Syrian Refugees: First Steps in Solidarity

OpinionStaff Op-Ed

Discussion at the Syrian Health Fair (Connor Gory / The Triton)

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We’ve all heard about the crisis occurring today in Syria. Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of a decimated Aleppo, watched videos of the aftermath of sarin gas attacks, or read headlines about U.S. drone strikes killing civilians. Here in San Diego, we sit many thousands of miles from the Levant, but since most of us can check up on international news as quickly as we check the time, we can only insulate ourselves from these calamities if we bury our heads very, very deep in the sand.

And there are indeed those among us who wish to partake in such ostrich-ery. This article is not about those people. This article is about some of our fellow students who have recognized the strife of the Syrian people and taken initiative, offering consultation and services to the Syrian refugee community here in San Diego.

Last Friday, I trekked southeast from our ocean-breezy campus-bubble in La Jolla to the warm, still city of El Cajon to find out more about an event that was being called the “Syrian Refugee Health Fair.” The title of the event created an image in my mind of students wearing scrubs and offering vaccinations, or something like that. However, I found that the approach of the volunteers was much broader than that.

The event was put together by a group of UCSD and USD medical students/faculty in collaboration with the Kurdish Community Center (where one of the faculty organizers, Professor Wael Al-Delaimy, has contacts). I had the opportunity to speak with a few of the student volunteers. One of the lead organizers of the event, UCSD medical student William Bruno, described the health fair as a first step towards creating what he hoped would be a sustained connection between students and the growing community of Syrian refugees in San Diego.

Part of that “first step” included collecting information about the refugees’ needs through a survey. He found that many of their needs were rather straightforward. They included things for which even Americans without medical expertise could plausibly offer assistance, like learning to drive and learning English.

At this point, I realized that the “health” fair was only partly about medical health, and just as much about an effort to create a healthy environment for Syrian refugees. William pointed me towards various tents and tables of volunteers: some from the UCSD Free Clinic were providing refugees with dental consultation; some from local community health clinics were assisting refugees in finding primary care doctors; some from the Community Law Project were addressing refugees’ legal concerns and housing issues.

To my surprise, at one of the tents I saw a friend of mine, Sandra Soueid. She had been involved in organizing events for UCSD’s Syrian Solidarity Week (such as movie screenings, speeches, and spoken word poetry), which was just drawing to a close that Friday. To finish off a week of celebrating Syrian culture and empowering Syrian people, she had come down to El Cajon to offer her services as an English/Arabic translator. I found out that she had been informed about the health fair by a former co-worker of mine, who had previously volunteered as an English/math tutor for refugees.

The more I saw at the health fair, the more inspired I felt. And I’m not talking about back-patting, self-congratulatory, smile-and-go-home-about-it inspiration; I’m talking about invigoration, ignition. For so long I have known about what’s been going on in Syria, and I (and I’m sure many others) have been moved to the point of wanting to “do something.”

This event reminded me that between the dismal headlines flashing through my brain and the desire to make a change sit the approximately 1,000 Syrian refugees who have already been resettled in San Diego who need us to transform our empathy into concrete action. Creating and fostering a connection between students and refugees, doing our best to assist refugees with adjusting to life in America, certainly seems to me like a good first step.

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