By Vica Kazantseva
For anybody who wished to learn more about the European refugee crisis, ‘International Week’ was the perfect week for students to get educated on migration and the current living conditions/ issues that many families are facing in the Middle East.
As part of ‘International Week’ at Whatcom Community College, the International Program sponsored a two part discussion led by Dr. David Fenner a retired assistant Provost for International Education from the University of Washington and several panelists including a representative from World Vision, two professors from Whatcom, a Washington State refugee coordinator.
“Our office is appointed by the governor to facilitate the federally funded programs. Our mission is to help refugees who are coming into the United States and other immigrants achieve economic self-sufficiency and integration into our local communities in Washington,” said Sarah Peterson, the Washington State refugee coordinator.
The discussion was an opportunity to educate students and staff on the origins of migration and the conflict many Syrians and other ethnic groups are going through, fleeing their homes due to war. About 4.6 million Syrians have fled Syria due to the civil war that has been going on since 2011. Many of those people remaining in the Middle East in countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt, and some fleeing to Europe.
“We’ve been trying to rally the world around this issue for the last 5 years,” said Megan Caddell, a spokesperson from World Vision, naming it the “world’s greatest humanitarian crisis.”
As an open forum, students were able to ask questions they had regarding the topic of refugees. The facilitators of the event were Laura Albert, a student from Whatcom and Ulli Schraml a professor at Whatcom and the Associate Director with the International programs. The panel discussion only went on for 1.5 hours which led to many unanswered questions. Most questions asked went along the lines of “What is the difference between a refugee and a migrant?”, “What can I do to help this cause?” or “What are the conditions refugees are exposed to?” Most of the discussion did not cover an economic or security standpoint.
Most refugees either travel by boat or land so part of the discussion explained where these refugees are coming from and what their journey looks like along the way. The story of a young boy and his family from Syria was shared in a clip for people to get a look at what it looks like for these people to travel to a foreign country, and not understanding the language or how to integrate into the community, afraid for their lives.
“Most of them face economic prohibitions from working. If they go to an urban area most of them are considered illegal immigrants and they are often persecuted by the police in those countries. They end up living in apartments with 3 or 4 other families or go to refugee camps but aren’t able to work and the [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] utilizes significant amount of foreign aid from the United States and other developed countries to set up these camps but it’s insufficient, there’s not enough food or water, habitation. The average wait time in these refugee camps to have durable solution is about 17 years,” said Sarah Peterson.
“These people are just like you and I… they’re doctors, they’re teachers, imagine if it was a family like yours,” said Caddell.
On Whatcom’s event page online, it stated, “Washington is one of the only states welcoming refugees. Does this affect my community, security, and economy?” Currently 31 states do not accept refugees. Just under 3,000 syrian refugees have been accepted into Washington while the US as a whole has accepted around 20,000 refugees since the civil war in Syria began, showing the difficulty of migrating to America and making a living.
Sarah Peterson and Doug Robertson briefly discussed the process of claiming a refugee status. “There’s a difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker. A refugee is someone who has to obtain their legal immigration status outside of the United States. They go through that whole process waiting abroad. There are individuals who can come to the United States and apply for asylum in our borders, but they’re two different processes,” said Peterson.
When a refugee flees from their home country, a secondary country may or may not allow them to apply for asylum and they may be put in a refugee camp or stay in a city. The definition of asylum is “protection granted by a nation to someone who has left their native country as a political refugee.” An asylum seeker will register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They have to show proof and tell their stories and concern for persecution because of their race, religion, sex, ethnicity, orientation, etc.
One question asked was, “How can I help reduce prejudice that can premise those who are entering the country as refugees from Syria and elsewhere?”
Sarah Peterson responded with, “Remembering our history and being vocal about what’s going on today and being open-minded… stand up and talk about these refugees who are seeking a new life and have walked thousands of miles to come here. They’ve had to go through security clearances, barriers, and walked thousands of miles to come here. They just want a better opportunity.
“Discussions like these are important. Now I know more about this topic and I want to help,” said Katie Lukyanchina, student.