The voice of an 18-year-old refugee calling from the island of Nauru in Micronesia filled the room during a presentation on Wednesday at a forum about refugees at Stony Brook University.
The Iranian woman described living in tents and small crowded rooms, enduring taunts and physical and emotional abuse and losing hope while waiting for nearly four years to be resettled from Australia’s offshore processing center.
“We came for a better place,” said the young woman, whose name was withheld to protect her from retaliation, but “there’s no happiness, there is no future here . . . Nauru is a big prison. That is what it is for us.”
Her story was one of several meant to bring to life the struggles of refugees across the globe.
Experts, advocates and refugees lent their voices to the teach-in dialogue that sought to shed light on the plight of displaced people.
The presentations and discussions were prompted in part by the debate surrounding the recent travel ban and other immigration policies pursued by President Donald Trump.
“The travel ban was a catalyst” for event organizers to consider what they could do “to be useful” in what’s at times been a confusing debate, said Turhan Canli, a psychology and neuroscience professor and teach-in co-organizer. “There may be a lot of misperception about the threat that emanates from refugees” though they are “just regular people” escaping dire circumstances, he said.
Trump sought through an executive order issued on Jan. 27 to suspend entry for “nearly all travelers” from the Muslim-majority nations of Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen for a 90-day period, citing national security concerns. Under the edict, the United States also suspended its international refugee admissions program for 120 days, banning access from war-torn places like Syria.
But U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order halting that ban while the court considered lawsuits challenging the legality of those restrictions. A Feb. 9 ruling by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied the administration’s request to reinstate the order — leaving Trump either to continue the legal fight or revise the measure. Trump said a new executive order restricting travel and immigration is forthcoming.
Immigrant advocates and citizens joined Muslim leaders in protest, many gathering at U.S. airports to fight the restrictions that affected hundreds of travelers last month.
Stony Brook University students were caught in the middle or worried about relatives who were traveling — including Vahideh Rasekhi, a doctoral student from Iran and president of the campus’ Graduate Student Organization, who was released on Jan. 29 after being detained at Kennedy Airport for more than a day.
Those at the teach-in appeared to be moved by the firsthand accounts.
Dr. Khaled Milaji, who had come to the United States after working to help war victims in Aleppo, Syria, spoke via Skype from Istanbul, Turkey. He had to flee Syria, after he said he was imprisoned and tortured there, and was on a scholarship to Brown University. However, he’s been denied U.S. entry after a visit to the Middle East, while his pregnant wife remains in America.
“For no reason, our visas were revoked and then we were affected by the executive order,” Milaji said. “With the new administration, I don’t know if I can come back to the U.S., to my school, to my pregnant wife.”
The audience, which at one point reached about 100 people, mostly was made up of students, who also heard about the historical context for U.S. policies on immigration restrictions.
Lori Flores, a history professor, went over a long list of immigration policies meant to exclude, initially geared toward immigrants from Asia and the Middle East since the late 1800s and eventually focusing on German, Irish and Central Americans, among other immigrants, through other decades.
“From a historical perspective, these current happenings are nothing new,” Flores said. “The way in which the U.S. has treated various waves of refugees has been very inconsistent.”
Overall, speakers exhorted students to turn knowledge into action.
“It will take all of us . . . to believe in the humanity of the refugees,” said Sanaa Nadim, Stony Brook University’s Muslim chaplain.
Students said they found the talks eye-opening.
“People forget about history and how America thinks they can do these like unlawful, discriminatory acts,” said Linda Chow, 23, a senior majoring in psychology. “Some people don’t know how history is repeating itself, and they don’t know what to do about it,” but earlier struggles can serve as a guide for new generations, she said.
Jordan Helin, 33, a graduate student in history, said he walked away with a better understanding that “this has been a problem for a lot longer” than the political program of one president.
“These policies are going to keep coming back, unless we do something about it,” pushing back against injustice and putting in place “more humane policies” for the long run, he said.