Syrian refugee crisis sparks discussion on campus


(Robert Rigo/Amherst Wire)

On Thursday, Dec. 3, the Student Union buzzed with discourse at two events: a rally and a panel that addressed both the conflict in Syria and Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to deny Syrian refugees in Massachusetts.

“Syria is the worst refugee crisis of our generation,” said Steven Heydemann, professor at Smith College.

Roughly 50 sudents attended the hour-long rally at 12:30 p.m. organized by student activists from UMass International Socialist Organization (ISO) and UMass Amherst Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) who addressed Baker’s statements regarding refugees. UMass Student Government Association (SGA) also decided to down vote a proposed resolution to Baker.

According to SJP President Emma Roberts in an interview on Nov. 30, the rally demanded a firm opposition to racism and Islamaphobia; the rejection of Governor Baker’s refusal of refugees; and a resolution by SGA to the governor regarding his position.

Attendees were encouraged to make their own signs in the lobby of the Student Union amid chants: “Don’t give in to racist fear, refugees are welcome here!” Posters and permanent markers littered the carpet beside the podium where undergraduate speakers, representatives of SJP, ISO, Coalition to End Rape Culture (CERC), and SGA, voiced their support for Syrians seeking refuge.

According to the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, on Nov. 24, the SGA down voted a resolution proposed by SGA senator Tyler O’Day condemning Governor Baker. The article reported that 72 percent of present senators voted against the letter, saying the language was unprofessional and too confrontational.

O’Day spoke at the rally and said 70 percent of UMass students disagree with Baker, according to a 500-student poll oragnized by the SGA. He encouraged interested students to come to the next SGA meeting on Monday, Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. where the resolution will be reintroduced.

“The students here do not agree with [Baker’s] Islamaphobic and xenophobic statements,” O’Day said.

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More than 100 people from the Five College area attended the panel titled “Resistance in Syria and the Ongoing Political and Human Crisis” at 4 p.m.

“We are really hoping to target Governor Baker,”  said Roberts, a junior political science major.

The panel, held in the Student Union Ballroom, explored the history of the conflict in Syria, dating back to 2011. UMass Director of Middle Eastern Studies David Mednicoff moderated the event.

The panel is part of a year-long, resistance-themed series put on by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. According to Mednicoff, it is the first of several panels planned that will examine contemporary, critical issues in the Middle East.

Basileus Zeno, a doctoral candidate in political science at the university and a graduate of the University of Damascus, gave a presentation contextualizing Syrian history before ISIS. He led the audience back in time to the start of the Syrian revolution against Bashar al-Assad in 2011. Zeno said that the current situation is a result of the interaction between four forces: political sectarian Syrian elite; regional actors in the Arab Gulf like Qatar and Saudi Arabia; grassroots organizations; and mainstream media, like Al-Jazeera.

Following Zeno was Heydemann, who spoke about the implications of supporting global humanitarianism. The professor said that the United States’ response to refugees is “nothing to be proud of,” and pointed to the millions of refugees in Turkey and Lebanon. According to Heydemann, the United States has taken in only 2,000 of those millions.

“We have to be aware of just how disingenuous the refugee debate has become in the United States,” Heydemann said, citing a three billion dollar gap in support funding for Syrian refugee needs. “This is contributing to the deaths of thousands of desperate people.”

The third speaker, Katty al-Hayek, a doctoral candidate in communication, focused on activism among and for Syrian refugees. The  University of Damascus graduate works with the Syrian Woman Association, and pointed to technology and social media as a way to generate funding, raise awareness and engage activists to make a difference for refugees.

Moving forward, UMass plans to continue to raise awareness for the Syrian refugee crisis. UMass Amnesty International and the UMass International Relations Club will host a “Stand for Syria formal fundraiser at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 6, in the Commonwealth Honors College (CHC) Event Hall. All proceeds will go to the Syrian Emergency Task Force.

Email Stephanie Murray at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @StephMurr_Jour.

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