Schreyer Scholars hear firsthand stories from refugees

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Nearly a dozen Penn State students visited with refugees from several countries during a recent trip to Harrisburg and Lancaster as part of a Distinguished Honors Faculty Program (DHFP).

Dana Naughton, the director of the University’s Global Health Minor program, accompanied the students on the trip, which was designed to broaden students’ perspectives about domestic health issues across various populations.

“When students are thinking global health, they’re thinking Zika, malaria, Ebola,” she said. “I really wanted to bring their attention to what happens here in the United States.”

The students visited a church in Lancaster that housed a section of Church World Services, a nonprofit organization which provides refugee assistance, and a medical clinic in Harrisburg, where they met and spoke with refugees through an interpreter. On the drive from State College, they discussed what distinguishes a refugee from an asylum seeker, an immigrant or an internally displaced person.

Naughton, who previously worked at an international social-work agency and served as a therapist for refugees and asylum seekers, had wanted to raise awareness of refugees when she scheduled the trip more than a year ago. By the time the students made the visit in late February, the topic was very much in the news after U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that temporarily suspended the United States’ Syrian refugees program.

Still, what the students learned during the program opened some eyes.

“Refugees receive very little support from the government itself,” said Penn State senior and Schreyer Honors Scholar Miranda Holmes. “It’s these nonprofits that really take the bulk of responsibility for the refugees or asylum-seekers. There aren’t enough resources in our country that go toward them, in my opinion. They are fleeing their country for life-or-death situations. They come here and it’s even remarkable that they come here.”

Church World Services is one of nine voluntary agencies that is permitted to bring refugees into the U.S. It helps decide where the refugees will live and determines possible work opportunities once they arrive.

“The students got that understanding and background of what makes a person a refugee,” Naughton said. “What did they have to flee, what do they have to substantiate, who interviews them, how long does that process go on, who was involved?”

In Harrisburg, the students met with medical school students and Penn State alumna Shakila Shah, who is the Refugee Health Promotion Educator at the Pennsylvania Department of Health. They also visited a local market, where they met refugee women from Syria and Somalia.

“We asked really personal questions, like ‘Who did you leave behind in your country?’” Holmes said. “One woman teared up when she said she didn’t know where her mom is and was unable to contact her.”

Holmes, who will graduate this spring with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting and drawing, heard about the DHFP opportunity from a friend and, on the heels of the first proposed travel ban, had a desire to educate herself about refugees and what she could do to help.

“My friends were concerned about this growing feeling of estranging others who don’t look like us,” she said. “I think a lot of millennials are trying to fight that.”

Holmes said she was struck by the gratefulness of the refugees, some of whom held highly esteemed professions in their home countries, despite what little they currently have. She believes it is a “moral obligation” to address the plights of people who are leaving their countries for life-or-death reasons.

“It was a hard day,” Holmes said, “but it was really important.”

Last Updated April 21, 2017