Vietnam refugee Mary Truong remembers well the hardships she faced as a 14-year-old leaving everything behind to travel to the U.S. by boat. In particular, she recalls the time her father told her to swallow her spit to cope with excruciating thirst during the harrowing journey.
For Iraqi refugee Rasha, the moment she received the coveted I-94 stands out. The form allowed legal passage into the U.S. for Rasha, who had spent years drifting from country to country—from her home country of Iraq, and then Syria, where the civil war forced her to move again to Lebanon.
Abdi, a 19-year-old from Somalia, waited for years before receiving approval to enter the U.S. as a refugee at a camp in Kenya. He embraces his new home in the U.S., although he admits the cold weather was a shock to him.
Abdi, Rasha and Truong shared their stories with more than 100 people gathered in Hindle Auditorium on February 24, a Friday night. The refugees not only shared vivid details about their individual ordeals but also fielded questions on what they miss about their native countries, adjusting to U.S. life, how the media portrays international conflicts, and how best to advocate for refugees.
The panel was the capstone project of sophomores from the Global Leadership Development Group (GLD), a student organization advised by President Dennis M. Hanno and professors Gail Sahar and Aubrey Westfall. In early February, GLD also hosted a photo exhibit featuring photographer Becky Field and her images of refugees and immigrants living in New Hampshire.
This is the second year of the GLD; currently, there are two groups of students—freshmen and sophomores. In addition to domestic students, GLD students are an international group hailing from countries including Bahrain, China, France, Greece, India, Somalia, South Africa, Swaziland, Switzerland and Turkey.
“The goal of the GLD is to make people more aware about global issues that concern all of us, and to sensitize the community, so that they take action,” said Nefeli Batistatou ’19, a biochemistry major from Greece.
Batistatou was one of the first members of GLD. She and several others were invited to participate in GLD by President Hanno before she enrolled at Wheaton.
Sahar said GLD engages the rising number of international students attending Wheaton.
“Bringing international students to Wheaton isn’t enough; you have to help the general population see what their issues are. Also, it helps international students to see how committed we are to global issues,” Sahar said.
Beginning in fall 2015, during their freshman year, the first cohort of GLD students convened monthly in the Presidents’ House, where they met with various administrative staff, including the provost, dean of students and advisors from the Filene Center. In spring 2016, they chose an area of focus for their mission to spread global awareness on campus.
“We all collectively and holistically agreed that the refugee issue was one of the most pressing issues, on which we unanimously wanted to have an impact,” said GLD member Thomas Fenu ’19, an international relations major with an interest in Asian international politics and human rights issues.
The group contacted Professor Westfall, an expert on refugee migration, to serve as its advisor. In October 2016, three students and the advisors arranged a meeting with Truong, the Vietnam refugee who now serves as director of the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants, to hear more about the office’s function and needs.
Truong assembled her staff to share with the GLD the resettlement process for refugees.
“Meeting with Mary is one of the most endearing memories I have of this experience up until now. Her warmth, kindness and humor are as impressive as the good her organization does for refugees. She was just so excited to meet us and be able to help us in this venture,” Fenu said.
Following the meeting, GLD decided to host a refugee panel, as “it might speak more to students than an academic presentation,” explained Sahar. The students worked with Truong, who identified refugees willing to share their stories, and coordinated all aspects of the event—from finding a venue to publicity. Fenu served as the panel moderator.
“The students have pretty much taken this on, and we have left it to them to organize and coordinate and put the pieces together,” Westfall said.
The event attracted a wide range of administrators and students, and there was no shortage of questions from students during the question-and-answer session.
Hearing the stories from the refugees themselves was extremely impactful, Batistatou said.
“The fact that they probably will never return to their home countries made me really emotional. As an international student, there are times that I really miss my home country, but at least I know I can go back. I imagine it is really hard to know that you will never be able to return to the country of your childhood,” she said.
Fenu called the discussion a great learning experience for everyone.
“The near-death experiences that every one of the panelists have been through, and how stoic they seemed when telling us those stories, moved and surprised me. I have hardly ever been exposed to death, and integrating it in your daily existence is something I still cannot quite fathom,” he said.
Next year, this first wave of GLD students will study abroad while others will serve as mentors to the next group of students—who will identify their own global focus. The leadership skills they have developed as part of the group will continue on.
“As part of GLD, I’ve developed leadership skills and organizational skills. I knew I potentially had them, but through GLD I had the chance to actually practice and put them into effect,” Batistatou said.
For Fenu, involvement in GLD has become a part of his daily life.
“From this group, I have considerably increased my capacity to work as part of a group, to dare and be creative, and to be thoughtful,” he said.