During the third week of the Teen JUST-US program, we focused on immigration. One of the sections listed on our schedule was a panel of guest speakers, who would tell their stories of refuge. I was excited to hear the speakers and gain some perspective from outside of our cohort. The speakers, Saint Cyr Dimanche, Muhammad Hassan, and Robert Aliganyira, were three students who attended, or still attend, Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Saint Cyr was born in the Central African Republic, Muhammad was born in Saudi Arabia, and Robert was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Muhammad told us that he grew up in a Bedouin village outside of Medina, and he had limited access to education as he grew up. He explained how there was a lot of propaganda from the Saudi royal family, which claimed that they were chosen by God and it was the fate of the people in the country to be ruled by them. Muhammad concluded that the royal family was using religion to subjugate people. He wrote an article in the local village newspaper stating that the Quran did not justify the claims that the royal family was making. He did not believe that the article would spread beyond his village. The paper somehow got to Medina, and government officials read it. As a result, they targeted Muhammad for treason and apostasy. He had to flee to Syria and Turkey, where he spent time in a refugee camp. He explained that an organization called Teachers without Borders had a library in the refugee camp. The library had cassettes, a TV with educational videos, audiotapes, and books. He would borrow cassettes and audiotapes of American books and listen for hours. He was able to learn English through the resources provided in the refugee camp. He later applied for political asylum in the United States and was able to emigrate.
Muhammad’s story stood out to me in particular, as I listened to him unpack the circumstances that allowed him to get to the United States and later to Brandeis. From a young age, he put an emphasis on education, informing fellow members of his community about the royal family. He was determined to disprove the royal family’s claims even if it put his own life and safety at risk in Saudi Arabia. His passion for learning continued when he arrived at the refugee camp and he utilized the resources that were available to him. It was very meaningful to hear how Muhammad emphasized education in his life despite his limited access. I realized how accessible education has been in my life, and how there is an automatic expectation for me and people in my community to attend school regularly from elementary school all the way up through college.
Our three speakers also shared how they were able to find a great community at Brandeis with their peers and professors. I realized how lucky I am to have such interesting people in my community who are willing to open up about their lives and share their stories. Knowing this makes me look forward to meeting international students in my future educational endeavors.
I found it very meaningful to hear these three stories firsthand and gain a deeper understanding about what it means to be a refugee. I realized how important it was for me to listen to their stories without allowing my implicit bias to impact the way that I perceived them as people. I am looking forward to learning more about the immigration process so that I can be a more thoughtful listener when I hear people share their life experiences.