Refugee Awareness Week Encourages Students to Get Involved

Peaceful Passions (formerly Hearts of Mercy), in collaboration with the UCI Dalai Lama Scholarship, Fresh START, UCI Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation, Liberty in North Korea, and ISPF, held Refugee Awareness Week on campus from Jan. 16 to 19, hosting a series of events that highlighted the plight of refugees and focused on new ways to become involved in alleviating the crisis.

The week’s events included speakers from local and university-based refugee aid groups, such as the Tiyya Foundation and the Blum Center, and invited perspectives from UCI professors as well as those who are currently working with refugees abroad.

Amal Alachkar, associate adjunct professor of pharmacology at UCI, shared the story of her family and students as they became refugees from for their home country of Syria.

Around  50 percent of the Syrian population became refugees within the six years that the civil war occured.

“The brutal war destroyed all aspects of life in Syria, and the education is no exception. Unfortunately, in these six years the infrastructure of the education system was destroyed,” said Alachkar. She showed pictures of ransacked medical laboratories near her own lab at the University of Aleppo, where she was the chair of the biochemistry department, and described how her students were beaten and killed, while others were able to escape.

Hundreds of students from the University of Aleppo were killed for crimes as minor as going to take their exams and helping the injured. Many put their education on hold to help their families, who had lost their bread-winners to the war.

Through the torture of academics, the education system was destroyed,  but Alackhar’s students risked their lives to continue practicing their medical professions.

Ahmed Hubishi, a  third-year pharmacy student at the University of Aleppo, was finishing his degree when he was jailed and tortured for four months. He escaped and told Alackhar, “I am stronger than the person who tortured me.” He stayed in Aleppo, and was killed in 2013 while trying to help injured protesters.

Another student, who Alackhar called Sami to protect his family and identity, provided aid to injured people and was detained in 2014. His family was informed that he had been tortured and killed in prison, but after travelling from one detention center to another, they were told that he may still be alive.

“The family is desperate just to have the real news. If he’s dead, then, okay, so now they are relieved. Knowing that prison centers in Syria are manslaughter houses,  you would be more worried about him being alive more than being dead,” she said.

Alackhar, who had been mentoring medical students at the university, was convicted of inciting demonstration.

“If this is a crime, then I am proud of my crime and I confess that I committed this crime. I was only with my students because that’s what I believe, and their demands are my demands.”

A workshop held Jan. 16 provided opportunities for attendees to brainstorm potential solutions for current problems faced by refugee organizations, from literacy and communication skills to proper access to official documents needed for basic services like doctors appointments and the ability to enroll children in school.

One of the most pressing issues facing refugees in Orange County is housing prospects, said Laura Leslie, program manager for the Tiyya Foundation.

“The average client pays $1,600 a month for a one-room apartment. Yet, a refugee only gets $355 a month in cash aid from government assistance.”

Her discussion group in the event developed a system that could connect single refugees together in order to combine the income needed to pay what for many refugees is a high sum for shelter. The program, still in it’s idea stages, would also connect refugees to families willing to take them in, and would serve as a community platform through which the refugee community could give tips about helpful resources in the area.

The panel that preceded the workshop discussed the mounting global refugee crisis and debated possible solutions to the problems, one of which is the pursuit of a career that could aid refugees. Dr. Daniel Wehrenfennig, executive director of UCI’s Olive Tree Initiative, stressed the importance of careers in business management, social work and psychology to help with cultural adjustment, legal services, and management of the exponential growth in  refugee populations.

“If you want to work with refugees, the jobs aren’t going away,” he said. “The kinds of disasters and wars we have today prevent them from returning. There’s nothing to go back to.”

“There is a disconnect between the ‘lived’ and ‘legal status of a refugee,” said Anita Casavantes-Bradford, professor of Chicano/Latino studies at UCI. She explained how laws against refugees before and after World War II were dependent on the “maintenance of good foreign policy” and the United States’ reputation of moral leadership “depended on it.”

The panel attributed the disconnect to this and other discrepancies between the legal definition of a refugee and the reality for many who have been internally displaced or cannot return to their country after their “temporary aid” runs out.

“The law works to exclude rather than include refugees,” said Casavantes-Bradford.

Corrections: A previous version of this article misstated the average monthly rent for one-room apartments as $160,000. It is actually $1,600 a month.