Higley Auditorium was transformed into a landscape of compelling global discussions and moving storytelling as part of Friday night’s panel called “Migration, Youth, and Higher Education.”
The two-part event was sponsored and organized by Dr. Taku Suzuki as an extension of his “Migration and Citizenship” course and Dr. Joanna Grabski, Denison’s Director for the GLCA Global Crossroads Grand Challenge Initiative.
As part of this initiative, students and professors from Allegheny and Kenyon College were able to attend and participate in the event, which President Adam Weinberg noted was indicative of the “strong alliance and engagement that the liberal arts supports.”
The panel itself was split into two sections, the first covering perspectives of refugee community leaders on resettlement in the U.S., and the second engaging perspectives of students on their experiences in higher education as a refugee or migrant.
During the first panel, Columbus’ vibrant history with refugee and resettled communities was demonstrated firsthand by the stories and accounts of the speakers. Moderated by Dr. Binaya Subedi of the department of teaching and learning at Ohio State University, students heard stories from both the Bhutanese-Nepali and Somali communities located in central Ohio.
Moderated by Dr. Binaya Subedi of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Ohio State University, students heard stories from both the Bhutanese-Nepali and Somali communities located in central Ohio.
Jibril Mohamed, executive director of the Somali Community Action Network, spoke of his experience as a “double-displaced” refugee from Somalia and the incredible journey by which he leveraged higher education in Kenya to move on from resettlement camps and eventually move to the U.S.
Mohamed elaborated on the challenges that many young resettled persons have when transitioning to life in the U.S., especially in pursuits for achieving higher education.
As immigrants are one of the groups with an increasingly high dropout rate for high school students, Mohamed noted that it can be extremely stressful for young people to continually adjust to an entirely new lifestyle in the U.S., especially in education. When assumptions such as times of the day and other seemingly small tokens of everyday life are thrust upon students from teachers and fellow students with little time to adjust, the consequences can be detrimental.
Mohamed added that one of the greatest challenges that refugee communities face is that upon arrival to the U.S., children are placed in classes according to their age, not their academic proficiency. As he notes from his own experiences of teaching classes of more than 300 students in refugee camps, children are rarely able to hear lectures when they are available, let alone engage and grow in their academics.
These discourses were mirrored by Bhutanese-Nepali refugees Sudarshan Pyakurel, executive director of the Bhutanese Nepali Community of Columbus, and Laxmi Rizal of the Columbus City Schools (CCS). Rizal, who had taught in CCS and well as in Kansas, had spoken about the challenges that young people face in carrying the burden of paying bills, talking to lawyers and taking over the tasks traditionally performed by parents. Subedi commented that he had once had a 30-minute conversation with a 12-year-old refugee child about the immense pile of legal and logistical material that she had the responsibility of completing because her parents had no working literacy or verbal English skills.
Transitioning from the first panel to the second, refugee community leaders were replaced by students, including Hari Adhikari of OSU’s Bhutanese American Student Organization, Danielle Kepeden ‘18 of Denison’s African Student Association, and Trixie Cortes ‘18 of Denison’s Asian American Association. Adhikari, who moved to the U.S. after living in a Nepali refugee camp, shared the story of his journey to higher education at OSU. He said that the transition was very difficult initially and that his family was given no direction as to what school to choose or what classes to take after being dropped off to their new home in Tuscon, Arizona.
Adhikari’s experiences differed from Cortes, who immigrated to Chicago at the age of 10 from the Phillipines. For her, hearing Adhikari’s story “highlighted the differences of refugee and immigrant arrivals in the US. [Cortes and her family] were fortunate enough to move this country because of a job opportunity to a city that [her] parents well researched.”
However, regardless of the nature of their move to the U.S., all three panelists said that the transition process was a challenge, including the unique and sometimes isolating culture it entails.
One reflection that Kepeden had about making the transition easier for future migrant and displaced youth is to remember their stories. As she puts it, “as immigrants, it’s incredibly important to remember our history, our traditions, our roots. In Cameroon we were mostly taught about the other and superficially about ourselves, and it’s sometimes a pattern in colonized nations. Learning about your past can only help you build a better future and a better sense of self.”
The panelists also agreed that youth can better transition to communities in the U.S., especially in regard to higher education by having the larger community reach out and learn more about their culture and stories. For the Denison community, Cortes said that “the best thing we as students could do is listen and share stories and support each other. There’s nothing more humbling than listening to people’s struggles and checking yourself about the privileges you’ve had.”
With over 60 people in attendance, the panel was an engaged, compelling and successful event for all in attendance. For Suzuki, this event also could not have had better timing.“We have all been hearing the highly politicized discourse of ‘refugees’ and ‘immigrants’ during the presidential campaigns, in which the everyday realities of immigrants and refugees are overlooked, and the people were turned into caricatures,” Suzuki said.“I hope that the students and faculty members in attendance came away with the renewed realization that refugees and immigrants do not exist in an abstract discourse, but in fact live among us here on college campuses and surrounding communities.”