On Wednesday, Feb. 17, the Allbritton Center for Public Life and the Wesleyan Refugee Project hosted the second of three panels addressing the refugee crisis. The event had three speakers, two of whom are Syrian refugees, discuss legal, political, and social aspects of the crisis.
The first speaker was legal director and co-founder of the International Refugee Assistance Project, Steve Poellot. He began by explaining the link between the refugee experience and the law.
“I am a lawyer not a refugee…but it’s somewhat appropriate that I get to start in the sense that the refugee experience is one that is very much mediated by and structured around law and legal definitions,” Poellot said.
Poellot shared one part of the specific legal definition of a refugee.
“The law says that someone has to be outside of their home country,” Poellot said.
He continued by discussing internally displaced people, a group excluded from this definition. He emphasized that surrounding countries are closing their borders and making visas harder to obtain. This creates big problems for the internally displaced.
“They fear for persecution, but they have a tremendously difficult time leaving,” Poellot said.
According to Poellot, even after leaving their country, refugees are not always guaranteed safety. He offered the example of queer and transgender refugees, who may be residing in countries that discriminate against them.
“It can be challenging…to have more particular protection needs,” Poellot said.
Poellot discussed ways to deal with the refugee crisis. These ways included voluntary return to their country, integrating into the country they flee to, and resettlement in a third country. He stressed that resettlement was the most unlikely option for most refugees.
The second speaker was Basileus Zeno, a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Massachusetts. Zeno is also a Syrian refugee.
The first part of Zeno’s presentation was dedicated to discussing the political realities of the refugee crisis. He criticized countries such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, which continue to allocate more resources for weapons than for people.
“When you ask for funding refugees…we have a gap…when you ask for arms and weapons, [it’s] pretty flexible,” Zeno said.
The second half of Zeno’s presentation focused on his individual narrative. He shared countless stories of friends and families who were killed in Syria.
Although some of his family managed to flee Syria, they were not able to stay together. Members of his immediate family are all in different countries. Visa issues have made it even more difficult on his family.
“I can’t visit them, [and] they can’t visit me,” he said.
The final speaker was Mohammed Kadalah of the University of Connecticut (UConn) Department of Literature and the UConn Department of Cultures & Languages. He was recently granted asylum after fleeing Syria in 2011.
He dove into his narrative by describing a news story that was playing out on the Syrian government-controlled news channel.
“I looked on the news…[to see that] my hometown had declared itself an Islamic State,” Kadalah said.
Kadalah detailed his experience leaving Syria and coming to the United States. He emphasized the difficulties he faced in the United States and refuted the claim that refugees take government money.
“Here you don’t get anything,” Kadalah said. “You don’t get money from the government.”
Kadalah also shared the fear and anxiety that he experienced, knowing that his family was still in Syria. He talked about a specific incident that was particularly stressful.
“I lost contact with my family, the regime would block international calls,” Kadalah said. “I didn’t know if they were dead or alive.”
Kadalah transitioned into explaining the tone of the interview he was required to do in order to seek asylum.
“The basic narrative [is] they want to make sure you’re not a militant,” Kadalah said.
University Assistant Professor of History Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock compared Kadalah’s story to her own experience interviewing for asylum.
“I was reminded of my own interview for asylum,” Smolkin-Rothrock said. “I was a refugee from the Soviet Union, there was clearly a narrative…prompted by the interviewer.”
Director of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life and John E. Andrus Professor of Sociology Rob Rosenthal posed a question to the panel.
“Before the panel you were talking about how in Syria, if you go back 10 or 15 years, the notion of people defined by religion was fairly non-existent…could you speak a little about that?” Rosenthal asked.
Zeno responded by rejecting conventional notions of identity and explaining how violence and identity interact.
“We can’t talk about one fixed identity in any given context…they can be reconstructed and reimagined,” he said. “Violence changes how people perceive themselves.”
Kadalah responded to Rosenthal’s question by making the claim that militant groups have resources to offer people that the government is not able to. He furthered his point by explaining the role of religion in these situations.
“Whenever we have a vacuum, religion is one of the things used to fill the vacuum,” Kadalah said.
Casey Smith ’17, one of the organizers of the event, highlighted its importance.
“We talk a lot about representation at Wesleyan and bringing different narratives to the table, but we don’t often talk about citizenship and being stateless,” she said. “I think it’s generative to have these panels and have this discussions.”