Joanna Slater presents individual tales of refugees to “reaffirm” shared humanity


Almost 70 students, faculty and members of the North Adams community piled into Murdock 218 Wednesday, Feb. 8 to hear Joanna Slater, foreign correspondent for the Canadian based Globe and Mail, discuss the world’s ongoing refugee crisis.

The talk, called “On the Refugee Trail,” described a crisis that is misunderstood or misrepresented in the United States today. Refugees are often lumped into a generalized category, Slater explained, and few people take the time to see them as people trying to survive. Using a combination of statistics and the human element, Slater tried to paint a better picture of what refugees go through when emigrating or seeking amnesty abroad.

“This isn’t just a policy issue. This is a human issue,” Slater said.

Slater compared America’s record on admitting refugees, pointing out that the United States has played a “marginal role” in the accepting of refugees compared to other countries around the world. Since 2015, the US has taken in 18,000 Syrian refugees, compared to Canada’s 40,000 and Germany’s 420,000.

A chart up on screen provided the audience with a view of the two major routes that Syrian refugees take to Germany. Often refugees move from Syria, up through Turkey and across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece, where they then move north through Hungary and into Germany.

Part of the journey includes perilous boat expeditions. Slater stated that around 3,000 people drowned during the trip in 2015. However, she also pointed out that the likelihood of being killed in Syria is higher than that of drowning. One refugee, who told her as much, said, “So I will cross the sea.”

“Sometimes I feel like the way it’s talked about in the policy arena, it’s like a faceless mask of people,” Slater said. “Telling individual stories is an important way of reaffirming our common humanity.”

Slater talked about people and families that she met on the trail – people from all different walks of life but all with the same end-goal of getting away from their home to safety.

Khaled Alak was about to attend University in Aleppo when the city became a hot spot for rebel and terrorist activity. His travels found him stuck in Hungary when the country decided to halt the transportation of refugees throughout the country. When Alak finally made his way to Germany for re-settlement, he befriended an elderly German man named Max Saschowa. The two became close, and when Alak was about to be transferred to another housing facility, was invited to stay with Saschowa and his family.

Basel, Osama and Zainelabedin Omran were three brothers who had to make the trip without their parents. At one point when crossing the Mediterranean, their boat sank. They were able to make it out alive, and the next boat they took crossed over into Greece.

Syed Karim Sharif, his wife Shabnam, and their two kids, Madeena and Imraan, were stuck in Hungary at the same time as Alak, spending their time sleeping on flat pieces of cardboard under the rail station. When it seemed as though their hardships were near an end, and were allowed on a train, they were elated. That train ended up being stopped by Hungarian police, and all refugees were forced off of it. Alak, instead of following orders like the Sharifs, fled into the woods with several friends.

Dr. David Cupery, who helped organize the event, found the addition of the human element to the subject of refugee migration to be refreshing.

“In my work I look at the numbers a lot more,” Cupery said. “It’s easy to get detached from the humanity of it.”

Cupery explained that personal prejudices and biases can help people ignore statistics in a general sense. When confronted with the tale of individual, human experience, those situations can be harder to ignore.

Seniors Katie Hickey and Kate Rowell also found the talk to be refreshing, as the speaker had up-close observations and interactions with the subject.

“I thought it was pretty eye-opening,” Hickey said. “It was interesting to hear what it’s actually like [for refugees].”

Hickey was upset to hear how countries such as Hungary have attempted to resist the large influx of refugees in recent years. And she expressed concern that the United States is “becoming like that.”

Rowell explained that, even as a generally liberal person, Slater’s talk showed her why the refugee crisis is a much bigger issue than she had initially thought.

“I think it’s really striking to hear from someone who has a closer sense of what the reality was,” Rowell said.

In the question and answer portion of the talk, Slater was asked questions regarding President Trump’s Muslim Ban, and about President Obama’s halting of Iraqi refugees in 2011. The two, she said, were not the same “in any way.”

In 2011, two Iraqi refugees were convicted for taking part in terrorist attacks carried out in Iraq. As a response, the Obama administration immediately re-vetted refugees within the United States, and ordered a “slow down” on issuing visas for several months. It was, as Slater called it, “a specific response to specific events.”

President Trump’s ban, however, is not like that.

“One of the main problems with the immigration ban is it does not respond to any, specific national security threat,” Slater said.

Immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries have been turned away, or deported, since the signing of the executive order on Jan. 30. President Trump claimed it to be an issue of national security.

However, no refugee from any of the seven countries on the list has ever carried out a terrorist attack on US soil. Not to mention, Islamist radicals who have carried out attacks in America, such as Omar Mateen (Pulse Nightclub Shooting), were born in the US. Rizwan Farook (San Bernardino) was also born in America, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik was born in Pakistan – a country not on the restricted list for Trump’s executive order.

Slater stated that she is appalled by President Trump’s treatment of Syrian refugees as “Trojan Horses” for terrorism, and the conflation that makes it seem as though all refugees are terrorists. She called Trump’s refugee rhetoric “dangerous and false.”

She suggested that the first step to solving the crisis itself was to “cut the fear” out of the equation, and work to solve the problem.