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Journalist speaks on religious diversity, refugees in the Middle East

| Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Hesburgh Center of International Studies hosted Stephanie Saldaña for a guest lecture titled “The Heart is a Country: Lessons on Hope, Compassion, and Our Common Humanity from Syrian and Iraqi Refugees” on Monday afternoon.

Saldaña is a journalist and teacher who specializes in the topic of religious diversity in the Middle East. Through sharing stories of people she met on her travels throughout the turbulent region, she spoke of the human aspect of the great migration crisis. 

“Some of the greatest lessons I have learned from the displaced and I want to share some of those today,” Saldaña said.

Due to the violence of the region, many culturally significant monuments were destroyed from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths alike, she said. 

“I know the most important heritage is not contained in stone, but in human beings,” Saldaña said.

Saldaña then brought attention to the statistics of the widespread displacement in the Middle East. She said over 70.8 million people were forced out of their homes, and 25.9 million people were forced out of their countries. Half of those who were forced out of their country were under 18 years old, she said. 

Saldaña said she traveled and lived in the Middle East to study the displacement on a more human level.

“I was interested in these communities, so I went to Jordan to find them,” she said.

Saldaña spoke of a wide variety of people she met during her time ranging from a professional musician to a talented political cartoonist. 

“We often forget that refugees are everyone, they are mothers and fathers and chefs and artists and doctors and scientists,” Saldaña said. 

She said a woman named Hannah was particularly helpful in her understanding of the migrants’ strife. This woman, after losing her home and her country, decided she would not lose her culture as well, and took action to prevent this from happening.

“It took meeting Hannah to understand that when we are talking about 70.8 million people, we are talking about 70.8 million people that count,” Saldaña said. “She taught me the depth and fullness of each person and what’s at stake in human life.”  

Despite being put through incredibly horrible circumstances, many of the people she interviewed maintained hope and kept their culture alive, Saldaña said. 

“All of us have something inside of us that can’t be taken away and our job as storytellers is to bring that out, to notice it,” Saldaña said.

Saldaña said not all of the people she focused on had their moments of triumph, however. This was certainly not the case of a grandfather and his grandson who were forced apart due to the grandfather lacking required paperwork. 

“How can we not bond our hearts to theirs. … All of us are displaced, all of us are just looking to belong,” she said.

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