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Emory students propose solutions to problems facing migrants, refugees

Emory students spoke with migrants and refugees from around the world to craft solutions to some of their challenges for an anthropology seminar about “The Migrant and Refugee Crisis,” then presented their proposals Dec. 5 to their classmates and other interested community members. Emory Photo/Video

For many college students, the growing global migrant crisis may seem a tragic but distant reality. 

But for 20 Emory students, the challenges faced by the world’s displaced peoples took on real-life dimensions this semester through an anthropology special topics seminar that found them working together with migrants and refugees across four continents.

The class, Anthropology 385: The Migrant and Refugee Crisis, nurtured an intimate, first-person understanding of issues migrants face by requiring students to talk with these people, understand their lives and needs, and propose sustainable solutions to address some of their barriers to success.

The course is taught by Isabella Alexander 16PhD, a cultural anthropologist and assistant visiting professor in the Department of Anthropology whose research focuses on the socio-political realities of transitional migration in some of the world’s most critical border regions.

In the classroom, the search for understanding meant skyping and talking with displaced migrants and refugees originally from countries such as Syria, Guinea and Afghanistan to capture unfiltered views on issues including access to health care, education and legal assistance, labor and human rights abuses, and employment discrimination.

“It’s not just about identifying and understanding the problems in our world, it’s creating solutions to them,” Alexander explains. 

That’s how Emory students found themselves in a campus conference room last week presenting enthusiastic pitches to educators and community organizers about the apps, online platforms and resources, and community programs they created in hopes of garnering both interest and support.

Instead of churning out final papers, their culminating project involves writing targeted grant proposals that could help bring it all to life.

To the students, it was a heady experience, steeped in the thrill of identifying a problem and actually doing something about it. For their professor, it was an affirming case study in the power of engaged learning. 

Making global connections 

Though she’s taught the seminar before, it’s the first time Alexander has structured it to include interactions with global community partners — migrants and refugees originally  from Colombia, Mexico, Syria, Afghanistan, Guinea and Sierra Leone now living in Morocco, France, Italy, Brazil, Canada, Lebanon and the U.S. 

“After my first class, I knew from my own experience working in migrant and refugee communities that there was still a piece missing,” Alexander recalls.

“Students were able to explore these issues, but never had the chance to talk to people living with displacement,” she says. “I wanted that connection, to help them realize we weren’t just talking about a number — some 65 million individuals. These were real people, just like them.”

Supported by an engaged learning grant from Emory’s Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, the course provided many students with their first deep dive into the topic. 

For Mikaila Schmitt, a senior majoring in anthropology, the class offered her first real exposure to immigration issues. Teamed with senior Konya Badsa and junior Sophia Dillon, the group connected with Khatera Barati, a 17-year-old North Druid Hills High School student and refugee who was resettled from Afghanistan to the U.S. with her family at the age of 14. 

Bright and funny, Barati shared frank stories of how difficult it had been to navigate adolescence and a new culture, while searching for connection and support.

“When I heard her story, her experiences and struggles coming here as a refugee, I knew that if I was in her shoes, I would want a mentor, a friend, someone to guide me,” says Badsa, a senior majoring in quantitative sciences with a concentration in biological anthropology. 

As someone who had benefited from mentors growing up, “I knew the impact that could have,” she says. “Dr. Alexander’s class gave us both the partners and the outlet to do that.”

Out of those conversations grew “Friendship Beyond Borders,” a peer mentorship program that seeks to connect refugee girls at The Global Village Project in Decatur with non-refugee girls at Atlanta’s The New School to support one another and promote cultural understanding.

Even as the Emory students were presenting their “pitch,” the project had momentum. Girls at both schools have enrolled to participate; some have already received training in cultural sensitivity. Mentors and mentees will be paired this month. 

“Our final is to apply for a grant to support the project, something I’ve never done before,” Badsa says. “But it’s exciting. Sometimes people think about doing these things, but to actually have the support and encouragement to do it is altogether another thing.” 

 “I’m someone who has always had really big dreams, but I didn’t always believe that I could make a difference,” reflects Schmitt. “Now, I know I can. I think this class empowered a lot of us to make a difference.”

Voices for change

As the daughter of African immigrants who came to the U.S. from Sierra Leone, Adama Kamara, a sophomore majoring in anthropology and international studies, was especially interested in the class.

Her eyes were opened when she learned about a slave trade of African migrants reportedly taking place in Libya. “For some people in the class, this started as a theoretical exercise,” Kamara says. “Growing up, I’d heard about other abuses, but this really touched me.” 

Her response? Kamara and fellow student Mialovena Exume, a senior majoring in anthropology and human biology and Spanish, worked with Mamadou, a Guinean asylum-seeker now living in France, to create “More Than a Migrant,” an online platform for African migrants to share their stories and report abuses.

The goal: Raise public awareness about the world’s largest migrant population while providing human rights advocates with critical first-hand information on the types, locations and frequencies of abuses on a global scale. 

And just as students grew through the experience, so did their global community partners. Many participated in classroom reading assignments along with their Emory peers, Alexander says.

“It was really special for us to forget that we're migrants or refugees for a few hours every week and just get to be college students and normal teenagers again,” says Mamadou. “We didn't know that college students in America knew about us or cared about our lives. This class has made us feel like the world is smaller and our future is a little more hopeful."

For Kamara, the experience has prepared her for next semester, when she’ll study migration issues in Geneva, Switzerland. “This class made me see that despite the fact that I’m a black woman coming from a Muslim community, I have this huge privilege of having the resources and a voice that others don’t always have,” she says. 

“And despite the things I’m going through here, there are people around the world going through things that are much worse,” she says. “That’s why I really need to use my voice.”

Other final student proposals included:

DACA Deconstructed — Anna Tellefsen and Kavelle Gosine

A platform for DACA recipients to share their stories, raise public awareness about current U.S. immigration policies and the contributions of undocumented migrants. 

Med Buddy — Alison Swanbeck and Neehal Shukla

An online database providing refugees with health literacy and information on low-cost and no-cost clinics and healthcare resources. 

Lawyers Without Borders — Gordon Hong, Kevin Delijani, and Shoba Patel

A legal aid program connecting undocumented migrants in the U.S. with law students seeking to learn more about immigration law and local firms seeking to donate pro-bono hours.

Generations of Divide — Abbe McCarter, Sarah Elmongy

An educational program and interactive classroom experience aimed at ending racism against refugee through videos on Syria and Lebanon’s unique history; led by college students in high schools around Lebanon.

Undoculinked — Lilla Sai-Halasz, Trishanne Gillings

An app providing undocumented high school students in the U.S. with information on colleges and universities open to them and connecting them to low- and no-cost application resources in their communities.

Migrating Art — Alina Li, Peter Habib

Online marketplace for migrant and refugee artists to sell their work across borders and connect with other artists.

The Migrant Action Movement — Jazmin Campos, Natalia Quezada

Anonymous platform for migrants to report abuses, providing organizations and those fighting for migrants’ rights with critical information on types, locations and frequency of abuses in the U.S. 

The Resettlement Pathway — Yasmeen Shahout

A step-by-step program providing refugees with financial literacy education and resources necessary to ease their transition over the first year in a new country.

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