As violence ravages Syria, the refugee flood continues. More than 11 million men, women, and children — half of the country’s pre-war population — have been killed or forced to flee since the conflict began in 2011. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has called it “the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time.”
North America, the Syrian conflict has evoked both compassion and controversy. Whereas Canada welcomed 25,000 refugees within four months, the U.S. response has been fraught with xenophobia. Following the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, 31 U.S. governors declared their opposition to accepting Syrian refugees, and the issue quickly became a lightning rod for Republican presidential candidates vying to be “tough on terrorism.”
Within the Adler community, however, students, faculty, and partner organizations in Chicago and Vancouver are rallying to empower refugees. Some work on the front lines of resettlement. Others have seized the moment to raise awareness of immigrants’ struggles. Their shared goal: social justice for one of today’s most vulnerable and marginalized populations.
Often lost in political talking points is the reality of daily life for the newly arrived.
“They usually don’t know anyone, and they don’t know the language,” says Antoine Badaoui, a student in Adler’s M.A. in Nonprofit Management program who works as a resettlement counselor with the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia. “Even if they just want to buy aspirin for a headache, they don’t know where to go or how to communicate.”
Feeling unsafe is another hurdle.
“Many of them may still carry whatever fear, whatever trauma they faced before arriving,” says Sherman Chan, Director of Family and Settlement Services at MOSAIC, a Vancouver nonprofit dedicated to immigrants and refugees. “They need to feel comfortable and be able to relate to people so they can feel safe.”
To address that need, MOSAIC and Adler are launching a joint initiative to make mental health counseling more accessible for refugees and immigrants.
“It’s a group that doesn’t often use the clinical counseling model, perhaps because they don’t know the system of service or because of lack of affordability,” Chan says.
The collaboration builds on Adler’s relationship with MOSAIC, which has hosted practicum students for many years. Badaoui echoes the need for better psychological support. “There are a lot of rules and challenges for refugees,” he says.
In hotels where many refugees are temporarily housed in Canada, management may restrict their actions, citing consideration for other guests. Refugees who frequently visit neighbors on other floors, for example, have been told to limit their elevator use. Such measures, Badaoui says, fuel social isolation and “weigh on their mental health.”
Despite such obstacles, Canada’s response to the refugee crisis has largely been held up as a model for swift resettlement.
As Mike Molloy, a retired official with the Canadian immigration department’s refugee resettlement branch told the Toronto Star: “The government inspired people rather than scared them. It’s a success in terms of the political messaging, results, and action.”
Badaoui agrees. “Canada has been welcoming on two levels: the official government and the people,” he says.
While cities like Vancouver have struggled to provide affordable housing for refugees’ large families, there is no shortage of volunteers to get them acclimated.
“As a nonprofit organization, we always have some advocacy work to do, but with this refugee crisis we didn’t have to because the government identified it as a need,” MOSAIC’s Chan says. “It really affirms the Canadian tradition of humanitarian and compassionate values.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, many fear the country has abandoned its compassion.
“In our national discussions of the Syrian refugees, fear is too often the primary driver in the policies and rhetoric,” says David Sinski, Chair of Adler’s Board of Trustees and Executive Director of Heartland Human Care Services, which serves more than 20,000 individuals annually, including many immigrants and refugees. “The fear that some tiny number might be terrorists has become an argument for shutting out all of them. … Let’s be clear: These are fellow human beings escaping war and gang violence, who have witnessed the murder of friends and family members, whose home states can offer no protection, let alone education or work opportunities.”
Losing sight of refugees’ humanity only pushes them further to the margins, says Daniel Cooper, Ph.D., Co-Director of Adler’s Institute on Social Exclusion (ISE). “The talk in this election of actual policies designed to further exclude people—policing Muslim neighborhoods, banning Muslim immigration, building a wall—is really troubling.”
To raise awareness of the outsider experience, ISE is developing a new immigrant profile for its Social Exclusion Simulation. During the simulation, participants take on an identity and experience for themselves how social structures systemically block entire groups of people from rights and opportunities.
Since its 2007 launch, nearly 2,000 people have experienced the simulation, originally based on the experiences of formerly incarcerated women. Adler researchers are now collecting qualitative data to produce an experience reflecting that of undocumented immigrants.
Such work reflects Adler University’s focus on socially responsible practice, as do its public policy programs in Chicago and Vancouver that offer unique concentrations in human rights, community health, immigration policy and practice, and social change leadership.
Trained to address the rapidly changing landscape of policy decision-making, students in these programs pursue careers that will directly shape the political environment immigrants encounter upon their arrival in North America.
Bringing people directly into the political process is another way the Adler community is empowering newcomers.
“The negative rhetoric has helped to wake up a lot of the immigrant population,” says Jessica Vasquez, M.A., Adler’s Community Project Coordinator in Chicago. “We know it’s not enough to just keep quiet.”
Vasquez oversees Adler’s partnership with Chicago Votes, a grassroots coalition to mobilize young people. As part of their Social Justice Practicum, Adler students Sara B. Vargas, Quintin R. Scotton, Kristina Martinez, and Jen Williams canvassed Chicago to register more than 300 voters among the so-called “Rising American Electorate” of individuals traditionally underrepresented at the polls: those ages 18 to 25, women, people of color, and immigrants.
“The majority of citizens who are being drastically affected by the government are not voting because they feel their voices do not matter,” says Scotton, pursuing his M.A. in Counseling: Specialization in Sport and Health Psychology at Adler. “We need to show them that we care for them by helping them to gain access to voting.”
In a political climate where immigrants are increasingly stigmatized, the power of voting is perhaps most important for those who cannot cast a ballot.
“Even if you yourself can’t vote,” Vasquez says, “that doesn’t mean you can’t engage, mobilize, and push other people to vote on the issues you believe in, and the policies that you believe will make this a better place.”
It’s a message that reflects Adler’s commitment to creating a more inclusive society for refugees and others pushed to the margins.
“I am optimistic,” says Board Chair Sinski, “about so many students preparing to tackle these issues directly through careers dedicated to social justice—to righting wrongs and to helping individuals and communities move from trauma, prejudice, and inequity to safety, hope, and stability.”