During United Nations Week, refugee art fuels dialogue over human rights

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Feb. 13 to Feb. 18, Occidental hosted United Nations (UN) Week. During the six days, Diplomacy and World Affairs (DWA) Professor Sherry Simpson Dean and her organizing team of four students planned 13 events highlighting the United Nations with a special emphasis on the current plight of refugees. According to Simpson Dean, UN Week was sponsored by the Kahne Oxy-at-the-UN program, with support for the Young InitiativeOxy Arts and Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC). The week consisted of massive art displays, guest speakers and other events designed to give students a greater understanding of both the UN and the refugee crisis.

In September, Simpson Dean approached Occidental students — Allegra Messina (sophomore), Zachary Solomon (sophomore), Jack Allen (sophomore) and Jayne Wilted (sophomore) — and requested their assistance in planning UN Week. In addition to coordinating UN week events, Simpson Dean is also the faculty advisor of both UN Club and Oxypreneurship.

Together, the team built events that ranged from an art exhibit on the quad to a virtual reality exhibit in the Varelas Lab. The first event included a presentation by the Director of the United Nations Information Center, Robert Skinner.

“Mr. Skinner delivered the framework for the UN — what we may be facing in terms of U.S. relations and the need for youth engagement with the UN and the refugee crisis,” Simpson Dean said. “He invited this community to bring its entrepreneurial thinking to the table. This is a major opportunity for expansive action and a rethink that could make room for new ideas in soft diplomacy so critical to effective policy and collaboration.”

Skinner’s presentation encouraged students to consider the collective impact they have as a community and implore that they can make a difference, creating momentum for the rest of the events on campus.

Other presentations involved a lecture given by the President of Refugees International, Michel Gabaudan, and a panel consisting of Occidental DWA professors Sanjeev Kaghram, Lan Chu and Sophal Ear, who discussed their experiences as refugees.

Messina reflected on this panel, which blended politics with personal stories.

“I think that the innovative and open spirit of this year’s UN Week was really powerful throughout the whole process, and is something I was really drawn to,” Messina said. “It was amazing to help showcase the stories of our professors, people in the broader community and Abdulazez from abroad.”

Abdulazez Dukhan is the 18-year-old Syrian refugee photographer who created the backdrop of artwork seen around campus. Using donated equipment from around the globe, Dukhan was able to harness his artistic ability while still living in a refugee camp. With his permission, the UN Week organizers showcased his photos — oftentimes of child refugees — and recordings on the quad. More of Dukhan’s art is displayed on his Facebook page.

Thursday, Feb. 16 Dukhan spoke to Occidental students and staff via Skype in Choi Auditorium. From a refugee camp in Greece, he described his art and the many hardships he had faced, but most of all, he spoke of his optimism and had a specific message he hoped to share with Occidental students.

“We are all human. We are all the same,” Dukhan said.

Dukhan is originally from the Syrian city of Homs, but six months after the war began, he fled to the relative safety of the Syrian countryside. After fleeing his home, he learned that the possessions he left behind had been ransacked, and his home had been burned. Dukhan attempted to flee Syria and enter Jordan, but was denied entry. He had to crisscross the country on foot in order to get to Turkey and, from there, Greece.

While discussing his time as an internally displaced person (IDP) and later as a refugee, his positive spirit revealed itself. Dukhan rigorously applied himself to scholarship. While fleeing from violence in Syria, he used his mobile phone to read books and, once in Greece, he began to develop his English and artistic skills. While volunteering with aid groups at his camp, he continued to develop his English-speaking skills and gained increasing recognition for his artwork on Facebook.

Dukhan’s message particularly resonated with Solomon.

“His humble nature and charisma coupled with the amount of good he is doing for his fellow refugees and, really the world, is a rare combination of traits. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to laugh or cry after speaking with him, but I was filled with energy to keep doing what I could to help,” Solomon said.

The inspiration generated by Dukhan culminated during a Campus Call to Action workshop Friday, Feb.17. Simpson Dean worked with the approximately 15 students who were present to brainstorm projects in which Occidental students could assist Dukhan in aiding those who are desperately in need of help. Cassandra Madrazo (sophomore) was one of the students who helped lead the workshop.

“I was so humbled by this experience. I also have the resources to help solve this problem,” Madrazo said. “It is only a matter of being dedicated enough to devote myself to this cause. We need to keep this conversation going.”

Students who participated in the workshop committed to maintaining regular contact with Dukhan and create a permanent art installation on campus as a focal point for the refugee crisis.

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