Washtenaw Community College student Anwar Mawli is from Syria, but he lived as a refugee in Lebanon after the Syrian conflict proved too unsafe for him and his family to stay in the country. He arrived in the United States in June 2017.
“We don’t need money. We don’t need food. We need solutions,” Mawli said when asked how Americans can help Syrian refugees.
Mawli’s story served as part of a four-person panel at the “Making Home” discussion event Saturday evening held at Rackham Graduate School. The event was presented by the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program, with about 40 students, faculty and community members in attendance.
LSA senior Zoe Proegler, co-president of MRAP, opened the event by explaining her favorite moment of last week’s exhibit demonstrating life in the refugee camp tents on the Diag. A group of German high school students had visited the exhibit in earlier in the day, and two returned in the evening to describe their own refugee experiences.
“Later in the evening, two of the students actually came back and the boy that was there explained that his friend was born and raised in Germany but his own family had come to Germany as Lebanese refugees,” Proegler said. “He walked his friend through the tent, telling her his own stories. It’s hard to describe what happened there in that moment, but it was super beautiful and very human.”
Photographer Sarah Herman, panelist and keynote speaker for the event, then went on to explain her work in Lebanese refugee camps, which inspired her latest Abide Installation. The installation consists of photographs taken by Herman in refugee camps across Lebanon, as well as testimonies of refugees she befriended there, written in both Arabic and English. Two of those refugees, Sam and Khalid, helped Herman with her project by writing their stories and sharing video footage of the camps in which they live.
Herman explained how she sees hope for the future in the refugees she met in Lebanon.
“The future is Sam, Khalid and (many) Syrian refugees,” Herman said. “The future is hope and the desire to return home.”
Herman also read a story Khalid wrote about his life to the audience.
“My ambition for the future is to return to my country, God-willing,” Herman read. “I will participate in rebuilding and improving our country, after many years of being homesick and isolated and tired of hustling to survive.”
The event then opened up to a four-person panel. In addition to Mawli and Herman, Hardy Vieux, a Public Policy professor and legal director of Human Rights First, and Emmeline Weinert, co-founder of Washtenaw Refugee Welcome, also served on the panel.
Weinert explained many refugees already have difficulties building trust because of their experiences back home and how exhibiting unwelcoming behavior further alienates them.
“I think one of the biggest effects is just the amount of distrust in the community,” Weinert said. “Many refugees feel unsupported and frightened about their status. A lot of refugees come with an inherent distrust of government, which is understandable based on what they’ve been through. It takes a lot of work to build their trust on the system and then that trust is pretty undercut significantly with that (unwelcoming) behavior.”
Vieux felt seeing refugees as more than a label draws better connections and viewpoints of who they are as people.
“Going beyond a label is important because it’s about the human element,” Vieux said. “If you can understand that this is a person who has had a journey and try to connect on that level, then you start better understanding and not assuming everyone is a 'blank' but rather, each person has their own journey, their own narrative, to tell.”
Marjorie Horton, assistant dean for undergraduate education, has worked with MRAP in the past and enjoyed hearing what may be the best way for the United States to help.
“I appreciate hearing that our efforts might best be working on keeping our borders open and supporting the entry of refugees,” Horton said.