Study Abroad helps student understand Iraqi refugee experience

When a group of Iraqi refugees showed up at her door one evening, Emily Thompson, a Kinesiology major, was not surprised. She had invited them over. In return for helping them perfect their English skills, they would be participants in a qualitative research project she had created. Her goal in the project was to learn about their experiences as refugees -- about what it was like to be cast out from their homeland.

Thompson became interested in understanding how the current conflict impacted the people of Iraq and the surrounding countries after she and her fiance, who are both enlisted in the Marine Corps reserve, were deployed to Iraq. She heard about an opportunity to study at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and she didn’t hesitate to sign up. Egypt, she said, has one of the largest populations of Iraqi refugees.

“We always learn about ways to help out in classes,” she said, “but I got frustrated with learning how to help out. I wanted to jump right in and actually do something.”

Thompson’s research project allowed her to help refugees while learning from them. She contacted the refugees through the help of St. Andrews Refugee Services and a student she met in class, Ibrahim Nasher. Through a series of discussion groups designed to help the refugees practice their English skills, she was able to bring up topics related to the focus of her project: access to public services, such as health clinics, school and work.

In particular, Thompson was interested in access to health care facilities because she plans on attending medical school or physician assistant school after graduation. “The whole experience really opened my eyes to living conditions around the world,” she said, noting that many health clinics lacked the amenities that most U.S. health care facilities had.

Through an idea set forth in the Geneva Convention, Thompson explained, all victims of war should have equal access to public services. Her project revealed, however, that this is not always the case. In order to be eligible for public services, people need to receive official “refugee” status prior to entering Egypt. This can be done through a consulate, but Iraq does not have an Egyptian consulate. Because of this, many people have been forced to leave Iraq on a travel visa instead.

The result, she said, is that these people tend to be treated as guests rather than official refugees, and they become cut off from many areas of life. They cannot go to school, have little access to health clinics, cannot build mosques for worship, and cannot work legally, which forces them to work “under the counter” or live off savings they’d built up in Iraq.

Thompson hopes that her involvement in the project can benefit the people she met and became close with through her research. She videotaped all of her discussion groups, and right now she is compiling the footage to create a documentary. She hopes to complete it before she graduates in 2011.

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Last Updated December 15, 2009