Olive Daniels

Staff Writer

A recently established organization for student civil engagement, Davidson Refugee Support (DRS) seeks to promote life skills, educational opportunities, and a broader sense of unity within the Charlotte refugee community. Founded and guided by Davidson students, DRS draws from a diverse group of student leaders to enact change in one of America’s fastest growing cities.

Through the support of the Arab Studies Department Chair, Dr. Rebecca Joubin, and the Center for Civic Engagement, students have been organizing themselves into various committees within the group and coordinating weekly carpools to reach refugee communities in Charlotte. DRS’s ultimate goal, according to several of its most instrumental members, is to create lasting relationships with those refugees in need and to provide Davidson students an opportunity to get involved in a cause through which they can act directly in order to see a significant and positive change.

DRS began in September as an idea discussed between Hayden Bates ‘17 and Anmar Jerjees ’18. Both Bates and Jerjees are interested in Arab Studies and the Middle East, coming from experience working abroad. Bates spent the summer of 2015 in Amman, Jordan, working with the United Nations Refugee Agency. She discussed how she was impacted by the “resiliency and humanity of the Syrian individuals” whom she met. She became motivated to communicate the complexity of their stories, which she believes are often simplified by Western perceptions.

Jerjees spent his summer in Bulgaria, working as a translator in the nation’s largest refugee camp. He “saw the stories” and the people behind them, and he realized that back home on the Davidson campus, more had to be done to address these issues than the typical talks and panels.

Both students recognized the ways in which the refugee situation is often “misconstrued” in the US, and they wanted to take action.

Joining Bates and Jerjees as key leaders within DRS are Aman Madan ’19 and AJ Naddaff ’19. Both students are likewise interested in Arab Studies, and they connected with Bates through their common desires to get involved with a relevant campaign. Madan was interested in getting involved in a hands-on way and helping to redirect the way refugees can be “portrayed by the Western media.” Naddaff was similarly frustrated by “US perceptions of the refugee crisis abroad,” and he wanted to address the misguided notions of Islamaphobia that surround the current crisis.

Coming from diverse backgrounds and cultures, these four students have been united by their “desire to help the community in need.” While the organization is still in its nascent stages on campus, significant work has been done during the last five months to seek out and mobilize student action.

DRS does not have a president or elected officers. Instead, within the group, Bates acts a “point person” for six separate committees – Event Planning, Health & Life Skills, Higher Education, Outreach & Publicity, and Sponsorship & Fundraising. Each of these committees seeks to provide refugees in Charlotte with the tools to create and build upon their new lives in the U.S. Events are coordinated by DRS to bring members of the refugee community closer together; for example, DRS coordinated a Thanksgiving dinner for the refugees in November and a Valentine’s Day event in Charlotte, coordinated by Ashley Frye ‘19. One of their main tenets is not to decide what the refugees’ needs are, but instead, to work with them on an individual level and then help provide the tools necessary to move forward – be it in terms of educational assistance (e.g. ESL classes) or health and life skill management in a new country. Madan believes that this type of leadership structure makes DRS “more action-oriented” and ensures that each member holds a critical role.

Currently, DRS coordinates weekly shuttles to Charlotte, where student volunteers work one-on-one with refugees and offer educational tutoring. Bates discusses the weekly commitment of the volunteers as “the most valuable thing we can do [in the community].” By creating stability and consistency in volunteer-refugee relationships, Bates believes that the group can have its largest impact. She also emphasizes the importance of ESL classes, SAT and TOEFL prep, and citizenship test prep, coordinated by the Higher Education Committee, as extremely important in allowing refugees to regain the tools they need to advance their agency in their new home.

However, DRS and its influence is not limited to the Charlotte area. This summer, a group of DRS members including Bates, Naddaff, and Madan will be traveling to Jordan. While abroad in the Middle East, they plan to “find and work with NGOs [such as EducationUSA] and institutions of higher education in the region” to identify Syrian refugees or young people whose educations have been interrupted by political conflict or civil war in their home nations. Their goal is to assist these people in applying to be students at Davidson. Naddaff states that by “working on outreach with Davidson Admissions,” they hope to establish a way to test refugees on their own abilities.

However, for now, their first priority is establishing Davidson’s affiliation with the International Institute of Education. This independent, non-profit organization has over 50 partnering US schools committed to taking in Syrian students who are displaced by war; furthermore, affiliation would allow Davidson to extend opportunities to a larger and more diverse group of students, particularly those who have been disenfranchised by political events in their Levant homelands. Additionally, the DRS representatives hope to communicate the meaning and benefits of a liberal arts education to refugees.

For the remainder of the semester, DRS plans to continue its weekly trips to Charlotte and work in conjunction with the city’s Refugee Support Services. DRS is also in the process of creating a blog to share refugee stories in order to educate a wider audience about the realities of their situations. While the blog is still, according to Madan, in its “formative stages,” the group is also developing a website which will hopefully be finished within the next month. Until the website is live, official information and updates can be found on the DRS Facebook page.