Sixth annual student-led Refugee Awareness Week runs Jan. 28 to Feb. 1 at the Keele Campus

This year marks the sixth year that the student-led Refugee Awareness Week at York University’s Keele Campus will take place. Refugee Awareness Week will take place Jan. 28 to Feb. 1 and will feature keynote talks, a film screening and refugee advocacy training with leading experts in refugee and human rights.

The coalition of participating groups includes Amnesty International at York, the Centre for Refugee Studies (CRS) and its Syria Response & Refugee Initiative (SRRI), Islamic Relief at York University, RefugeAid, the Student Council of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (SCOLAPS), UNICEF at York and the World University Services of Canada (WUSC) Keele Campus committee.

Above: From left, Amnesty at York Members Cassandra DeFreitas, Shaelen Macpherson, Humaima Ashfaque and Edwar Dommar

Established in January 2014, Refugee Awareness Week grew out of an educational activity led by RefugeAid that drew interest and solidarity from several other student groups and departments from across campus. As current club President Zohra Shafiqi notes, the week “is close to our hearts at our club because it was started up by the same people who founded RefugeAid. We love that it’s an opportunity to collaborate with other clubs on campus that exist for a similar cause so that we can pool our energies and resources into one beautiful week of educational events and activities.”

Justin Mohammed, who is the human rights law and policy campaigner at Amnesty International Canada, believes the week “builds on a tradition for which students at York University – particularly those affiliated with the participating organizations – should be very proud.

“The powerful combination of education with advocacy and activism makes for a compelling program that will tackle some of the most vexing issues with respect to refugees, right here in Canada and around the world,” adds Mohammed, who will be a guest speaker and facilitator at the week’s Friday “Refugees 101 and Advocacy Training” event.

Above: SCOLAPS members Amanat Khullar and Aqsa Khalil

His assessment is echoed by the participating groups, as is the importance of recognizing refugees’ agency in difficult circumstances. Vice-Chair of SCOLAPS Amanat Khullar shares that her group “is proud to be a part of a week that recognizes the strength of refugees all around the world and sheds important light on the ongoing refugee crisis.”

Calling the number of student groups on campus engaged in refugee issues “unprecedented,” Professor Jennifer Hyndman, director of the Centre for Refugee Studies, offers one potential explanation for the high level of student engagement: “York is perhaps the most cosmopolitan campus in the world, if student status as ‘foreign-born’ or ‘child of immigrants/refugees’ is taken into consideration. We have more than 175 nationalities represented on campus, many of them with diasporic connections to the world’s war zones, past and present.”

Awareness & Engagement Fair
Monday, Jan. 28

The week begins on Monday with an Awareness & Engagement Fair in Vari Hall featuring representatives from all the coalition member groups. The fair, taking place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., provides an opportunity for York University students and community members to get involved and discuss how they can become engaged in refugee supporting work.

“We always aim to use our platform or any given opportunities to raise awareness and funds for children who are impacted by the ongoing refugee crisis across the globe,” says UNICEF at York President Tashin Rodoshi. “It is so important to advocate and engage in insightful conversation with student bodies across campus.”

Panels on Human Rights in Turkey, Yemen and the Plight of Rohingya Refugees
Jan. 29 and 30

Amnesty International at York will focus its Tuesday efforts on human rights in Turkey. The panel will take place from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. in 280N York Lanes. The panel speaker event is aimed at raising awareness of human rights violations in the country and will serve as a forum for rights defenders and refugee experts.

Beginning at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, both Islamic Relief and RefugeAid will host concurrent panels highlighting the humanitarian crises facing the Rohingya and Yemen’s populations respectively.

“This horrific conflict has resulted in an ongoing humanitarian crisis that has reached an unspeakable height and the suffering of those trapped in Yemen continues without bound,” said Aisha Saleem, vice-president of Islamic Relief at York University. The Islamic Relief panel will be held in the Senate Chamber, N940 Ross Building. Participants will discuss the ongoing humanitarian efforts and struggles of the Yemeni diaspora in Canada. “Panellists will also speak on how we can make our presence matter and do all that we can to alleviate the suffering of the 18 million people who have been left to fend for themselves,” said Saleem.

The Rohingya Refugee Crisis Panel will take place in 280N York Lanes. RefugeAid is inviting the community to learn about STAND Canada’s work on Rohingya refugees and their plight.

Centre for Refugee Studies Seminar and WUSC Keele Film Night
Jan. 31

On Thursday, Jan. 31, the Centre for Refugee Studies will host a talk by Geography Department Professor Ranu Basu. The talk, which begins at 2:30 p.m. in 280N York Lanes, is titled “Subalterity in Education within the Context of Displacement: From Ideology to Practice.” The paper Basu will present includes the argument that education and the role of schools in such a context needs to be an empowering mode of resettlement and “suggests a need for more radical interventions that move away from imperialist, neocolonial and neoliberal-reformist norms of education.”

“Awareness and education is the key to real change, which is why we will be hosting a film night,” said Areeg Bhalli, events director of the WUSC Keele Campus committee. They will screen documentaries of refugee experiences at 6 p.m. in 280N York Lanes. WUSC’s work includes providing refugee youth access to post-secondary education in Canada through private sponsorship and resettlement to Canadian university communities.

Refugees 101 and Advocacy Training event with FCJ Refugee Centre and Amnesty International Canada
Feb. 1

WUSC Keele Campus members with clothing they collected for refugee families during the Fall/Winter Clothing Drive

In part to share his gratitude for the support of York students of his centre’s efforts, including the past three years of winter clothing drives, FCJ Refugee Centre Co-Director Francisco Rico-Martinez will be one of the keynote speakers for the event titled “Refugees 101 and Advocacy Training.” The event will be held in the Senate Chamber, N940 Ross Building, starting at 2:30 p.m. Participants are asked to RSVP in advance for the session, organized by Amnesty International at York and the Centre for Refugee Studies’ Syria Response & Refugee Initiative (SRRI).

“As part of our Advocacy 101 series, the workshop will help students learn about key public policy issues and obstacles to the promotion and protection of refugees’ human rights in Canada and opportunities to work for better public policies to address them,” said Amnesty at York President Cassandra DeFreitas.

Rico-Martinez, whose own legacy includes being the first refugee to become president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, is “very pleased to participate in this important and timely session, particularly as the SRRI project at the CRS and York students have been so supportive of our centre’s work.

Francisco Rico-Martinez

Our centre’s workload has grown tremendously in the last couple of years, but so has student engagement with our centre. Without the volunteer efforts of dedicated students, especially those from York and Osgoode, we would not be able to manage the caseloads we are currently witnessing, which have nearly doubled in the last year,” adds Rico-Martinez.

He will join Amnesty Canada’s Mohammed, SRRI project lead John Carlaw, and student ambassador Humaima Ashfaque and DeFreitas in leading the session. He is “excited to share our centre’s approach to social justice and advocacy, something that our centre and the many York students that volunteer with us have discovered together.

“Our priorities emerge from the work we and the students do every day walking with uprooted people,” he added. “It is from this work we discover the systemic issues that we need to address, such as access to health care and housing, and the need for refugee system funding and reforms.”

John Carlaw

As the SRRI project lead, Carlaw, who has supported the groups organizing the week, will deliver the “Refugees 101” part of the event to familiarize students with some of the basic policy context around refugee protection in Canada. He said he is honoured to have been involved in supporting the week on behalf of the Centre for Refugee Studies though SRRI, which is supported by the Office of the Provost & Vice-President Academic.

“It has been incredibly rewarding to work alongside these outstanding student leaders for the last four years. They have made Refugee Awareness Week truly one of the highlights of the university calendar in this field. It really shows what our students are capable of,” said Carlaw.

“We, at the Centre for Refugee Studies and all of the student groups, are thrilled to be welcoming such amazing speakers and resource persons to campus throughout the week,” he adds.

The full calendar of Refugee Awareness Week events can be seen on the event page.