Allegheny Global Citizen Scholars to host first Refugee Awareness Week

The first cohort of Allegheny Global Citizen Scholars will host two events next week as part of what they have titled, “Refugee Awareness Week: Challenges of Coming and Belonging.”

The GCS program, an Allegheny Gateway initiative, began during the fall 2016 semester to provide students in the Class of 2019 with “learning opportunities in three areas — civic engagement, global learning and U.S. diversity,” the college’s international studies website states.

Directed by Dave Roncolato, director of Civic Engagement, and Laura Reeck, professor of French and chair of international studies, the 13 members of the first cohort of GCS have participated in Meadville community service, Allegheny language studies, conferences and studies abroad.    

The program was also designed to allow scholars to develop a theme for their cohort, and the GCS Class of 2019 has focused on refugees, according to GCS Erblin Shehu, ’19.

Shehu said the April 17 and 19 events are intended to demonstrate the struggles of refugees coming to the U.S. and increase campus awareness about refugee journeys.

“In this political climate right now, where there is a lot of negative opinion about foreigners in general, especially about refugees coming to the United States, we just want to share with students on campus that the process of coming to the U.S. is not as easy as the media portrays,” Shehu said.

GCS students will host “Seeking Refuge: A Simulation” on Tuesday, April 17 at 7 p.m. in Schultz East Alcove, which will take participants through the process of trying to enter the U.S. as a refugee.

At each step in the process, participants will read text, listen to audio and learn about the offices and agencies involved and may experience simulated refusals or setbacks.

A version of the simulation was completed by GCS students in Erie through Catholic Charities, a national service organization.

The first cohort developed their theme by working with refugees and participating in programs through Catholic Charities of Erie as well as Vive La Casa in Buffalo, an aid center for people seeking refuge in Canada and the U.S.

Work in Erie and Buffalo has involved preparing to share the stories of refugees by conducting interviews, assisting refugees with online job searches and providing English language practice at refugee centers, Shehu said.

“Through our program, we’ve realized we actually do have quite a connection to refugees just in Erie, I mean there’s a huge population there,” said Emily Smith, ’19. “There’s also students on our campus that have refugee backgrounds that are going to be participating.”

Following the simulation, Allegheny students with refugee backgrounds will share their stories and present brief reflections about their experiences, Smith said. Maitham Basha-Agha, a photojournalist who has worked for the Erie Reader, will help moderate the reflection.

Because of limited space, GCS students ask those interested in participating in the simulation to register before the event by contacting Smith.

Refugee Awareness Week’s second event, “Refugees in American Education,” does not require registration and is open to the public. A panel discussion in the Collaboratory of the Lawrence Lee Pelletier Library will feature four panelists on Thursday, April 19, at 7 p.m.

Shehu said the panel includes Ferki Ferati, native to Albania, who came to the U.S. in the 1990s and now serves as president of the Jefferson Educational Society in Erie.

Two other panelists who came to the U.S. as refugees —  Nandu Subedi, the resettlement program leader with Catholic Charities of Erie, and Allegheny student Benedicte Musimisa, ’21 —  will also speak about their experiences in American education systems.

Through our program, we’ve realized we actually do have quite a connection to refugees just in Erie, I mean there’s a huge population there.

— Emily Smith, Class of 2019

Lori Sheridan, an English as a second language teacher in the Erie School District who works with refugee students, will serve as the fourth panelist.

“Having more events that showcase diversity in the American context is really important,” said Daniel Larson, ’19. “They give more perspective on an issue that you can read about in the news but not really understand how it affects Erie and Allegheny College.”

Larson has mostly been involved in planning for the panelist discussion and said he hopes participants will leave the discussion with an increased sense of connectedness to refugees and maintain an interest in educating themselves about refugee struggles.

As the end of the spring semester approaches, GCS students are preparing to enter their final year at Allegheny, during which they will likely meet less regularly and instead focus on the online portfolios they have been developing since 2016, which document their GCS experiences, Larson said.

The first cohort may also be incorporating elements of GCS into their senior comprehensive projects, according to Larson, and looks forward to seeing a new cohort continue the program this fall.

“We’re really excited because we’re the first cohort, but then the incoming freshman class is going to be having a second cohort of Global Citizen Scholars with new directors,” Larson said. “It’ll be a new program, and they can choose the issue that is really important for them.”