Over 300 attendees from Cornell and the Ithaca community put on their finest and headed to the Johnson Museum on Saturday for an evening of performances, student art and speeches made to raise awareness for the plight of refugees worldwide at the Cornell Welcomes Refugees Gala.
“I am so glad to see that there are so many of you [here], who could be anywhere tonight, who could be at Delta Chi — is that still a thing?” said Mayor Svante Myrick ‘09, praising the audience that had come out to support the cause.
The event, organized by Cornell Welcomes Refugees, was modeled after a similar gala that CWR President Salma Shitia ’18 hosted last year with the Arab Student Association. Last year, Shitia was able to raise over $4,000 to help with the resettlement of refugees in Ithaca.
CWR arranged a lineup of speakers for the night, two of which were Myrick and Walaa Maharem-Horan, a founding member of Ithaca Welcomes Refugees.
Myrick expressed optimism for the activist efforts he has seen in Ithaca and across the nation against President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration and refugees.
“I am far more hopeful than I was 100 days ago, when this man, who rode a wave of hatred and xenophobia to the White House, took the reins of power,” he said. “A combination of his own incompetence and your energy and action meant that he’s been the least productive president in modern American history.”
He also urged attendees to continue making their voices heard in their communities.
“[W]e can keep that up. We have to. Because there are people who are … literally weeks from coming to Ithaca, out of harm’s way,” Myrick said.
But the journey to Ithaca is a difficult one, as Maharem-Horan attested.
Maharem-Horan told many stories of the immigrant families she has helped resettle, from a farmer who was most thankful for America’s tap water to an Afghani family that was moved by the home-cooked, volunteer-prepared Afghani meals that they were met with upon their arrival.
“America has the most secure vet[ting] system in the world,” Maharem-Horan said. “This is a two-to-three-year process. These people are fingerprinted three to four times. It’s not like somebody goes, ‘you know where you should go? America.’”
She also detailed Ithaca’s history as a sanctuary for refugees, and emphasized that attendees should think of the refugee crisis as an ongoing issue.
“Refugees aren’t just Syrian and Iraqi and Afghani — you’re talking people from the Congo and [Myanmar]. [Myanmar] has had refugees since the 1970s. This is not just a hot-button issue, this is not something that just happened to pop up. Ithaca Welcomes Refugees didn’t exist because of Trump; we’ve been around since December of 2015,” she said.
The issue of taking refugees, Maharem-Horan said, should not be seen as a political debate, but rather as one of humanity.
“Right now there’s over 60 million refugees worldwide. These are people that have been displaced from their homes, and I just want people to take a step back and put [them] in [the refugees’] shoes,” she said.
The gala additionally featured work by student artists, a decision that Shitia explained was to prompt heightened awareness.
“After the executive order and immigration ban … it was really important not to just raise funds, but to raise awareness,” she said. “We contacted many artists to display their work on refugees here.”
Two of these artists, Calga Sokullu ’20 and Chryssanthi Barris ’20, cited their own experiences as inspiration behind their collaboration, “Stigma” — a collection of photographed faces viewed through a black canvas with cutouts.
“Through the placement of the cut-outs, we wanted to highlight the similarities and differences between the facial features of our subjects.” Barris said. “Our piece explores the idea that we may be different people from different places, different backgrounds, different races, different — everything, but at our core we are all still human.”
“At the end of the shoot, when we looked at all 15 [shots,] they’re all really the same,” Sokullu added. “For us, the black canvas was a barrier between the viewer and the subject. The canvas can hide parts of the face. But still, we know what is behind it, we know that it is a person and we accept them as they are even with the presence of that barrier.”
Originally from Istanbul, Sokullu said that her experiences have shown her just how powerful the effects of prejudice can be on a society.
“I come from a place that has been in political crisis since I’ve been aware of the … situation of the world. I don’t think we’ve seen peace that was actual peace; there was always some underlying commotion,” she said. “Where we are now in the U.S. — I think we all see the political situation, where it’s so tense between people. I think we just need to take a step back and see that we are all the same.”
Barris drew upon her experiences as an immigrant from Greece, stressing that she hopes people can hope to embrace diversity.
“When I moved back [to the U.S.] from Greece, I was made fun of for my heritage,” Barris said. “For me, this [piece] is a way to remind people to be kind, to love one another, and celebrate each other’s differences.”
The gala was able to raise over $3,000 for refugees, but Shitia hopes that attendees of the gala will also leave with a better understanding of the potential consequences of American legislation on these refugees.
“[G]arnering support for the movement to accept refugees within our borders is the most important thing right now, especially with the current geopolitical climate,” Shitia said.