By Leila Murphy
“In 2015, fifty-nine million people were displaced, and fifty-one percent were children.”
Dr. Angelica Ponguta of the Yale Child Study Center began with this sobering fact during the first minute of the panel on Yale’s Role in the Global Child Refugee Crisis, held in Luce Hall from 1-2 pm on Monday, October 5. Her blunt statement set a tone of urgency that governed the rest of the event, moderated by panelists from the UNICEF, ACEV Mother Child Education Foundation (Turkey), Doctors without Borders, International Rescue Committee, and the IRIS Refugee Resettlement (New Haven).
Over the next hour, panelists speaking from a range of perspectives confirmed the severity of this statistic. In discussing the greatest challenges facing child refugees, they spoke from diverse contexts but came to similar conclusions ― displaced children suffer from complex physical, emotional, and psychological challenges, and they seldom receive the comprehensive care they need.
Some of the panelists outlined obstacles to tracking and reaching the youngest refugees. Ayla Goksel, of ACEV Mother Child Education, an organization based in Turkey, explained that Turkey only recently opened its doors to the help of NGO’s. She stated that this decision required the Turkish government to accept the fact that their two million registered refugees were “not likely to go home.” The role of NGO’s moving forward, she continued, should thus be to help integrate refugee families into their communities and provide them with the opportunity to “set a foundation of life (sic)” for their children.
Christopher George of IRIS New Haven, a local refugee resettlement organization, examined the same theme from an entirely different angle. George admitted that the refugees his organization serves are relatively lucky, but asserted that “the work begins when they arrive in New Haven.” He went on to detail the early education, afterschool program, and counseling that IRIS provides to refugee children and their families. Audience members visibly nodded as he underlined the importance of looking at entire families, explaining that resettlement is “a stressful, depressing, high-anxiety experience that parents go through… and some of that stress is transferred to the children.”
Other panelists such as Dr. Nicholas Alipui of UNICEF, Unni Karunakara of Doctors without Borders, and Katie Murphy of IRC International Rescue Committee spoke of child refugee challenges on a broader, more global scale. Alipui discussed the difficulties that aid organizations face in balancing practical realities with monitoring and exposing violations of human rights. Karanuakara and Murphy underlined challenges to access and on-the-ground care, which often block them from providing aid to the most needy areas. Karanuakara explained that Doctors without Borders does not have permission to work in Assad-controlled areas in Syria, and that the organization must instead find ways to work with a large network of Syrian professionals and deal with a health system that has “crumbled.”
The latter part of the hour took on a more uplifting tone. In spite of these challenges, panelists discussed concrete steps that their respective organizations were taking to mitigate the recent crisis, and they outlined tactics that the Yale community can and should pursue.
Murphy emphasized the need for data-driven responses or, as she called it, “actionable evidence.” She advocated focused research that tracks child protection assessments and interagency tools, providing practical policy recommendations. Alipui echoed this claim, arguing that we need to “use information to incite and arouse advocacy initiatives and to move a broader coalition of people to support initiatives in the field.”
Goksel and Kayanuakara went into more depth on the necessity of advocacy ― and specifically, advocacy led by university students. Goksel argued that students and other advocates could the recent sensitivity to the refugee crisis as a way to “maintain interest, awareness and ownership” of broader refugee concerns. Karunakara agreed that students should be involved in advocacy, but drew attention to a different issue ― the fact that the United States is the one country left to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (an international human rights treaty detailing the civil, political, economic, social, health, and cultural rights of children). In his opinion, working to change this would be a great place for student-driven advocacy to start.
As I left Luce Hall, my thoughts went back to the start of the event, when Ponguta had passed around an email list where audience members were to write their contact information. She explained that this panel marked the beginning of a process, and that its goal was simply to start a conversation that would continue in the future. She stated, and the panelists concurred: “We believe in our Yale community, and by informing ourselves and thinking about action, we can make a sustained difference.” It’s clear the audience agreed ― many people flooded to the front of the room after the event had officially ended to ask questions and connect with panelists. One hopes that the insights gathered through the event, along with the resolve of groups and communities across the university, will translate into advocacy for child refugees at Yale in the future.
Image by Mstyslav Chernov, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons & Creative Commons Images.