sorkin described that the Cambodian community faces a greater proportion of physical and mental health problems, economic burden and lower educational levels than other members of Asian descent.

She discussed the importance of providing mental health care alongside primary health care for both current and new groups of refugees in the United States.

Hussein-Catten, founder of The Tiyya Foundation, was born in a refugee camp in Somalia. She discussed her parents’ years in the refugee camp, which encouraged her to begin an organization to help refugees gain financial independence as well as access to tools, resources and networks.

Hussein-Catten also spoke about the relationship between Fresh START and The Tiyya Foundation. Fresh START, which began under the guidance of The Tiyya Foundation, provides after-school tutoring for refugee children in the Student Center every Tuesday. Last year, Fresh START tutored 70 children.

“We want to see refugee advancement in Southern California through employment and language, and we want them to become contributing members of society,” sad Hussein-Catten. “We also want to promote a society that is compassionate and understanding of refugee experiences in America.”

Ochoa, a UC Irvine law student and member of the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) at UCI Law, spoke about the difficult legal process of resettling refugees, which includes a determination of refugee status by the United Nations Refugee Agency, resettlement assessment, U.S. admission programs, background checks and interviews.

This resettlement process can take at least three to four years, and is especially hard to address because of the complexities of the process, the language barrier and paperwork which can be misplaced.

“There are so many details that I as an English speaker and legally trained student sometimes struggle with,” said Ochoa. “It’s impossible to think that someone living in the conditions that we have seen and being in refugee camps and worrying about where their next meal is going to come from would worry about it.”

UC Irvine’s IRAP is currently working on nine cases under guidance of a pro bono supervising attorney with two to three students on each case. By discussing the difficulty of the process for resettling refugees, including the intense scrutiny, Ochoa sought to dispel the falsely held fear that refugees are terrorists.

Film director Duc Nguyen spoke about his social media campaigns to address the ongoing crisis, which he believes is an important platform considering the lack of political and governmental interest in addressing the refugee situation. His campaigns include #ICareCampaign to spread awareness and #Diapers4Refugees, to provide refugee families in Orange County with diapers, a basic necessity often overlooked.

Nguyen also spoke about his fundraising for Migrant Offshore Aid Station, an NGO begun by Christopher and Regina Catrambone based in Malta in order to rescue refugees on the Mediterranean Sea.

“The issue is not about refugees, it’s about racism, and that’s the core problem here that we face,” said Nguyen.

The night closed with performances by Manifest ONE music, a multi-racial and interfaith hip hop/spoken word band that serves to promote social justice and global peace through music.

“If we can’t solve this problem together, how will we solve other problems like climate change or global economic crisis or global pandemic?” said Matthew. “There are sets of problems that we need to work together to solve, and this is one of them. What we do today will be remembered throughout history.”

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