Contact CU Independent News Staff Writer Paola Fernandez-Grados at Paola.FernandezGrados@colorado.edu.
For two local university students, the shocking images of a drowned Syrian boy compelled them to take greater action in support of the Syrian refugees.
Erna Lukac, 20, a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Nadeen Ibrahim, 21, a student at the University of Colorado at Denver, knew something had to be done.
“The image, as horrible as it seems, at least is moving the entire world to stand up and address this issue as it’s happening,” Ibrahim said.
Since 2012, four million refugees have fled Syria because of conflict between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to him, as well as jihadist militants from the Islamic State. Of these refugees, only 1,854 have been admitted into the U.S. Under pressure from the U.N., President Barack Obama raised the number of people who will be given legal status in the U.S. to 10,000 this fiscal year.
Yet in Lukac’s and Ibrahim’s eyes, that number is insufficient.
A call to action
On Oct. 3, 2015, Lukac and Ibrahim gathered dozens of Syrian Americans and Syrian refugee activists on the steps of the Capitol in Denver, Colorado. Alongside 21 different ethnic and religious organizations, they urged the U.S. government to up the intake of refugees allowed into the country to 65,000 by the end of 2015. The rally included poetry reading, songs and a candlelight vigil in honor of the fallen refugees, followed by a moment of silence for all of the Syrian refugees.
Lukac and Ibrahim hope to continue shedding light on the situation and are willing to share their stories to explain why they feel compelled to fight for this cause.
“My family came [to the U.S.] with one luggage and $50,” Lukac said.
Born during the end of the Bosnian war in 1995, Lukac understands what it means to be uprooted from one’s native country. Lukac’s mother brought her to the U.S. immediately after the war. She wanted her to grow up in a place void of war and give her the chance for better opportunities. Her mother barely spoke English, had no family to lean on and lacked economic stability. But at least they were both safe.
After Lukac started reading about the Syrian refugees fleeing for similar reasons, she felt the need to give them a voice.
“Nobody willingly leaves their home, nobody tries to make their children swim across the Mediterranean unless their situation is desperate,” Lukac said. “To think that could have been me is really hurtful, and it hits home because I have so many privileges here.”
Lukac’s motivation to protest for the allowance of more refugees into the country stems from humanitarian reasons. In her eyes, it is not about politics or the economy. These are people like anyone else who is being left without a home.
“It’s about people. It’s about the children who are traumatized for seeing dead bodies [when] they’re just walking on the street,” Lukac said. “That’s really why I want to make sure people know.”
Ibrahim agrees with this sentiment, saying that the human element of the issue is usually ignored in favor of looking at the situation from a political standpoint.
“But these are human beings, and one life lost because of our negligence toward the topic is too many,” Ibrahim said.
With over 600,000 current refugees seeking asylum in Europe, the U.N. has only approved 120,000 for relocation. Like Lukac and Ibrahim, many supporters in the U.S. wish to provide a haven to the other individuals who are not accounted for.
Yet America is divided on the issue. Some feel the economic burden of such a decision will put the country at a greater disadvantage. They also feel that such an influx of immigrants will inevitably lead to letting those with terrorist ties slip by unnoticed.
The top two Republican presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, voice this opposing opinion regularly. They say the U.S. should be worried about terrorists mixing with incoming migrants.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton worries that the U.N. is not doing enough. She supports the motion to admit 65,000 refugees into the country, saying emphasis should be given to the persecuted religious minorities and those who have been brutalized, like the Yazidi women.
“I think it’s very unfortunate, because the [Republican candidates] are grouping everything as an issue of immigration where we should not open up our borders to anybody because they come from countries that are marked by extremism,” Ibrahim said.
According to an anonymous source inside the State Department, refugees undergo more background checks than any other group admitted to the U.S. These include repeated biometric verification of identity, multiple layers of biographical and background screening and in-person interviews. All of this is done by multiple agencies including the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, to name a few.
Ibrahim and her family know what it’s like to be targeted with racist remarks in regards to background and religion.
Originally from the Middle East, they came to America in search of a greater business opportunity and found it. Ibrahim and her five younger siblings were raised in Wiggins, Colorado, a town with a population of less than 900 people.
In such a small town, she recalls her family was sometimes judged for practicing its Muslim faith. During fasting, her elementary school teachers didn’t fully understand the practice, accusing her parents of making their children starve themselves.
After 9/11, things got worse for the family. They were called terrorists and were even threatened by a man with a knife.
“The way that the government responded, especially the president of the United States, they were ultimately grouping all Muslims into one pile as being very extremist,” Ibrahim said. “When they used that type of rhetoric, that’s what led to people making conclusions based on what was said.”
The global perspective
Lukac and Ibrahim understand that a big part of helping these refugees comes from resolving the issue of war at home. They wish to welcome these individuals into the U.S. with open arms, but they would also like to see global leaders come to an agreement.
The Syrian refugee crisis has been the talk of many U.N. meetings, seemingly with no clear answer. As of now, the U.N. is divided regarding how to proceed with the situation. Some EU countries, like Sweden and Germany, have acted as safe zones, embracing these individuals with a sense of compassion.
Other countries, such as Hungary, have built walls to keep refugees out. In a recent statement, Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, said that the only way to progress forward is to act together with the EU and Turkey, as well as to tackle the roots of the crisis, such as poor living conditions for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
Ibrahim hopes that the U.S. will play a bigger role in assisting the U.N. on this issue in the near future.
“The United States is a world power, [and it] needs to be starting this conversation more with the U.N. about how to address this issue, the war that is going on and how to lean toward a more human rights approach,” Ibrahim said.
As for accepting more refugees into the U.S., Lukac wishes to see every state take in refugees.
“There are some that don’t take any refugees at all,” Lukac said. “I would like for every single state to take in some of them, to have some kind of program set in for them, where they can learn English during the night and have some kind of job during the day.”
According to Ibrahim, Colorado will welcome 3,000 refugees during the next few months. Ibrahim is working together with the Muslim community in the state of Colorado to organize drives for necessary items the incoming refugees will need in their daily lives.
She is also working with New Day Syria, an organization that will host a drive to collect a semi-truck’s worth of winter clothing to ship out to Syria.
Lukac is working toward setting up a chapter of Students Organized for Syria on the CU Boulder campus, a group that stands in solidarity with the refugees and helps alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Lukac says that the association has raised $150,000 nationally for Syria and offers English tutoring programs for refugees overseas. She hopes to garner students with an interest in the issue who have the leadership skills to guide the group in a meaningful direction.
“I think college kids have the passions of an inferno,” she said. “There aren’t any ulterior motives when it’s student-run.”