University students travel to Chicago to attend Syrian refugee conference

Wednesday, November 8, 2017 - 5:02pm

Approximately 17 University of Michigan students, representing various student organizations, will be attending the first national conference hosted by Students Organize for Syria this weekend at Loyola University Chicago to discuss solutions and raise awareness for the thousands of people who have died and millions who have been displaced as a result of violent oppression and civil war in Syria.

SOS, a national student-led movement that aims to spread awareness, assist and stand in solidarity with the Syrian people, focuses on fundraising, human rights advocacy and education. It has chapters at several colleges and universities, including the University of Michigan, the University of Southern California and the University of Florida, among others; most of which will be represented at the conference.

The conference will allow attendees and activists from around the country to socialize and engage in discussions surrounding Syria, Amal Rass, a junior at Wayne State University and the president and founder of the university’s SOS chapter, said. Participants will attend sessions and hear from speakers, including Shiyam Galyon, a Syrian-American writer and activist, and Kenan Rahmani, a Syrian-American political and human rights activist.

“Most of the conferences that are Syria-related have not been catered to the younger generation,” Rass said. “This is the first one in that sense that does that.”

Rass said the main goal is to get students and younger activists involved in supporting the Syrian people, or if they are already involved, to show them how they can do more.

“It’s been since 2011 when the Syrian Revolution started and this crisis started,” she said. “The momentum has died down a little bit and we’re trying to remind people why they first started doing what they’re doing.”

Also attending is LSA senior Yusuf Ahmed. When he was a sophomore, Ahmed and a few peers started the Syrian Orphans Sponsorship Association — a student group that raised funds to sponsor Syrian orphans — at the University. The organization grew rapidly and ultimately transformed into a chapter of SOS, of which Ahmed currently serves as the president.  

In an email, he explained he is looking forward to meeting people who share a similar mission.

“I'm looking forward to meeting dedicated, service-oriented people from all across the country who have dedicated a portion of their time to improving the lives of others,” he wrote.

Rass said she is particularly looking forward to a session titled “Empowering the Women of Syria,” which will discuss the role of Syrian women as activists.

Rass also noted two members of the White Helmets will also be present at the conference. The White Helmets are over 3,000 volunteers who, when attack occur, work to save Syrian lives. 

Ahmed also highlighted it will be important for people from SOS chapters across the country to learn from one another. Ahmed explained he is specifically looking forward to learning more about the ins and outs of nonprofit work.

“This conference will allow SOS chapters from across the country to learn from each other's experiences,” he wrote. “I plan on speaking with two chapters in particular, one from southern California and one from Florida, because they have experience with running the 501(c)3 aspect of the organization.”

Additionally Ahmed explained the University’s SOS is group is conducting a medical drive, from which it has already shipped material to Syria. He said the initiative is looking to expand, and he is planning to speak with other chapters of SOS about doing so.

LSA senior Haleemah Aqel, one of the founders and leader of the University of Michigan’s chapter of Books Not Bombs, an organization sponsored in part by SOS.  

The Books Not Bombs campaign began in 2016, and aims to offer scholarships to Syrian students and has chapters at many colleges and universities.

In an email, Aqel explained she will be discussing the work of Books Not Bombs on a panel with a student from the organization at Michigan State University and Galyon, the campaign coordinator.

Additionally, she explained the conference will educate attendees on the Syrian crisis and provide them with information they can take back to their universities and communities.

“Over the last few years, Syria, the war, and the refugee crisis have been such widely discussed topics through the media and even specifically on the University of Michigan campus,” she wrote. “This conference will not only be a great way for those to become more educated about Syria and refugees, but also provide the tools and skills needed to become more involved with refugee resettlement or education advocacy in their communities.”

Echoing Ahmed’s comment, Aqel wrote she is looking forward to meeting with individuals who are involved with SOS on their campuses.

“It will also be great to share my experiences and learning from others who have organized with the same campaign elsewhere,” she wrote.

LSA senior Maggie Rapai is a co-president of the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program, which has spearheaded student activism in assisting refugees since 2016. Through the group, students are connected with local refugee resettlement agencies and subsequently refugees in need of support.

Rapai will attend the conference on behalf of the organization and present on a panel titled “Refugee Assistance Initiative,” which will discuss helping refugees get resettled in their new communities.

“(Refugees) can go through that whole process of filling out all the paperwork and stuff, but the real way that you become a part of your community is having a friend there to show you around, make you feel comfortable, introduce you to their friends, show you their favorite spots around town,” she said.

Rapai said people often forget Syrian refugees were entering the United States prior to the Syrian crisis. She explained the massive influx occurred as a result of crisis; however, she said the mentality changed when the Trump administration took over. 

“We got really good at caring for refugees in one specific way, but now that they’re coming to us in a different way and the mentality around refugees has shifted, it’s really important that everyone who continues to care about refugees comes together and finds new ways to care about refugees in a really efficient and compassionate way — that we’re all on the same page, sharing really cool ideas about better ways to support these people in our community,” she said.