A day after Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced Michigan would attempt to block Syrian refugees from entering the state, the Children Welfare Student Association held a discussion Tuesday night addressing the needs of Syrian refugees in Michigan.
Snyder had previously implemented plans to accept an increased number of refugees fleeing violence in Syria, but has now said he wants to put those plans on hold following terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday that killed 129 people. Earlier this week, French authorities announced that one of the individuals likely involved in the attacks entered Europe as a refugee from Syria, though that theory was likely incorrect.
Organizers noted that planning for the event started at the beginning of the semester, preceding recent events, but that the conversation had become increasingly relevant in light of Snyder’s remarks. Thirty other governors have made similar remarks.
About 15 attendees, mostly School of Social Work students, listened to three panelists speak about the current situation, as well as the complex mental health needs of refugees and ways practitioners and social workers can address them.
Panelist Loubna Alkhayet, a clinical therapist from Waterford, Mich., said she thought Snyder’s decision was a poor one for the state. In the last two years, 200 Syrian refugees have settled in Michigan, a number second to only California and Texas.
“It’s hard to watch our elected officials taking it out on the most vulnerable people, while forgetting that these refugees are the first victims of these terrorists,” she said.
University alum Sanja Savic-Berhamovic, who sought asylum in Denmark from the Bosnian War, said she saw several parallels with her experience and the current experience of Syrian refugees.
“We came from a civilized country … and it was very humiliating to be in a position where we’re sleeping in tents and people are coming and taking our pictures like we’re in a zoo,” Savic-Berhamovic said. “What’s important is that (refugees) feel like they’re understood.”
Arguments over policies, all three panelists agreed, tend to drown out important discussions of accommodation.
“Silence has become the norm for (refugees),” panelist Najah Bazzy said. “They’re afraid of the regime they came from as well as the politics of their host country. Practitioners are powerful in helping the refugees feel secure.”
Bazzy, who is the founder of Zaman International, a humanitarian organization based in Dearborn, added that it is important for mental health practitioners to understand the context of the refugee’s situation in providing care.
“There are educational, economic, political and legal and cultural factors,” Bazzy said. “We need to offer safe (spaces) for them.”
Panelists urged attendees to take action by vocalizing the importance of providing for refugees, especially in light of Snyder’s decision.
“Being vocal and joining groups already working with refugees is important … (and) social media presence as well,” Alkhayet said.
Several student groups on campus have said they plan to implement several initiatives in the future, including more dialogues for CWSA and a campaign, led by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, to petition Snyder to reopen Michigan to Syrian refugees.
LSA senior Dana Basha, who attended the event, emphasized the importance of empathizing with refugees.
“It is so simple to become desensitized to the suffering that so many of these refugees have gone through, and look at them as just another statistic or number,” Basha said. “There is no doubt that as Americans we can bring them steps closer to that safety.”