October 4, 2015

Cornell Clubs Host Forum on Syrian Refugee Crisis

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Several dozen students gathered at the “What’s Happening in Syria?” event hosted Friday by a coalition of Cornell clubs about the Syrian refugee crisis. The mass migration, first catalyzed by the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2010, has gained renewed media attention because of the recent influx of Syrians and migrants from other countries into coastal European countries offering asylum.

The South Asian Council hosted the presentation and following discussion, bringing together many diverse organizations, including Cornell International Affairs Society, Arab Students Association and Cornell Organization for Labor Action.

“Although the South Asian Council is not directly affiliated with Syria, we understand the global nature of the humanitarian crisis that is occurring right now,” said Caro Achar ’18, one of the students who presented information about Syria. “Ultimately, we are humans too. We thought that as fellow members of the global community, we needed to say something.”

The presenters highlighted some of the discriminatory actions many European Union countries have taken against Syrians seeking asylum. However, the current refugee and migrant crisis is not isolated to Europe, said Prof. Holly Case, history, in an email to The Sun.

“This is not just a European problem … countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have taken in over four million refugees since the war in Syria began,” said Case, a historian specializing in East-Central and Southeastern Europe who recently visited the border between Hungary and Serbia. “It is partly because the United Nations High Commission for Refugees had to reduce its support in these countries earlier this year that some refugees staying these countries have sought to make their way to Europe.”

According to the U.N., 7.6 million Syrians have been displaced internally, while 4.1 million Syrians have left the country. According to the presentation, the countries are struggling to accommodate what the U.N. has called the “worst refugee crisis since World War II” due to weak immigrations systems.

During the discussion that followed the presentation, students debated the role Syria plays in today’s global context and how to help alleviate the injustices faced by Syrian refugees.

The event hit home for some students, including Ahmad Sabbagh ’17, philanthropy chair of the Arab Student Association at Cornell.

“I actually lived in Syria for three years. I have very happy memories there,” Sabbagh said. “It hurts when you see your people suffering and seeing your home destroyed. Seeing everybody who came out here, people from all different backgrounds, and all different parts of the world — it’s just indescribable.”

For many students, the event was an educational experience.

“What made this event special was that I can easily follow what is going on in Syria at home, but this was different from me just clicking through articles on my computer, it gave an emotional and human perspective,” Dara Canchester ’18 said.

“Seeing people who really care about what’s going on and are affected by the crisis was eye-opening.”

The event also focused on how students can get involved in helping the Syrian refugees.

“The goal of this event was to first raise awareness, then take action out of a place of understanding, so we can most effectively address the problem,” Achar said.

All of the participating organizations took donations for Save the Children Syria, a branch of an NGO that provides aid to children in poverty around the world.  The Arab Student Association also announced plans for a clothing drive for children, who make up approximately half the population of Syrian refugees.

Additionally, for students interested in making a difference, Case recommended donating to the UNHCR.

“This is not a distant issue; it is one that lives with and among us in myriad ways,” Case said. “There is a refugee center [called Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees] in the city of Utica just a couple of hours north of here has resettled 15,000 refugees since 1981 — from Bosnia, Nepal, Burma, Somalia and other war-torn areas — helping them find jobs and homes, apply for citizenship, learn English, etc.”

For Sabbagh, the inter-club meeting at Cornell was representative of the global response to the crisis.

“It’s amazing because people from all over the world are coming together — people I thought would never care,” Sabbagh said. “It just shows that in humanity we’re all just brothers and sisters.”