University of Michigan Rackham student Andrea Belgrade hosted the opening event for the Strength of Refugees and their Community in the Hatcher Graduate Library Wednesday night. A group of about 50 students and Ann Arbor residents attended the event. 

Belgrade does research with psychology professor Fiona Lee focused on Muslim-Americans, self-identified multicultural people, immigrants and refugees. The gallery at the event was an extension of her work. 

Belgrade began the discussion with a brief introduction on her goal for her research with refugees: allowing refugees to talk about their own experiences instead of having their experiences discussed on their behalf. 

“Refugees are one group that are very often talked about, but less often, their stories and their voices are not centered and a part of that conversation,” Belgrade said. “While a lot of people you might speak to might be supportive of refugees, it often follows the single story of victimization and trauma.” 

The reception led to a panel discussion about research the panelists had done with refugees. 

Dr. Mari Kira, a psychology research scientist at the University, worked at the University of Giessen and University of Marburg, Germany in the early 2010s. She said the migration of millions of refugees to Germany in such a short span of time prompted her group to begin researching refugees and their lives in Germany. 

“We focus on their challenges that the resettlement is bringing, but also the positive aspects,” Kira said. “We grow through every experience we have; how does the path of refugees help them to grow and enriches their understanding of not only themselves, but also enriches their understanding of this world and how it works?” 

Kira and her group of researchers studied with refugees in the U.S., Canada and Germany. She was able to find commonalities between the groups: the loss of control over their own life, uncertainty and discrimantion. 

“I had a Syrian refugee tell me, ‘We here as refugees are unsafe,’” Kira said. “‘Maybe one day the state will say we are to go back to our home country. And what should I do there? I lost everything there.’” 

Ayah Kutmah is the co-founder of REvive, an organization that goes “beyond the scope” of United Nations refugee resettlement organizations. She spoke about how stereotypes of refugees as helpless and in need of others’ help does more harm than good. 

“The majority of people will immediately say that the stereotype of refugees is that they are possible terrorists,” Kutmah said. “Yet these stereotypes are often linked to the far-right. The (predominant) stereotype of refugees is on that we all buy into: the stereotype that they are weak, that they are helpless, they are victims. The story we propagate is that these other people that look different than us … need us to help them.” 

Kutmah said she wants refugees to be seen as individuals who have potential, not victims that all share the same story. 

“What if we saw their potential?” Kutmah asks. “What if we saw each refugee as having individual potential, the same way we ask a kindergarten teacher to see each student to imagine their dreams?”

Dr. Odessa Gonzalez Benson, assistant professor of social work, and her team have partnered to do research with a migrant based organization that deal with mothers of missing migrants. The organization hopes to eventually pull from its oral history and data to create a website and an exhibit with the mothers as the main storytellers.  

“We want to feature the story of them as advocats,” Benson said. “So these mothers are the leaders of the movement that’s calling on Italian and Tunisian governments to find solutions to their missing sons.” 

Benson quickly introduced refugee and the president of the Bhutanese Community of Michigan, Dilli Gautam to speak about his experiences. Gautam focused not on his experience as a refugee but rather his experience as a mentor. He related a particular story of a young man named John who had only been in America for six days when Gautam met him. 

“Any newcomer, I ask him to write down my phone number a few times on a piece of paper so they can remember it … and call me if they need anything outside school,” Gautam said. “It was a challenge at first to teach him how to hold a pen, how to place a piece of paper on a table and how to write numbers correctly.”

Guatam received a phone call at one in the morning from an unknown number. It was a man who had found John wandering the streets and the only thing John could tell him was Gautam’s phone number. Gautam picked him up and drove him to the high school. Apparently, John had gotten lost buying milk for his brother. 

“Imagine how his parents must have felt.” Gautam said. “Imagine how vulnerable John must have felt.”

Guatam said John joined the Marines and Gautam believes John’s enlistment is a perfect example of how refugees can stand up for themselves and for others when shown proper guidance.

Once the panel had concluded their talking points, the audience made comments and asked questions. One audience member in particular asked why mental health was not discussed more. All four of the panelists agreed mental health should be a large part of the resettlement process.  However, they found that sometimes the nations which they migrated to do not list mental health as a priority even for their own citizens. 

LSA senior Noor Saleem assisted Belgrade with the research. Saleem is also a refugee and spent her time translating English to Arabic when meeting with the individuals engaged in the research program. She was most surprised by how different everyone’s stories are. 

“Personally, I am a refugee, so I have been through many life events so I have a background of both knowing how to feel as a refugee,” Saleem said. “But to them when I was asking them questions, they were telling their stories and each one has a specific story that’s very uniques to them and that was very special about it. Before I was kind of generalizing ‘Oh, refugees, they’ve all been through a lot.’ But no, everyone has a certain degree and certain tolerance of what they can handle.’”


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