The Michigan Refugee Assistance Program, a student-led organization dedicated to assisting recently resettled refugees in the greater Detroit and Ann Arbor areas, held the second of their four-part roundtable series Thursday night examining the intersectional issues within the refugee crisis. This particular speaker event was focused on examining educational barriers faced by refugees as well as the response, or lack thereof, from refugee communities, nonprofits and students. The event was held at Weill Hall and was attended by about 25 undergraduate and graduate students.
LSA junior Ayah Kutmah, vice president of External Affairs for MRAP and one of the event’s organizers, said the organization’s purpose goes beyond solely supporting refugees in Southeast Michigan. Rather, Kutmah said MRAP hopes to teach the community about the diverse set of difficulties affecting refugees. She, as well as the rest of MRAP, said they hoped these roundtable events would help fulfill that goal of educating the student body about issues related to refugees like education, as well as dispel any inaccuracies regarding the refugee crisis.
“Our speaker series, in general, arose from the need to look at intersectionality, not just looking at refugees as people that just resettle or that you donate to,” Kutmah said. “We are looking at the things that they struggle with both institutionally in the United States and globally, so one of those things is education.”
She explained there are dangerous assumptions about the refugee crisis, particularly regarding the fact that people fail to consider the issues that impact refugees beyond just resettlement.
“When people think of refugees, they don’t think of education and they don’t think of the barriers of education,” Kutmah said. “They don’t think about the intersectionality of different things.”
LSA and Art & Design freshman Gabe Consiglio echoed Kutmah’s sentiments about the student body’s problem of overgeneralizing and misunderstanding issues related to refugees.
“We’re in a climate right now where it is really important to talk about this just because people are ignorant,” Consiglio said. “It is important to get talking about this to have people understand that … (refugees) are just like us and they’re not a threat like a lot of people would think that they are.”
Lilah Khoja, a Public Health graduate student focusing on medical issues affecting refugees and female reproductive health, lead the roundtable discussion about the importance and intersectional impact of education on the refugee crisis. Though Khoja did not understate the number of problems affecting refugees, she focused her presentation on education because she said she believes it to be the most withstanding problem.
“Education is a really valuable asset,” Khoja said. “People can take away anything from you. You can lose your house, you can lose your job, but you can’t lose your education. That’s something that you have with you from the moment that you get it until the moment that you die.”
Not only is education important for creating and shaping citizens into intelligent, impactful individuals of society, Khoja argued, but being educated is directly related to a variety of other parts of our society, such as having immensely better health, a longer life expectancy and a lower potential for abuse and exploitation among many other potential side effects.
“Education is the one thing that really has the ability to lift people out of poverty, has the ability to make people healthier, to make people productive members of society,” Khoja said.
Despite the overt importance of education, Khoja said refugees face extreme obstacles to getting an education. Khoja attributed this because of a few specific reasons. She argues that educational barriers within primary and secondary schools exist because of little to no funding.
Furthermore, Khoja said these obstacles are exacerbated by language differences and unfamiliar education systems that exist between different countries and school systems. Beyond primary and secondary education, there are barriers that exist within tertiary education — only 1 percent of them have access to tertiary school.
Access to higher education is seen as a luxury, not a fundamental right like it is the U.S., Khoja stated. Only those with a lot of money will have access to higher education because it is expensive. However, Khoja said refugees are not even inclined to invest in it because it will not guarantee them a job afterward.
“People don’t go to college because they don’t think it’s going to benefit them in any way,” Khoja said. “What effect do you think this is going to have on someone’s psyche?”
There are obvious reasons for these barriers, Khoja argued. According to her presentation, only 2 percent of humanitarian aid goes toward education. She said she believes the primary reason for this is because donating to support someone’s education is as not attractive as donating food or resources that have a direct impact on someone’s health.
Despite the conversation ending with many uncertainties about the refugee crisis and education, Khoja and MRAP said they hope that the event will spark more widespread conversations around campus about the issue.
LSA freshman Meghan Selvidge said she agreed with MRAP’s goals and she hoped the conversation continues.
“Education is something that a lot of people can take for granted so I think that learning about the specific hardships (that refugees face) can (eventually) lead to social change and action,” Selvidge said.