Aydin Akyol

Two Yale students traveled to Berlin over spring break to meet with nongovernmental organization leaders, German citizens and Syrian refugees for an Ivy Council project.

The Ivy Council, a nonprofit organization of student leaders across all eight Ivy League schools, is spearheading a Syrian refugees project under its Global Roundtable program this semester. This program is geared toward engaging council members in discussion about global issues. As part of an eight-person team working on the project, Lelina Chang ’18 and Noora Reffat ’19 visited Berlin for four days to conduct interviews and film footage for a newsletter and video about the Syrian refugee crisis. After leaving Berlin, the students sent their videos to their team members, who will edit and compile the material by the end of the semester to present at the council’s fall conference, Chang said. The team hopes that their project will show the refugee crisis in a more personal light.

“I hope that people obtain a new perspective on the crisis through this project,” Reffat said. “We really want to highlight the resilience of the Syrian people and educate our peers on the crisis in a way that is different from the media.”

Chang and Reffat, along with a student from Dartmouth, were the only team members able to receive university funding for the trip. The Yale students received funding from Dwight Hall through an application process a little more than a week before the trip, Chang said.

She added that while they originally wanted to focus on younger refugees, child protection laws prevented them from conducting interviews with minors. Because the trip was only four days long, timing also posed a challenge, Reffat said. Chang said that by the end of the trip, the team had spoken with six or seven refugees in depth.

“We were fortunate enough to have several interviews lined up back-to-back, so a lot of the trip was spent running around Berlin meeting and speaking with people,” Reffat said. “There was very little rest to be had.”

Chang added that they were fortunate to make connections with refugees and NGO leaders through networking and word-of-mouth, and the people they spoke with were patient and informative.

She said during one interview, a man realized that he was telling details of his story he had not reflected on in years, such as his experiences on the boat that brought him out of Syria. Chang added that similar personal conversations with refugees show why it is important to learn about refugees from their experiences instead of making assumptions.

“The way the news portrays [the crisis] is very pessimistic, but people in Germany are very openhearted,” Chang said. “As much as the media is saying they don’t want refugees there, the NGO leaders were saying the opposite. It shouldn’t be a question of whether Germany can help, but how Germany can help.”

Some stories were particularly moving for the students, such as the experience of a Syrian woman who had been in Germany for two years and was well-assimilated, ambitious and outspoken, Chang said. The woman now goes to law school and told Chang that most assume she is not religious because she does not wear a hijab. She was especially passionate about disproving the stereotypes that Syrians are all Muslims and all Muslim women are oppressed, according to Chang.

A Jesuit NGO leader spoke about how refugees are not necessarily the burden to Germany that the media portrays them to be. In fact, many refugees will fill jobs in sectors and schools that would otherwise close, she said. The NGO leader said they also have a lot to teach citizens about humanitarianism, according to Chang.

“People that made it all the way to Germany are strong. They’re willing to work and they are going to help contribute to the economy,” Chang said. “Of course there will be difficulties, but there’s so much more that hasn’t been expressed.”

Footage for the video was also filmed at a nonviolent demonstration, when Syrian refugees and NGO leaders marched from the Brandenburg Gate toward the Russian Embassy, Chang said. She added that while she did not understand the chanting in Arabic, she understood that it meant a lot to the participants.

Other interviews took place at a language cafe run by Give Something Back to Berlin, an organization that works to deconstruct language barriers for refugees, Reffat said. The stories and conversations further humanized the experience, she added.

“I was really surprised to see the diversity of the people we met, both in terms of the refugees themselves and those helping them,” Reffat said. “Everyone involved was from a different walk of life and decided to get involved for different reasons, and it was really fascinating to see how this crisis has truly been a unifying force for the people of Berlin.”

The team is also working to produce a one-time newsletter that compiles 12 to 15 articles that include profiles, briefs, policy overviews and a written call for students to educate themselves about the refugee crisis and take action, Chang said. She added that she hopes the video and newsletter will educate people about the complexity of the refugee crisis and inspire them to mobilize American politicians. Harvard sophomore Hugo Yen, vice president external of the Ivy Council, said the newsletter will be published on the Ivy Council website and that he also plans to work to publish it through United Nations platforms.

Yen said he hopes that the team’s work will encourage students to empathize more with refugees and seek additional ways to offer aid.

A video and newsletter that focuses on individual narratives and experiences will make the refugee crisis more personal for students, Yen said.

“I want more people to understand what this is about and to understand that we’re not too far away,” Chang said. “Learning more about the crisis is the first step, and we shouldn’t stop there.”