On Friday, October 12th, the Yale Globalist, an undergraduate magazine of international affairs, brought together a panel of speakers to discuss their experiences with refugee rights and policy in the United States. The event was held in collaboration with the Yale Refugee Project, a student group that provides direct assistance and advocacy for refugees settled in New Haven, as well as Yale UNICEF, an undergraduate organization that works to raise awareness for children’s issues.
The panel consisted of Mariana Olaizola, a third-year Yale Law Student, Dr. Zareena Grewal, an Associate Professor of American Studies at Yale, and Chris George, the Executive Director of the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven. The panelists spoke about how they have worked with refugees in their respective careers, why refugees are perceived the way they are in the US, and how the US government facilitates this perception of refugees.
While introducing herself, Olaizola spoke about her experience living in Myanmar with a stateless population, the Rohingya Muslims. As a Polish, Venezuelan, and now naturalized American citizen, Olaizola was shocked to see that a government could strip a people of their identity: “It was my first time encountering a population that was denied nationality,” she said. Now, Olaizola works with asylum seekers in places ranging from Somalia to Louisiana.
Likewise, Dr. Grewal’s experience with refugees has also been a first-hand one. In 2017, Professor Grewal took 18 students from her class “Narrating the Lives of Refugees” to an international refugee camp in Greece. To Professor Grewal, it was crucial to impact the lives of not just the student, but also the refugee. She mentioned how the refugees living in the Moria Refugee Camp in Lesbos would say: “We are underground. We are buried alive here.” Despite refugees leaving everything behind in the search for a better future, they were still met with poor treatment in their host country.
In comparison to Olaizola and Dr. Grewal, George’s experience with refugees has been vastly different, as he has worked with the US government in the effort to resettle refugees. According to George, the process begins with 85,000 refugees who are allocated to 1 of 9 national organizations, and then to 1 of roughly 200 smaller organizations. IRIS is one of these smaller organizations, and, as George describes it, it all begins with one email. After establishing contact by email, IRIS staff scramble to find an apartment, ask for donated furniture, cook 2-3 days worth of food, and obtain used winter coats. As George puts it, “I don’t know why it always seems cold when we meet refugees.”
After this, the refugee family must experience a “demanding, bootstrap self-help struggle.” Much is demanded of them: they are asked to get a job, enroll their children in school, learn English, and make ends meet. The refugee resettlement programs are modestly funded. And even though organizations like IRIS do a great job at resettling refugees, Americans have not been engaged with refugee resettlement in a consistent and national manner. As George pointed out, President Trump was able to scapegoat people he knew no one would rise to defend. How many people would come out and say, “My children go to school with a refugee,” or “I helped a refugee get a job?”
The panelists shared more insightful comments through a Question & Answer session, in which Aastha KC, Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Globalist, asked how we can re-conceptualize the narration of the lives of refugees. In response, Professor Grewal emphasized that we must stop thinking of refugees as guests. We must “move from hospitality to human rights” as we are not simply being hospitable to refugees when we help provide them with their basic human rights. George followed up by adding that at the heart of any resettlement program is empathy. We have been pushed into a corner and have been forced to justify accepting refugees by pointing out their economic value. However, we should not have to. It’s our humanitarian imperative to help refugees, and any potential economic value is just the gravy on top.