In Depth: Wesleyan Refugee Project (Part 2)

Members of the Wesleyan Refugee Project

Libby Salzman-Fiske ’19, Caroline Kravitz ’19, and Sahar Shaikh ’17

Note: The information found in this feature was recorded in early to mid-February. Immigration and refugee policies in the United States are still in flux under the Trump administration, and the exact details regarding immigration laws and their enforcement may have changed since these interviews were conducted.

Since the Wesleyan Refugee Project (WRP) was founded in the Fall 2015, the volunteer organization has been hard at work in their contributions to resettlement programs, legal aid, tutoring services, and fundraising events. We spoke to one of the group’s founders, Casey Smith ’17, last September. Since then, it’s become even more difficult for refugees to enter the United States under Trump’s new immigration policies, and the future for refugee resettlement in the US is uncertain.

This semester, I spoke to several different members of the WRP, all in different leadership positions. I asked each of them how they got involved with WRP, what the group is focusing on this semester, and how other students can volunteer and participate. Read their stories after the jump:

Julia Morrison ’17 – Direct Service Coordinator, IRIS

“I joined the WRP at the beginning of fall semester in 2015, just as it was getting started on campus. I had spent the end of my summer in Germany visiting a friend whose father was a refugee lawyer, and he had powerfully conveyed to me the real immediacy of the crisis. When I returned home, it became clear that the most powerful way I could invest my time was through WRP.

I’m involved with several aspects of the project, but I spend most of my time working as the Direct Service Coordinator for our Wesleyan volunteer partnership with an organization called IRIS, Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, in New Haven. Two to three times a week, several Wes students travel to New Haven and assist refugees in filling out Energy Assistance applications, which help them receive money for heating and electricity through the local Community Action office.

The work is incredibly meaningful, and it’s also very rewarding to see the immediate, practical results of our work. I feel so lucky to be involved with WRP because it is such a high-functioning and well-organized group, and I’m really looking forward to spending more time at IRIS this semester.”

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Sahar Shaikh ’17 – Advocacy/Civil Engagement Leader

“I got involved with WRP their first semester, so last fall. I do advocacy and civic engagement with Libby and Yael. And there’s a lot going on, obviously, right now. We’ve already had two pretty big events: advocacy training with two lawyers, and we organized a Run For Refugees with IRIS. I know we’re trying to be more political this semester as well, and trying to get people involved with some of the more policy-driven aspects.

In high school I was the president of our diversity club, and I was one of the only Muslims as well. So when I got to college, I was always thinking of ways I could continue doing that type of work, and continue doing outreach and things like that. I used to talk about Islamophobia and the refugee crisis a lot in high school, and I liked the fact that [through WRP] I could do it again in college. I interned as the education intern for IRIS last semester here, in New Haven. I’ve just gotten progressively more involved.”

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Libby Salzman-Fiske ’19 – Advocacy/Civic Engagement Leader

“We definitely want to be involved in the political side of what’s going on, but also this semester, we have a few projects we’re working on which are really exciting, that kind of reach out to the community more. So one thing that we’re gearing up for in April is Genocide Awareness Month. There’s this movie called The Good Lie, and we’re going to be going to different elementary schools and community centers and high schools and whatnot around Connecticut, and having movie screenings, and just having conversations with younger students. Just kind of talking about these things.

One thing that’s been really noticeable for me since the election is, with the refugee advocacy training we had the other night, and the huge turnout we had, it’s like everyone just wants to help and be involved somehow. More noticeably so than before. We’re also having this photographer come in the spring and having a photography show on campus. She did her work in Boise, Idaho, with a resettlement area.

In high school, I had a really great history teacher, who was really into spreading human rights awareness. And my mom and family members do a lot of volunteering in my hometown. I didn’t start at WRP until second semester last year, my freshman year. And I remember going to the first meeting and thinking, ‘Oh, this is really cool,’ but I think activism and advocacy in general can be kind of intimidated. Like, how much could I do that could really help?

But seeing that this group has only been around a year and a half, started by students, it’s really inspiring. And I just kind of jumped in. I helped with IRAP (International Refugee Assistance Project) last year, which was really exciting because I was dealing with these actual legal cases as an early college student. It’s just a really good platform for people who want to help out.”

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Cheryl Hagan ’17 – Manager, Paper Airplanes

“I came to WRP after I came back from my study abroad in Istanbul, Turkey, where I witnessed first hand the lack of resources Syrian refugees experienced. I did IRAP, fundraising and started tutoring for paper airplanes. I’m now the manager of Paper Airplanes, which I decided to do because as a refugee myself who had to learn English, I wanted to help another refugee through this process. It’s been really wonderful getting to know my student.”

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Caroline Kravitz ’19 – Fundraising/Financial Manager

“For fundraising, we’re doing what we’ve been doing, in the sense that we’re trying to raise money for organizations that are both local and for ones that are working internationally, and are in a lot of the countries that are affected by what’s been happening since the election, but have also been affected for a much longer time. And these are organizations like the Karam Foundation and the Jusoor-Amal Foundation, that try to make education accessible to people who have been displaced, or IRAP, which provides refugees with legal aid. We also fundraise locally for IRIS and the Middletown Refugee Coalition.

We have a lot of events going on, and it’s really cool because I think it’s bringing a lot of campus organizations together, to combine all their efforts and resources. There’s been a lot of ‘What should we do to help?’, asking us to direct them to organizations that need help. So particularly after the election, I think we were directing groups to organizations like IRAP, and others that were providing legal support for refugees.

I got involved somewhat randomly, but I saw that the group had started last year, and it was an issue I didn’t know a lot about. And I was like, ‘I think the best way I can learn more about this is by just getting involved in this organization.’ I think that’s the most important thing that I’ve taken away from WRP, is that the best way to learn about these issues is from acting, and from getting involved in organizations who are taking action. And I think people get intimidated, thinking about these issues. You read so much about them, and you hear so much about them, and they seem so big, but it’s important to overcome that intimidation and just start taking action. That’s the best way to learn about it, and the best way to start making change.”

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Helena Awad ’16 – IRAP Volunteer Coordinator

“Basically what IRAP does is, they represent refugees legally, and also help them with their recent applications. And so because we’re not lawyers or anything, what we do primarily is we help IRAP gather information that IRAP can use to help resettle refugees. And Wesleyan IRAP, we work primarily with Afghan refugees and Iraqi refugees.

The clients that IRAP represents are former employees of the US government in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are a lot of linguists and translators. And also people who worked for contracting companies. And so part of the application is kind of like a recommendation letter, vouching for their previous employment, because the government really wants to make sure that they’re ‘trustworthy,’ that they were working for the US. But sometimes, it’s hard for the clients to get that letter of recommendation. So we have to do a little bit of research, and maybe reach out to some of their former supervisors for them.

My dad’s from Lebanon. I went to Lebanon in summer of 2013, and that’s when the Syrian refugee crisis was definitely underway, but that’s really before it was getting a lot of media attention, and before it was such a global issue. But at that point, in Lebanon, there were about one million refugees, so they were reaching their capacity in how many refugees they could hold. I think there are just over a million refugees there now. But right outside the town where my dad grew up, there was a Syrian refugee camp, and it was literally just shelters put together with pieces of tin and old tires and fabric. We would drive past it every day. And so, just seeing that first-hand had a large effect on me, and I wanted to get involved.”

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Yael Fisher ’18 – Advocacy/Civic Engagement Leader

“I think that advocacy is a very broad term, and it can encompass a lot of things and mean a lot of things. The best thing about the advocacy team is that it’s really a space for people to come, and be able to have the resources to actualize their ideas of the ways that they want to impact, like, positively impact refugee issues, in the area and on campus.

Also in general, people are like, ‘Oh, we want to raise money for you.’ We’re more of, in my mind, like a body that organizes students who are interested in this topic to volunteer in whatever way they feel like they can contribute most. We ourselves are not working directly. WRP itself is not helping individual refugees. We’re organizing a bunch of different ways to volunteer and help refugees.

I felt like it’s an issue that refugee rights, and resettlement conditions, and how we relate to refugees, as American college students, is a really fraught and complicated issue, but also really important. And a lot of people think of it as an issue that’s too big for someone on a college campus in Middletown to deal with. So it was really appealing to find a way to help people on campus engage in an effective way.”

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Casey Smith ’17 – Founder

“We are really hoping to work a lot with Imam Sami in the Office of Muslim Life here, and be working on issues in Connecticut that affect the Muslim community and the refugee community in intersecting ways. And so hoping to do more events on Islamophobia on campus, and kind of look at how that intersects with the work that we do in the community as well. And then, again, trying to get off campus as much as we can, is one thing we’ve been talking about a lot.

I worked with refugees in North Carolina in high school, so I worked with some similar efforts with tutoring in the community and stuff, working with the resettlement agency in North Carolina. So that was kind of what motivated me to get involved with IRIS and do work with WRP.

When we started WRP, now almost two years ago, the original plan was not to do anything advocacy-related. We hoped that we would do that kind of thing eventually, but the original plan was really just to get five volunteers to go to IRIS every week. I was interning at IRIS, and we were like, ‘Okay, we can just bring a van of Wesleyan volunteers, and that would be great.’ And then what happened was, a lot of students just brought a ton of energy. I think every semester, WRP is just what people in the community make of it, because we get so many wonderful requests from program houses and other student groups, and just individual people who want to organize an event or have us direct them to organizations they can work with. And that’s our model, I guess. We’re always really excited by what people bring to the group, and what different ways they intersect with this issue, and what wonderful ideas and skills they have to contribute.”

You can learn more about the Wesleyan Refugee Project on their website.