York University students organize events for Refugee Awareness Week

York University’s Keele Campus will be abuzz with educational events taking place Feb. 5 to 8 that have been organized for Refugee Awareness Week 2018.

Syrian Response and Refugee Initiative (SRRI) Student Project Ambassador Humaima Ashfaque (right) and Rhoshni Khemraj (left) from Amnesty at York

“Refugee Awareness Week is one of our most anticipated weeks of the year,” says Amnesty International at York Chapter President Rhoshni Khemraj. “The energy of [student] clubs and organizations coming together for a shared purpose is incredibly empowering and humbling for everyone involved.” The Amnesty International at York student group has organized a Dignity not Detention letter-writing and advocacy workshop taking place Feb. 7.

The week includes numerous events scheduled from Monday to Thursday. It begins on Monday, Feb 5 with a refugee awareness and engagement fair in Vari Hall that will take place from 10am to 4pm. Following the fair, there will be a Training for Working in Solidary with Refugees session at 5pm led by York University’s Psychology Graduate Students Refugee Education Initiative. There will be a variety of speaker sessions, interactive solidarity activities and film screenings.

“Refugee Awareness Week is a vital way of creating networks among students and solidarity among war diasporas on campus,” says Centre for Refugee Studies (CRS) Director Jennifer Hyndman.

CRS hosts and supports York University’s Syria Response and Refugee Initiative (SRRI), which has worked closely with student groups to plan and promote the week’s schedule.

“York is comprised of a student body like no other,” says Hyndman. “We welcome everyone, and the recent histories of war and human rights atrocities that student families have fled are part and parcel of the context and activities we do.” Two of the CRS’ seminars, taking place on Feb. 5 and 7 are part of the week, one is the launch of the new book, Canada and the Indochinese Refugees.

Collaboration combats intolerance and increases understanding

“RefugeAid is proud to be taking part in one of the most important weeks recognizing the strength and resilience of refugees all around the world by providing students with a chance to learn more about the global refugee crisis,” says RefugeAid Club President Rima Kotob. The group has organized a speaker session and a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) exhibit on Feb. 6.

Some of the students planning Refugee Awareness Week, including RefugeAid President Rima Kotob, fourth from left in back row

“This week provides us with the opportunity to collaborate with other refugee awareness clubs at York University in order to help raise awareness and funds to assist refugees with their transportation loans,” says Kotob.

Many of the student clubs involved in the week are working with the Keele local of the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) Committee to help raise awareness about the burden of refugee transportation loans and urgent need to assist sponsored refugee students to help pay off these loans. It is a goal that the student club members say will require significant community support to come close to achieving.

WUSC President (Keele Committee) Robert Hanlon (left) with Aelya Salman, Student Refugee Program Coordinator

“[Student groups] UNICEF, UDEM, Amnesty International at York, RefugeAid and WUSC are united and stand strong to fight discrimination against refugees,” says SRRI Student Project Ambassador Humaima Ashfaque. “Despite the heavy school and work load, student leaders have been working hard to ensure the workshops and events help the community be more inclusive and welcoming of diversity.”

Access to higher education and initiatives

Partnering with the SRRI, WUSC Keele Committee Chair Robert Hanlon is one of the organizers of an important event on Feb. 8 that is titled, Creating Pathways and Crossing Borders: Access to Higher Education. The event is a panel discussion and will take place at noon. It features three major York University-linked initiatives that are working to support higher education access for refugee and precarious migrant students. Speakers from WUSC Ottawa and Glendon, as well as Aida Orgocka, project manager of the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) Project operating in Dadaab, Kenya, and Tanya Aberman, research and program coordinator of the FCJ Refugee Centre and the York U Access for Students With Precarious Immigration Status Program will participate in the panel.

Part of the panel’s purpose, according to SSRI Project Lead John Carlaw is to promote student awareness and engagement and to help highlight the realities of limited accessibility to education for refugees and precarious status migrants locally as well as globally.

“This panel will help attendees see what seem like invisible borders and barriers to important services and rights that exist within our own communities here in Canada that are often overlooked, as well as barriers to refugee education globally and to discuss important University responses to these needs,” says Carlaw.

The University’s two WUSC committees have a long history of sponsoring refugee students at York University (since 1987). Hanlon is proud to highlight the committee’s role. “WUSC has played an invaluable role at York University,” he says. “Thirty years of cultivating human development through the power of education is a remarkable milestone.”

Film screenings highlight refugee and migration realities

During the evening of Feb. 7, the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) will host University of Costa Rica Professor Carlos Sandoval Garcia and screen his new documentary Casa en Tierra Ajena, a film about forced migration in Central America. The film explores the dispossession process that drives migrants from their homes and argues that they are caught in a kind of trap: forced to emigrate, but impeded to immigrate to the United States.

On Feb. 8, UNICEF York U and Undergraduates of Emergency and Disaster Management (UDEM) will host the final event of the week, screening the award winning Cast from the Storm, a documentary exploring the life-changing experiences of child-refugees fleeing war and persecution. These films and all of the activities are designed to raise awareness and to spur action.

In a difficult global climate for refugees, through their actions Khemraj and her colleagues demonstrate their belief that every person can be a powerful agent of change.

“We are strongest when we stand together. That’s why Refugee Awareness Week at York University is so important to us,” says Khemraj. “Students, faculty and community members are coming together to share stories, raise awareness and be a part of something bigger than their individual selves has worldwide impact against hatred and intolerance.”

To see a list of all the week’s activities, including details on event locations, along with a list of participating student groups and University departments, visit the Refugee Awareness Week event page.