why did you choose to become involved in this type of work as a summer fellow?
When I was a refugee in Egypt and Turkey, I did not have the chance to go to school with students from the country. Therefore, I found it hard to integrate in a society that refused to admit refugees and immigrants as part of it. There were no organizations which provided social services for us, and thus, I had to find my own school which did not provide the same education as they provided to local students. I had to search free online material to learn about what I was curious about, including languages, programming, maths, literature, art and history. When I started interacting with westerners in the United States and Bosnia, I found it difficult to catch up with their conversations that include a lot of cultural references. This struggle, in my opinion, is a result of the lack of mentors that I had in my life. The Summer Learning Program at IRIS provides the refugee kids with the knowledge of their new city, the sites, the opportunities and the activities that they could take advantage of in their free time. This is integral for their integration process as they learn and grow because of the mentors and educators that they meet during the summer. While I did not know that my role at IRIS will be that SLP focused, I am not glad that I am part of an organization that tackles the challenges that I had to tackle alone when I was in the refugees’ shoes.
What have you learned so far during your fellowship that you feel is important to you, either personally or professionally?
First, this is the first serious internship position I have ever had in my life. So the main thing that I learned in the summer is that I do not have to LOVE the work that I do. It cannot be ideal since it is a position to explore. I have been involved in education for the past 4 years of my life, but this is the first time I got involved in the administrative side of education. I loved it and I learned a lot from it, but I am sure it is not something that I want to work in. These are all things that I enjoy gaining as skills, but I don’t think I want to do them as career options. This summer has been great for me to explore career options and distinguish between what I can do (what I am good at) and what I want to do (What I find interesting and challenging). Personally, I never learned how to cope with comfort zones, and I think I always want to be out of them. This is why I like to always try something new, challenging and inspiring. This summer has been always about doing that and familiarizing myself with, well, myself.
What has been an impactful experience or defining moment for you as a fellow?
One of the Syrian high school students with special needs missed her bus home and because of her disability, she could not walk home on her own. One of the interns and I went to her school to pick her up and drive her home. Before doing that, we printed out a map for the mother so she can walk there in case of emergencies like this. After I explained the route to her, the mother asked me where I am from. I told her about the area I lived in near Damascus. The mother turned out to be from an area 2 miles away from where I lived and it is the same region where the Assad regime allegedly used chemical weapons in 2013. Luckily, this family and I had already left the area by then. And it is terrifying to think of any other scenario. This family has survived a war crime that is still left unpunished by the international community. And there are so many of my and her relatives and neighbors who CHOSE TO STAY but faced the most unfortunate consequences. After I finished talking to her, she asked me to wait by the door for a couple of minutes and then returned with two pieces of cookies stuffed with Ajwa, a typical Ramadan after-Iftar meal. The last time I had this type of cookies was with my family in 2012, before I left Syria. These are the moments that remind me of Syrian generosity, hospitality and love. Syria has been always a sanctuary country for many persecuted ethnic groups around the world, yet we have faced so many rejections from many countries and the Muslim ban is only the most recent of them. These are the moments that motivate me to do my work, be patient and not complain about not being able to see my family.
What have you discovered over the course of your fellowship that has been unexpected or surprising to you?
I spent a lot of time trying to think about how best I can give to the refugee community in the United States. This has been my motivation to work directly with refugees. In my time in California, I am hoping to acquire skills in organizational work: fundraising, organizing events, inviting speakers and build relationships with interfaith community based organization. The more I work with refugees along side Americans, the more I realize how motivated the people around me are. For a very long time, I thought that my Arabic or the fact that I am a refugee would make me best fit to help organize the events. I was not totally wrong, but there is also a lot of motivation an energy in the people who do not have refugee background and still want to help. I am fascinated by how much motivation these people have for the refugee cause. I wish I myself had the energy to support people who are not similar to me.