Rutgers professors host event to raise awareness of refugee crisis

A month and a half ago, the body of a 3-year-old washed up on a Turkish beach, instigating people globally to pay attention to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Professors from the Center for African Studies, the Center for European Studies and the Department of Italian organized a symposium on Friday, Oct. 16, focusing on exploring the migration crisis going on in Africa, Europe and the Mediterranean at Alexander Library on the College Avenue campus.

It was important to host a symposium to raise awareness of the migration situation's global impact to the Rutgers community, said Rhiannon Welch, an assistant professor in the Department of Italian.

“Given Italy’s positioning on the symbolic and political borders between Europe and Africa, contemporary Italians are deeply affected each day by the ongoing arrival of asylum seekers and refugees from the African continent,” she said.

Up to 59 million people have responded to global violence and economic repression by fleeing their countries in search of asylum and a better life for themselves.

Organizers invited panelists from the University, as well as artists, activists and Amidou Jean-Baptiste Sourou from the Gregorian University in Rome and St. Augustine University of Tanzania.

Sourou researches immigration, among other topics, according to the event profile.

The sheer number of victims of the refugee crisis makes it an international one, said Carolyn Brown, an associate professor in the Department of History.

“It raises some very important issues about what can happen when you have to leave your country because of war or because there’s no future in your country," she said. 

Brown said she wanted to explore the topic at Rutgers because of its present significance and because it raises questions about what Europe is going to be in the future.

“How much can you exclude people from coming into your country?” she said. “How do you push for human rights when you’re denying the rights to people who are stateless?”

The migration symposium can bring light to similar issues that happen in America, such as the deportation crisis, Brown said.

Some major topics discussed included the specific histories of African nations like Eritrea and Niger to pan-African histories that illuminated some of the causes of today’s mass emigration of African peoples.

The panelists also addressed the political and symbolic responses of contemporary European nation-states from Italy, Turkey, Germany and Hungary.

The event was split up into three parts, first addressing the histories, causes and contexts of the current crisis, then speaking about the contemporary trajectories.

The third and final portion of the event was a video and art exhibition and discussion at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary on College Avenue.

Welch said she hoped that attendees gained a fuller and more nuanced picture of the contemporary situation than what is available from the mainstream press.

“Our decision to include European and African artists certainly helped in this regard," she said. "In many ways art is more attuned to the subtle and profound effects this crisis has provoked in our collective imaginaries."

Having scholars, artists and activists be part of the symposium is important because it indicates how concerned they are with the emigration crisis, said Ousseina Alidou, an associate professor in the Department of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literatures.

“It shows the concern (people have) for this serious crisis of immigration of Africans going through Europe,” she said. 

It was important to bring this symposium to Rutgers because the mainstream media does not give the full picture of what is happening, she said.

“Very often, it’s presented in the media, but in a way that is really not helpful to the population in the U.S. to understand and to have a critical understanding of what’s going on,” said Alidou, who is also the director of the Center for African Studies. "It is a global story."

It is important for people to come together to not only learn what is happening but also to contribute to solutions, she said. For that reason, it is important for people to know the actual facts.

The diverse departments at Rutgers have a responsibility to come together to help develop understanding, Alidou said.

“We’re fortunate at Rutgers that we have so many faculty members that are from different parts of the world," Brown said. "They can usually use their networks to bring people here."

The organizers hope to have been the first in a series of conversations on campus about the enduring global human rights issue of migration.

“It was inspiring to bring together artists from both sides of the Mediterranean crisis to examine their commonalities and unique approaches to future phenomenon,” Welch said.

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