Students raise awareness for Syrian refugees at 'Speak Out' event

A student is seen speaking during "'Speak Out' on the Syria Refugee Emergency" between Homer Babbidge Library and the Rowe Center for Undergraduate Education in Storrs, Connecticut on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. (Grant Zitomer/The Daily Campus)

Although continents away, the reverberations of the Syrian refugee crisis are affecting the entire world, and the United States, the State of Connecticut and the University of Connecticut are no exception.

On Monday, an information session and fundraiser to raise awareness and support for Syrian refugees took place in front of the Homer Babbidge Library. Multiple speakers came up and either spoke about their personal experiences with the crisis or read stories they had found from refugees.

The event was sponsored by UConn's Office of Global Affairs.

Mohammed Kadalah, a UConn graduate student getting a Ph.D. in comparative literature focusing on trauma theory and war literature in Syria, spoke at the event. His hometown in Syria was attacked twice in 2011, when he lived there, and he ultimately had to relocate on two different occasions. 

“It was hard (leaving) the first time, leaving with your own family,” Kadalah said. 

Kadalah had to endure tragedy after tragedy when living in Syria at the start of the civil war. Recounting when he had to flee the neighborhood he lived in, he said, “When you are near your hometown and you are hearing your hometown being shelled, you feel helpless. I think the helplessness here is what matters – especially when you leave your town and know that people in the town are being killed and you can do nothing about it.” 

Kadalah said that a no-fly zone is a strategy to consider, for much of the destruction in the war has been due to President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime’s jet planes dropping bombs around the country.

“Without a no fly zone, what will happen in Syria is the West can support the rebels, Russia can support Assad, but they’re not helping people to put an end to war, they’re helping people, I assume, letting the war continue,” Kadalah said.

Unfortunately, Kadalah’s story is one of many consisting of Syrians who have no other choice than to leave their homes with the hope of improved safety. Kadalah’s own experience, as well as others’ whose were read at the event, detailed loss, despair and violence.

Adam Gagnon, a fifth-semester communications major and co-creator of the UConn group Huskies for Syria, co-created the slogan – “What if it was you.” The purpose of the motto is for UConn students put themselves in the shoes of these refugees.

“Right now in lieu of the terrorist attack that happened in Paris on Friday, a lot of people have immense xenophobia and islamophobia and people are saying that Syrian refugees might be ISIS, but they’re not,” Gagnon said. They’re just regular people who have fled their homes because of a civil war that’s been going on for four years.”  

Although the refugee crisis is tremendously large in scope, with millions displaced within Syria and in surrounding countries, the Paris terrorist attacks that ISIS took credit for has made the conflict and unrest in Syria hit even closer to home.

“Everyone on campus doesn’t think about anything that doesn’t affect them, but now as the crisis is going on, the U.S. and Connecticut in specific, is accepting Syrian refugees,” Gagnon said. 

According to Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, President Obama told his administration to allow 10,000 displaced Syrians refuge in the United States within the coming year. 

“It’s becoming more of a local issue,” fifth semester communications major and co-creator of Huskies for Syria David Gates said. “People are immigrating to the United States. We talk about fear of immigration and we want people to see that these are humans. These are regular people.”

Not only is the Syrian refugee crisis becoming more relevant in the U.S. and at UConn, but the opportunities to help are increasing for students as well.

“There are a lot of events going on in the world; they have implications for us as individuals and for us as a community,” associate professor of political science and director of Middle East studies at UConn Jeremy Pressman said. “I think it’s important for us to be engaged in those issues.” 

“If we think small – this is a global problem and we are a small player – there’s a lot that we can do,” Pressman said. “This is a student body that’s energetic and has innovative ideas. It’s a question of bringing those to bear on important social issues.”

Along with Huskies for Syria, UConn’s chapter of Amnesty International on campus is engaged with the issue as well, according to Pressman.

Kadalah offered the idea that, “UConn, as an educational institute, can help refugees in the field of education.” Others mentioned using the Internet to tutor Syrian students in preparation for major exams and/or teach them English as ways UConn can help.

Through much tragedy, even Kadalah has continued to rally himself and others around him to help curb the suffering due to the Syrian crisis.

“The good thing is that Syrian people have high faith in themselves, their will, their God and that what they’re doing is right – they are standing for their human rights,” Kadalah said.


Brett Steinberg is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at brett.steinberg@uconn.edu. He tweets @OfficialBrett.