Student Government hosts refugee dinner
Jenna Wilson | Wednesday, December 2, 2015
In light of the recent refugee crisis, Notre Dame Student Government held a dinner to discuss the issue and provide a forum for several refugees to share their experiences Tuesday at the Morris Inn Ballroom.
According to a Student Government email, the dinner was intended to “[bring] together refugees, students, faculty and members of the South Bend community for a night of conversation … and [focus] particularly on religious persecution as a means of forced migration. This dialogue helps students build relationships with members of the community, while learning about a global issue.”
According to the email, over 135 Notre Dame students and faculty members attended the dinner, which featured commentary from refugees from Iraq and South Sudan.
“It’s the perfect time to be having this conversation, with all the political rhetoric and the fear-mongering that we’ve been exposed to since the Paris bombing,” Barbara Szweda, former director of Notre Dame Immigration Clinic and Legal Aid Clinic, said.
Szweda, now a refugee lawyer for Catholic Charities, was the first speaker of the evening. She explained the extensive process refugees must undergo in order to gain entrance to the United States.
“A refugee is a person who because of well-founded fear of persecution [due to their] race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion … is unable or unwilling to avail themselves to the protection of the country and is unable to return,” Szweda said.
Szweda called on members of all faith traditions to accept refugees, mentioning the emphasis both Islamic and Judo-Christian traditions place on aiding and sheltering those seeking refuge.
“Refugees are among the most vulnerable people in the world. They are fleeing their homes and all that is familiar to them because of war or natural disaster. They come with absolutely nothing, some leave with just the clothes on their back,” Szweda said.
Haider, a refugee from Iraq who did not wish to share his last name, spoke of the difficulty he had when deciding to come to the United States.
“I did not have any plan to come to the United States until 2009, when I lost my wife in a car bombing. At that time, I had two kids — the youngest one was nine months old. At that point, I decided I needed to keep the rest of my family in a safe place,” he said. “I thought, if I flee out on Iraq, who is going to [make the country better]. Why am I going to make those American boys take the heavy load of making my country better, while I flee to another country. I decided to stay, until that horrible accident.”
According to Haider, there is a common misconception that refugees are only looking for government handouts.
“I just want everyone to know that refugees they are just normal people. They have jobs and have families,” he said. “My house [in Iraq] was decent, with a big garden. The house we rent now is half the size of my garden. I hear my son talking, saying ‘I remember when we used to be rich,’ and I try to explain to him, it is not important to be rich, it is important to be safe.”
Ngor Majak Anyieth, a Notre Dame junior and refugee from South Sudan, also spoke.
“I am not an expert on the topic,” Anyieth said. “I am just going to tell you about my experience with the hopes it will help you think through the crisis at hand.”
According to Anyieth, life in a refugee camp is both a struggle and a joy. He said there is an overwhelming sense of community in the camp but also challenges during everyday life, including dealing with overcrowding and food scarcities.
“My experience as a refugee started 10 years ago, when I left my home country and went to a refugee camp in Northern Kenya, where I would spend the next six years,” he said. “Now, every time I [leave Notre Dame] and go home, I go to Uganda, to the refugee camp.”
Madison King, director of communications and event coordinator for Student Government, concluded the event with a call to action.
“Take a rose outside as you leave, give that rose to your roommate or someone else that was not able to attend the dinner. Tell them something that you heard here tonight,” King said. “This will help us start the conversation around here on campus, as Notre Dame students, community members and friends of the human family.”