Amid tensions in Texas surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis, high school students gathered at University Park United Methodist Church for a student-run panel last February.
They met to do what some politicians have been unable to do: listen to what an actual Syrian refugee had to say.
“People had a lot of questions, and they were curious. It felt great to have the platform to talk,” said 24-year-old refugee Sana Mustafa. “I think there is much to be said, and the media is not saying what must be said.”
Luckily, Mustafa was in the U.S. when she found out that her father had been detained by the Assad regime. She was able to apply for asylum and, after going through a rigorous ten-month process, was allowed to stay.
The rest of her family was not so lucky: her mother and sisters were forced to flee illegally from Syria to Turkey for protection, where they have been stuck in a refugee camp for the past three years. And her father hasn’t been heard from since.
The panel was organized by Highland Park High School junior Pierce Lowary, the founder of the United Nations Youth Coalition. Lowary’s interest is personal. His mother, Shideh, was an Iranian refugee who fled to the U.S. from Iran in the ‘60s.
“Letting refugees in is what America is,” he said. “We are a nation of over 40 million immigrants. That includes my mother and my grandmother.”
Contrary that statement, Gov. Greg Abbott declared, ineffectually, that Texas would not accept any Syrian refugees in November. Mayor Mike Rawlings disagreed, affirming that Dallas’ doors were open.
Lowary knows people who believe the US should be cautious about letting in refugees, especially Muslims: his father is one of them. But he wants people his age to understand that they are not dangerous.
“How do you know refugees aren’t terrorists? That’s a question I get asked every time,” Mustafa said.
That’s why Lowary and Mustafa have taken matters into their own hands. They think it’s important – especially for young people – to understand not only what refugees have been through, but also what they have to go through to gain entry into the U.S.
“I can’t go up to people and tell them not to keep their safety in mind,” Lowary said. “But I do feel that the opposite end of the spectrum – not taking any of them – is immoral, and it’s un-American.”
At the panel, Lowary gave a presentation summarizing the refugee crisis for the 50 or so students from Hockaday, Greenhill, St. Mark’s, and other area schools. He focused on why we should be welcoming refugees, and explained the asylum process.
Also on the panel was UPUMC Rev. Rachel Baughman, who volunteered with Better Days for Moria, a grassroots organization giving aid to the thousands of refugees on the island of Lesbos, Greece.
“I felt that it was educational, and it was empowering for [the audience] to hear from people on the ground,” Mustafa said.
Lowary is hoping to get on the ground too. He and a group of six students are planning to go to Turkey this summer – despite recent bombings in Ankara – to fundraise for Embrace Relief, an organization trying to build a Syrian refugee school run by Syrian teachers.
He wants to see the world, but he also wants to see a change in thinking back home. As does Mustafa, who wants to emphasize that refugees are people fleeing terror.
“I’m one of them,” she said. “There are many people like me, so why would you not want us here?”