Refugee Awareness Week and Anti-Zionism Week Provoke Debate on Campus

A coalition of student groups at UCI led Refugee Awareness Week last week, simultaneously with the annual Anti-Zionism Week on campus, to raise awareness for the global refugee crisis and Israeli occupation in Palestine, respectively. A series of events, displays, demonstrations and speakers marked the weeklong campaigns.

Refugee Awareness Week was led by Hearts of Mercy at UCI, Fresh START, the UCI Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation, UNICEF at UCI and the Olive Tree Initiative. Events sought to discuss the higher education crisis for refugees; throughout the week, organizers hosted a discussion with filmmakers and young activists to discuss ways to make a difference for refugees in the community, as well as a speed-learning event for UCI students to hear stories from their colleagues whose families have been displaced by conflict or who are refugees themselves.

Amal Alachkar, a scholar in exile from Aleppo who is now working at the UCI Medical School through the Scholar Resource Fund, shared her story and the experiences of her former students during Monday’s “Scholars at Risk” event.

“Supporting Syrian scholars ultimately ensures Syrian reconstruction, peace and reconciliation,” said Alachkar, quoting her student, Nasser Fardossi, who was awarded the Chevening Scholarship to study in the UK. “This is the long-term impact that will compensate for the burden of war.”

During the keynote event on Wednesday, activists spoke to students about tangible ways to make a difference in their own communities by raising awareness, creating conversation and taking direct action. Activists encouraged students to start fundraising and calling on university administrations to create scholarships for refugees.

Refugee Awareness Week also featured a photography exhibit in the Student Center Viewpoint Gallery by Abdulazez Dukhan, an 18-year-old Syrian refugee who documented Syrian refugees living in Greece.

Anti-Zionism Week was also hosted last week by a different coalition of student groups, including the Muslim Student Union, Students for Justice in Palestine, the American Indian Student Association, and Students Advocating for Immigrant Rights and Equity. The weeklong campaign, which is held annually at UCI, featured film screenings, demonstrations and a wall and quote display in front of Langson Library.

On Wednesday evening, about 40 pro-Palestinian students held a protest in the Student Center in response to a group of IDF reservists, who came to counter the Anti-Zionism Week events and protest the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. The pro-Palestinian students entered the room during the question-and-answer portion of the event, and the discussion became heated enough that a UCI administrator in attendance called the UCI Police Department to the scene. The pro-Palestinian students departed before UCIPD arrived. The event continued as planned and no arrests were made.

Several smaller protests and demonstrations took place throughout the week around Langson Library, and pro-Palestinian organizers held discussions with students in front of the mock-apartheid wall in front of the Flagpoles.

Refugee Awareness Week organizer Iman Siddiqi hopes to expand the scope of the campaign next year to include Palestinian scholars.

“During our speed learning event we had representatives from several refugee populations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East,” said Siddiqi. “Next year we hope to have representatives from Palestine as well as many Syrian-born Palestinians, who are facing additional challenges as ‘double refugees.’”

Although Refugee Awareness Week and Anti-Zionism Week were hosted by separate student groups this year, Refugee Awareness Week’s organizers hope to collaborate with MSU and SJP in the future.