On a final Note…

It’s not uncommon to hear of a college student studying abroad. I have met so many individuals that study abroad and take art or engineering classes to further their degree while gaining worldly experience. However, I would not say a typical study abroad experience would include meeting with refugees to record their stories digitally. I have noted in previous posts, that I went to Germany with excitement and curiosity. I had no idea what exactly I was going to experience.
What I would continue to experience would alter my world and transform my momental curiosity into something that will be long-lasting. It was spark an interest in myself and gave me a deeper perspective into myself, my peers, those I’d meet, and the world around me. I could take away from this trip a sense of purpose.
Prior to this trip, I had not specifically known what I wanted to do with my degree in communications. I juggled several thoughts and ideas of how I could you my set of tools. Some were lacked purpose, while others would include working with a non-profit. I left for Germany deciding to not worry about it, thinking it will come to me accordingly. Sure enough, while studying in Darmstadt, the organic process began. After spending times with refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, asking them questions, hearing their stories, and trying to understanding what it is like to live a life outside of my own. 
These experiences have lead me towards a path of advocacy. I would like to work with others on a interpersonal level and help to continue to share their stories. To help be a platform for those voices and project their experiences and perspectives. I want to continue amplify the importance of story-telling and why it is vital to eliminate violence and instead promote peace and understanding.
Not only has this trip helped meto unveil a path to my future in terms of a profession, but also that of travel and asking questions. While I’m Germany, it became clear to me that people are afraid to ask questions. Maybe it is out of fear of offense, maybe it is out of social anxiety, or even fearing their honest response. But asking questions is the best way to learn. It’s an honest curiosity and I learned how vital it is to push boundaries respectfully. By doing so, I have learned so much about the world and the people I met. As a result, I gained a great insight about the refugee crisis, what it means to be a refugee, and even created intimate friendships with these people. 
I never want to stop traveling, meeting people, hearing their stories, or sharing mine. This trip to Germany was merely a chapter to a book that has yet to be written. What I took away from this journey was one of both personal growth and a better understanding of the world around me.


Redefining a Refugee Crisis Through the Means of Social Media: Part II


While in Syria, people are viewing and analyzing information from a threatening or anxious perspective, they are using social media to share awareness, stories, and information about the crisis. Murray E. Jannex would explain in his book, Implementing Social Media in Crisis Response Using Knowledge Management, how social media and wiki’s in particular, are a reliable resource to turn to in times of crisis, “Wikis are excellent or collaborative authoring and storage, organization, and dissemination of document, process, and solutions.” (222) They use it as a tool to help protect one another and share information about attacks. Some of this information includes where recent attacks were, who they were from, even who died in the attacks. In a prior interview on this blog, written by Jackie Barba, Ahmad Dallal, expressed that a friend’s death was confirmed via Facebook, “I lost a friend. He died from a rocket that came from the sky, and I don’t know where it came from, because nobody ever knows. He was just walking down the street and he died. I heard ‘Mohammad is dead,’ and then I saw the photos on Facebook.” (digital-refuge.com) To help share what exactly it is like to live in a city filled with terrorism and shed light to the root of the displacement, people will post graphic photos and videos to Facebook and YouTube, even though they could encounter a death penalty from the regime. Ahmad would explain later in the interview that the photos and videos, that they could be so graphic that it may portray a mangled body that is completely unrecognizable. Ahmad would explain in the same interview, that it is through this videos, while graphic and disturbing, it tells the truth of what is happening in Syria. It shares a picture that is generally blocked out in the main stream media. Especially in places such as the United States. By filtering what is real, it continues to mold that stigma of the refugee crisis. However, these videos and images that are shared bring the clear and true perspective of what has been occurring.

With education and opportunity, they are cell phone users much like Americans are. An article published through Independent supplied the fiscal breakdown of an average citizen living in Syria,

“Syria is not a rich country, but it is not a poor country either: it ranks as a “lower middle income” according to the World Bank. In 2007 (the last year stats for both were available) Syria had a Gross National Income (GNI) per capita of $1850 which is more than Egypt at the time, which was only at $1620. Mobile phone penetration is similarly high in Syria as Egypt too. According to the CIA World Factbook in 2014 Syria had 87 mobile phones per 100 of the population, compared to Egypt’s 110 per 100 (the UK has 123 per 100 people) (O’Malley).

It would not be until 2011, that having a cellular device would no longer just be a means of daily communication, but one of survival and proof of safety. It has proven to be one of the most vital tools for refugees on their journey to find sanctuary. Smartphones for a refugee, are a multi-faceted tool and are highly important to make it safely to their destination. By using GPS while cross the Mediterranean Sea, using a free messaging App to talk to their family, or even sending a selfie the prove their safely and location. This form of technology has paved the way for a modern-day refugee and their safety to finding asylum. In an article by Luke Graham of CNBC News, it discussed an interview with Paul Donohue of the International Rescue Committee and the various ways a refugee has used a smartphone during their journey, “Donohoe also met a Syrian refugee whose boat sank as he crossed the straights from Turkey to Lesbos. He used WhatsApp to alert the Greek coastguards, and used his phone’s GPS to make sure he swam in the right direction towards the island.” The same article would discuss a photo project that was done called What’s in my bag which noted the possessions of the refugees. In their bags, it was most common to find a smartphone, a charging cable, and even a back-up cell phone to have during emergencies or if their other phone broke. In addition to GPS and messaging, they also largely use their phones for translating foreign languages and using currency exchanging apps. While as a college student living in the United States or in Western Europe, a smartphone is a means of texting or Snapchatting friends, or posting an image to Instagram, for a refugee, it is a tool of safety. It has helped them along the way and has grossly impacted their rate of survival.

Refugees have been fleeing from one side of the world to another throughout the history of mankind. However, in recent years, the process of that journey has been revolutionized and redefined by advancements in technology and the development of social media. The capabilities of social media in the hands of a refugee has allowed them to find themselves on the opposite ends of the world. It has allowed them to reconnect and stay connected to their families during displacement. It grants them the means to finding their way from Syria to Europe safely and efficiently. When they are experiencing terror or are in need of help and assistance, they are able to reach out to those resources. But most importantly it has authorized them these people to share the truth, to tell their story, keep one another safe, and to break the stigma of what it means to be a refugee.

Medium Article Supplies Food for Thought

The other day while paroozing through Medium, I came across an article that left me thinking. It goes through the rather long day of a woman going to the mall with her children, choosing to be a good person, despite the inconvenience. Then hearing the story of two woman from Syria and what they experienced in their home country. They expressed to the woman the importance of acceptance and allowing the opportunity to start over.
The article continues and highlights where our country stands towards the refugee crisis, and their lack of efforts. That our president, within his first seven days of presidency, made harsh bans against muslims and those who seek refuge.
There was a particular point, that while obvious and talked about regularly, is also so frequently forgotten. Many of those who voted for our current president, who disagree with allowing Muslims into the country despite their conflict and search for opportunity, are no different than many of their family members that came over many generations ago. That they also came here in search of opportunity. Here to start again. Here to support their families. Here to begin again and find refuge.

Redefining a Refugee Crisis Through the Means of Social Media: Part I

The displacement of people and the need to find refuge has been an issue that has existed for thousands of years. A person could open any religious or historical text and find numerous examples within them telling the same story from various perspectives. The idea of violence, terrorism, war, and conflict displacing people from one end of the world to another is not a new concept. But in March 2011, a civil war broke out in Syria which has since then displaced over 13.5 million people (syrianrefugees.eu). While displacement and the search for refuge are common themes through all crises of the past, there is an element that has revolutionized and redefined how people respond to such a crisis. It has brought a new form of communication, a new means to finding one’s way, a new form of survival and story-telling, and that is social media.

Within the last decade, the birth of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so forth, have altered our daily lives and how we interact with others. People are able to connect over these platforms and can create an impact by posting a picture, “sharing” or “liking” a post, or even creating a message in 140 characters or less. These actions, while some would consider passive or harmless, have turned into news sources, platforms of journalism, new forms of marketing, and ways for people to learn new information. Ashlee Humphreys, in her book Social Media: Enduring Principles, discusses the the nature of Twitter and how it has revolutionized the idea of news delivery via social media, compares to traditional news delivery, and how people consume the information, “Scholars have found that the addition of Twitter as a tool for news delivery to the media ecology has taken over some tasks formerly allocated to traditional news organizations, but it has also made other functions of mainstream media such as their gatekeeping and fact checking more reliable.” (249) While the information can be hard to be noted as credibly at times, it is a streamline into the minds and voices of average people and how they experience their day-to-day life. But with that being said, they have also become outlets for powerful individuals, such as the President or the Pope, to relay messages and express themselves to “followers.” However, with these platforms and information that is shared, a message or image maybe posted and could become spreadable which would create an image of what an issue or movement would look like without giving it the full story, only a slice of it. That image could then create a stigma or a particular perception on a human or political situation such as that of the Syrian refugee crisis. Over the past several years, by sharing particular pieces of information, the media has molded a view of this crisis and has shaped a particular attitude towards these people.

After fleeing from Syria, the encounter of stigma is what has separated and divided refugees the most from integrating into a new country. There is a page on Facebook that has altered the perception and has allowed people to look at those that lived in Syria before the war. Brandon Stanton launched a page on Facebook back in 2010 that has over time accumulated roughly 18 million followers, Humans of New York. The site has shared the stories and images of a vast variety of citizens that inhabit the city of New York. As the years have passed, this arts and humanities page ventured outside of New York and shared the stories of others from around the world. In 2015, this project would take him to Syria and interview a handful of individuals that were impacted by the civil war and then share their stories on Facebook. He shared the story of an anonymous man and the life that he use to have before the civil war: his dedication to his education and his hope to change the world. He shares a narrative that rivals the stigma that has been created:

“I was determined to become a scientist through my own personal will. I graduated high school with the third highest scores in all of Syria. I worked construction in the evenings to pay for my school. Even as a teenager, I was being given construction sites to manage. I graduated from university at the top of my class. I was given a scholarship to pursue my PhD. I suffered for my dream. I gave everything. If I had 100 liras, I would spend it on a book. My ultimate goal was to become a great scientist and make a lasting contribution to humanity.” (Stanton)

This post and story include an image of the man, his children, his house, and the environment that he has lived in. There exists battered walls and a clearly shaky foundation. This observation was not a result of the country or culture he is rooted in, but the terror and destruction that has evolved over the last several years.  These posts have been shared, liked, and commented on. They have brought awareness and truth to the situation and how people respond to them. The interaction from the people who read this post, were educated on what it is like for a refugee to encounter stigma. More specifically, how that can be so threatening when they are trying to become a member of society as well as projecting their professions and education.

While Brandon Stanton’s, Humans of New York project has brought truth and awareness, there are other ways that social media has impacted how people view these individuals. An article that was published through CNN portrayed the image of an unknown father trying to sell pens to support his daughters after losing much of what they had due to the crisis. This received massive attention and was spread across the internet. People responded with much sympathy towards the situation. Eventually, by spreading this image and asking the general public, “Who is this man?” they got a response and were able to identify the man. “The social media campaign immediately made good on its promise to help Abdul, who fled from his home in Yarmouk, one of the most beleaguered places in Syria” (Abdelaziz). Afterwards, people then created hashtags such as #buypens to create awareness of what this man and people in similar situations are desperate to do to support their families after displacement. Eventually, somebody set up a crowdfunding page to raise money to assist the man and his family. This crowdfunding site would end up raising over $80,000. With much gratitude, he expressed and let it be known that with the money, he was able to provide for and send his children to school. He even shared the money with other refugees in similar situations. The power and impact of an image and a hashtag has proven to be life altering. In another instance, TIME published an article that discussed the power of photography, particularly that of the image of 2-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose body was found washed ashore in the process of fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea. It created a great emotional response and was able to connect people with severity of the situation and how refugees are people just them. Peter Bouckaert discussed in the article his personal response to the image, “’It’s, sadly, a very well-composed image showing a little toddler that we can all identify with, with his little sneakers and shorts on,’ he tells TIME. ‘I think for a lot of the public, their first reaction is: ‘This could have been my child.” (Laurent) In another article posted to opencanada.org, this image is discussed and analyzed once more. It went into detail how that particular Google search of the image compares the Paris attacks of the same year. This image of the boy brought in a greater Google search as a result of its raw nature and emotionally triggering content. It discussed how social media has created a general persona of a refugee as a victim rather than a person, like you or I, forced to flee their home and the life they have created. Relating back to stigma, they are seen as poor or unfortunate, when they are merely displaced due to terrorism. The article also went further into detail how Twitter has been able to help analyze and figure out, what group of individuals is the main force behind the displacement of Syria citizens. The analysis studied 1,000 of the most retweeted tweets. They were then analyzed of their qualitative data. That data then concluded that those who were the most responsible were that of the Assad regime and Arab government. Twitter was also used by ISIS to convince refugees to not flee to the west. They used the hashtag #Refugees_To_Where. This campaign had two potential goals, to either scare the citizens from the West by sharing images of Syrians being beaten by European police, or to convince them that they were religious traitors for leaving their homeland.

Political Comics to Provoke Thought

Political Comics never fail to surface during the midst of civic dispute or controversy. They are quick to offer a blunt and often harsh perspective. While doing research on the subject matter of the refugee crisis, I came across a plethora of comics.  After going down a bit of a rabbit hole, I chose some of my favorites.  Some witty and clever, some too real and saddening. However, their rhetoric and agenda is straight forward and all turn towards the same direction, and propose various questions.

Why do people feel so threatened by refugees?

What can we do in the mean time to assist people that need refuge and help keep them safe?

Why are there not more people and countries playing their part?

Why is there a stigma among the refugees? Why are they thought of as less fortunate rather than humans like you or I?

Why have we let this happen and go this far?

A World a Away

While leaving Germany was far from easy, being back in the United States and being able to see my best friends everyday was something I was very excited for. Back to fun summer nights and sunny days floating down the Chippewa River. Coming back to the small town of Menomonie, I felt the sense of home. The familiarity of walking into my favorite coffee shop and sitting in my regular corner with a chai latte. Spontaneously walking into my best friends house to find them playing some GameCube game from their childhood to find out they have been playing it for hours. Walking down the same streets every day to work to get to my campus job. Just a few examples of the normality of my life that exists in Wisconsin.

It is a world so different from that in Germany. While a comforting world, it is a small world.

Every once in a while, I will sit down and think of my time in Germany, how surreal of an experience it now seems. Every day in Germany, was a day that was full of the unexpected. Everything is new, always so much to learn, so much to do, but most importantly, you had no idea who you’d meet and how they would impact your life.

Now, I am spending my days with my very close friends I met in college. But as I reflect, my mind goes to all those that I met in Germany and other various European countries. People that have impacted my life in a tremendous way. People that have allowed me to grow in a way I did not expect. People that shared incredible stories about their lives. People, I may never see again. While I heard so many stories during the time frame I was there, more times than not, I think about those I met that told us their stories of their refuge journey.

Being in Menomonie, I rarely get to hear stories such as those that left their homeland in search of refuge. In fact, reflecting back on it, I have never heard a story with such impact that is near the caliber of those from Syria and Afghanistan. I knew once I left for Germany, I would be hearing stories that I would not be able to anticipate. But coming back to the United States, I have a sense of confusion that these stories don’t exist hear. Why can’t they? Why has life all of the sudden become so static?

Meeting these people and hearing these stories have exposed to me to what life is like on the other end of the world. I long to hear these stories again, and have become slightly unsettled not being able to come across such a strong and impactful narrative. These stories have altered my life and brought to me a new perspective on the world. One that is holistic and one of interconnectedness. Unlike Menomonie, in Germany, the world was not small. Life was not static. The importance of getting out a small world and submersing yourself in the rest of the world that exists outside of it.

I took me several weeks to come to the conclusion, but getting back into your everyday life can be dangerous. Going back into the same rut, participating in your daily activities, being comfortable is an easy way to miss out of all of what else exists in the world. The importance of getting out of your comfort zone and going to new places and meet new people to further your understanding and education.

I miss the stories I heard on that trip. I miss the people I met and the knowledge I gained, and learning about the reality that existed outside of my own. It is vital not to let go of these stories and frequently remember them for what they were, the truth.

The world is full of stories and there are still so many to be heard. Listening to these stories, sharing them, and creating your own stories, is what connects and progresses the world. Sharing perspective and understanding will inspire others and share knowledge. With knowledge and understanding, comes peace and compassion. Never stay static. Stay active. Search for the truth and never stop being engaged with what exists outside of your daily life.


A Note to My 15-Year-Old Self

This trip is not my first encounter with a group of people who have declared refuge. I’d like to take you back seven years ago, to the summer before I entered my sophomore year of high school.

For six years growing up, every summer, I would go for a week-long mission trip that would place me somewhere in the Midwest. It would be myself and some of my closest friends from either the middle school or high school level that belonged to the church I attended. Continue reading “A Note to My 15-Year-Old Self”

A Unique Reality

Finding peace after struggle leads one down a unique path. For myself, I faced a year of many personal hardships. Over time, I decided I could no longer continue that way of living. With that conclusion, I had no choice but to let go of them and start anew. Accept that I am human, forgive myself, turn the page, and begin again.

Continue reading “A Unique Reality”