A Life-transforming Trip For SJSU Students To Refugee Camps In Italy, Greece
SAN JOSE – Seeing visuals of ragged and discarded life vests spread all across the European seashores and children milling around overly-crowded refugee camps wearing meager amount of clothing linger in Omar Perez’s mind, rendering him sleepless at night.
Perez, 21, was a member of a group of 14 San Jose State students who traveled to Italy and Greece, where about a million refugees have found shelter in recent years, after fleeing war zones, poverty crises, and religious persecution prevalent in the Middle East and Africa.
The trip, conducted by journalism professors Diane Guerrazi and Halima Kazem, was a chapter of a faculty-led initiative with the university’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications; focused at providing rare and valuable hands-on overseas reporting and journalistic experience for students. Very few journalism programs offer trips similar to this one.
The group spent time in the refugee camps, headquarters for international refugee associations, and places where refugees spend their time, often in areas where no tourists venture. The three-week trip proved to be a life-transforming experience for many of the students, most of who traveled outside the state for the first time, according to Guerrazzi and Kazem.
Kazem, who specializes in human rights affairs, had looked for a way to connect with the situation she covered in Afghanistan. This program made her able enough to do just that, she said.
“The stories they report on help them understand what people have gone through. It puts a human face on the word ‘refugee.’”
Approximately, 1.3 million refugees and migrants escaped to Europe via sea in 2015, according to data from the International Organization for Migration. The numbers saw a steep fall, with just about 364,000 migrants arriving on the shores of Europe.
While the controversy over refugee resettlement remains as polarizing as ever, California has resettled about 8,000 refugees in 2016, more than any other state, according to Pew Research.
According to Kazem and Guerrazzi, interest in the program has increased manifold since its inception last year, and it has been fruitful, as many students derive an emotional connect between their family’s migratory past and the refugees they meet overseas.
“When my parents came to the U.S., they were looked down upon, they didn’t have much, they had zero dollars and they didn’t know any English. So they didn’t feel fully accepted,” explained Perez, the son of Mexican immigrants. “I felt like that pain of wanting to feel accepted and wanting help — it’s the same.”
While on the trip, the students created a documentary and assembled video vignettes keeping in frame, individual refugees, volunteers, aid workers, and Italians or Greeks, who lived in along with the refugees, which they will publish on a website, a platform they’ve created.
As they return to their routine lives in the United States, most of the students are already looking for ways to continue lending a helping hand. Perez, a senior, hopes to return to the refugee camps and shed some light on the critical issue as a future journalist.
“It’s not on the news as much anymore, but it’s for sure still going on,” he said. “These people are going to be there for a while. This is something you can’t ignore.”
Jana Kadah, a junior, aspires to be a lawyer and has made the trip to Europe twice as part of SJSU’s program. In her heart, it’s the memory of a 10 year old little girl that has stayed eminently. According to Kadah, the girl gave the group a tour of the Pipka refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. Later, they saw news reports on Al Jazeera stating that the 10 year-old had once tried to commit suicide.