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Davis, California

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Students fighting for students

JAY GELVEZON / AGGIE
JAY GELVEZON / AGGIE

UC Davis student organizations launch campaigns to benefit Syrian refugees

Most students are familiar with the typical stresses that working towards a higher-level education entails. But that stress pales in comparison to the struggles of a Syrian refugee trying to obtain an education in the face of a devastating war.

“With the Syrian refugee crisis, a major issue is that Syrian citizens who are already attending a university […] don’t have an opportunity to continue their education,” said second-year managerial economics and political science double major Luna Ascha. “These citizens have nowhere to turn to.”

Ascha is a member of Students Organize for Syria (SOS), a national organization that works to raise awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis. SOS is currently launching a campaign called Books Not Bombs across the country to advocate for the education of Syrian refugee students.

“A lot of the schools are being targeted and bombed in Syria,” said fifth-year international relations major and SOS member Derek Matthews. “[This makes it] really difficult to get an education, [especially if] you’re [a student] in a refugee camp.”

Rather than taking directly from student fees, the Books Not Bombs campaign is petitioning for UC Davis to allot ten scholarships out of the university’s usual international scholarships,and grant them to Syrian refugees who are seeking a higher education.

“We’re trying to garner awareness through this petition,” Matthews said. “We’re asking students to support the idea of bringing Syrian students to UC Davis by signing […] the petition.”

Once SOS receives enough signatures from UC Davis students, faculty or alumni, the campus chapter will draft a bill to present to ASUCD. Students will then vote on the initiative.

“Right now, we’re focusing on getting members, […] drawing the outlines of our club and working on the campaign,” Ascha said. “It’s just a matter of spreading awareness about […] Books Not Bombs.”

Currently, there are 40 universities worldwide who offer Syrian refugees the opportunity to continue their education abroad. The Books Not Bombs campaign hopes to expand this number in the near future.

“Syrians are going to need an education to help rebuild their country,” Matthews said. “They’re going to need architects, they’re going to need lawyers, they’re going to need doctors.”

JAY GELVEZON / AGGIE
JAY GELVEZON / AGGIE

SOS is not the only organization supporting the Syrian cause at UC Davis. On March 5, the UC Davis Muslim Student Association (MSA) hosted the first Annual Walk/Run for Charity, with all proceeds going to local and national Syrian refugees.

“The inspiration behind this project was […] to find a way to give back to the crisis that’s going on,” said third-year psychology major and MSA President Omar Awad.

The MSA is working with other local organizations, such as Opening Doors, to fund Syrian students who have relocated to the Sacramento area. The proceeds of the first Annual Walk/Run for Charity aim to benefit refugees in their search for housing, jobs, school enrollment and other necessities.

“We’ve been extremely blessed to have received so much support from […] student organizations […] and businesses in the downtown area,” Awad said. “We’re really grateful that people have rallied behind this cause and joined us in this process.”

Both MSA and SOS are working actively to spread awareness and gather support for their cause. In particular, SOS plans to build their chapter by hosting speakers and cultural events that will give students a better understanding of Syrian culture.

“As important as it is to focus on the issues that face the immediate community, you can’t disregard the rest of the world,” said second-year economics and philosophy double major and SOS member Ryan Abusaa. “I will fight tooth and nail on this campus to make sure people are aware of [this cause].”

As a second generation Syrian, Ascha is one of many who connect personally to this crisis.

“Having known people who have been affected by this crisis, all I want to do is be able to help them […] get back on their feet,” Ascha said.

According to Keith David Watenpaugh, historian of the Modern Middle East and UC Davis professor and director of the human rights studies department, UC Davis has been the American university at the forefront of efforts on behalf of Syrian students through the Human Rights Studies Program’s “No More Lost Generation Project.”

The project, which was done in cooperation with the Institute of International Education and the Carnegie Corporationof New York, focuses on education and protection for children affected by the Syrian crisis.

“In fact [on March 10], our work will be the focus of a special session of the national best practices in higher education meetings being held here at Davis,” Watenpaugh said in an email.

Overall, many students agree that the opportunity to receive an education is something too valuable to take away from any one individual group.

“Many […] times we take for granted the opportunity we’re given,” said second-year political science and communication double major and SOS member Tony Flores. “For many people out there […] being here at the university would be a huge blessing.”

However, SOS members are looking not only at the education crisis, but also at the larger humanitarian crisis. For this reason, the organization advocates for an open-minded view of the situation.

“[Race] shouldn’t be a barrier or a sense of divide for one person trying to help another person,” Flores said. “We’re […] a stronger world when we all try to help each other out.”

Both SOS and MSA plan to continue their fight for the Syrian refugees in the future in order to raise awareness to the cause.

“Getting people to recognize [a] common humanity […] breaks down […] barriers,” Matthews said. “It’s important that we recognize that there are people with the right to education, and the right to life, and the right to pursue their dreams just like we are.”

Written by: Allyson Tsuji – features@theaggie.org

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