More than 80 students gathered in Palmer Commons on Thursday evening for the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program’s third annual capstone event, titled “Record Keeping: The Power of Stories in the Refugee Crisis.” Consisting of a photo exhibit, short film and panel, the event aimed to showcase the stories of refugees in the University of Michigan community and generate discussion about the power of individual testimony in the refugee crisis.
For the first portion of the event, attendees were invited to mingle over finger food and view the photo exhibit, which featured the headshots and narratives of six University students and staff. Each blurb had a quote from the individual and information such as their title, year, major, hobbies and information about their immigration process. Among the individuals included was Knight Wallace Fellow Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, a Mexican journalist who was denied asylum this February after fleeing from Mexico in 2008 following death threats for his reporting on corruption in the Mexican military.
In an interview with The Daily, LSA junior Said Al-Jazaeri, one of the students in the exhibit, explained he came to United States from Syria in 2013. Al-Jazaeri expressed it was initially difficult assimilating to a different culture and is still difficult being away from his family, who he hasn’t seen in six years.
“This was a great experience sharing my story for the first time,” Al-Jazaeri said. “It’s important to share my story, as it will help people in the future to learn from my experience… about what refugees and immigrants face when they move to the United States… It’s not always that we want to leave our country, but we are forced to leave sometimes.”
Following the reception, LSA junior Ayah Kutmah, MRAP Vice President of External Affairs, delivered the opening remarks, using statistics to highlight the extent of the refugee crisis. According to Kutmah, the current refugee crisis is the worst in modern history, and the U.S. has limited the number of refugees to the lowest since the U.S. standardized the refugee-accepting process following the Refugee Act of 1980. In light of current policies around refugees and asylum seekers, Kutmah expressed the ability of stories to spur social change.
“The power of stories is often glossed over, but it is undeniable how essential they are in creating social norms and attitudes that move generations and give the leaders, the activists, the policymakers, the social workers, the artists, the teachers, and the students (what’s) needed to galvanize international attention and work to create institutions and policies that will welcome refugees,” Kutmah said.
The event then premiered “Blurred Canvas: Displacement at Michigan,” a film created by LSA sophomore Basil Alsubee and LSA sophomore Colin Lucero-Dixon about displaced members of the University community. The film featured interviews with Soto, Engineering sophomore Israa Ali and LSA junior Dim Mang and showcased tidbits of their daily lives, such as Ali teaching her friend to play the ukulele and Mang leading a student organization event.
Alsubee said the film was directed with interview format to allow the individuals showcased to tell their own story.
“The idea was to represent all these narratives, their complicated identities, backgrounds, stories, because of how nuanced and complicated this issue is on a global scale,” Alsubee said. “There’s a lot of heroizing or victimizing people for a certain purpose. Our goal in doing this was to present an opportunity for the individuals themselves to speak.”
Soto spoke about journalists’ lack of safety in Mexico and expressed how he feels the U.S. immigration system needs reform, while Mang discussed how her understanding of her birth country Burma has become less idyllic as she learns more about its history. Ali talked about breaking barriers as an Arab female in aerospace engineering, and how this discipline has made her consider herself a citizen of the world.
After the film, the event transitioned to a discussion headed by panelists Mang, LSA sophomore Sumaya Tabbah, Hadji Bakara, assistant professor of English language and literature and Ruby Robinson, managing attorney at Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.
Robinson discussed the importance of recordkeeping from a legal standpoint, voicing his role as an attorney is to tell his clients’ stories in hopes of the court granting them relief. To withstand cross-examination and maintain credibility, Robinson explained clients need records to present an accurate, consistent and corroborated account.
“Being able to keep some type of record is critical in many areas of law… as there is a very high burden of proof for clients seeking different types of relief in the United States,” Robinson said.
Tabbah said she has an interest in oral history, which began when she interviewed Flint residents on the city’s economic decline last summer. The “Blurred Canvases” film and photo exhibit was her next project, and she voiced the importance of showing the people behind statistics.
“When I’m collecting oral history, the goal for me… is to put faces to numbers, especially when we’re talking about something as massive as the refugee crisis,” Tabbah said. “Because there can be an incredible amount of numbers and people don’t know what to do with it. And oftentimes we become desensitized to it or we don’t internalize it.”
Mang said storytelling is essential for presenting a narrative other than government propaganda, especially related to Burma and the Rohingya ethnic cleansing.
“Recordkeeping especially in the case of Burma is really important because… the government has this massive campaign to completely change the narrative,” Mang said. “There’s a real internal struggle within my community on who to believe. I think really getting the truth out there… that the Burmese government is trying to subvert real lived experiences, falls on people like me and people in my community who are in privileged institutions to be able to document the stories.”
Following the event, LSA junior Selin Levi expressed she particularly enjoyed hearing the experiences of other students.
“It definitely showcased perspectives I’ve never heard of before and it was nice to put a face to a lot of statistics we use when we talk about the refugee crisis,” Levi said. “I liked hearing from students, which made me think about how our identities are so important as we navigate campus. I appreciated hearing from my peers who have gone through experiences that don’t often get talked about on a day-to-day basis but are so important to people’s experiences and daily lives.”
Kutmah explained the focus of the event on the University community was intentional for the community to realize the stories within it. According to Kutmah, activism around refugee rights peaked a few years ago and has slowed as current policies restricting immigration have been put in place. Thus, the theme of the event highlighted storytelling to generate discussion about how to create societal change outside of policy, Kutmah expressed.
“Then you had this fatigue because you kept coming into contact with roadblocks and you didn’t know how to act and what to do, and you internalize that there’s nothing you can do,” Kutmah said. “So instead of focusing on policy and advocacy I wanted to take a step back and think about ‘Okay, if we can’t change policies right this moment, policies come from society, how can we change society?’”