Last week, I wrote about the anxiety and confusion I felt, but this week, I am writing about inspiration and motivation. Rather than just looking at the Eiffel Tower, I’ve been using other methods to seek drive and fulfillment. Over the course of my undergraduate career, my research has been focused on two oppressed populations, refugees and women, and this week, I have been surrounded by powerful women in politics, and in refugee research.
On Tuesday evening, we had the honor of speaking with Neena Gill at a wine and cheese reception. Gill is now in her third term, as a member of the European Parliament and a member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and she spent a few hours with the group to discuss Brexit, her daily tasks, and answered the questions we had. In the midst of “fake news” and political polarity, most politicians are depicted as liars, greedy or selfish, so hearing Gill speak so candidly and openly was refreshing to say the least.
She explained her position on Brexit, and frankly told us that she believes in remaining in the EU. She explained the economic consequences that the nation is facing and will continue to struggle with, as well as explained that by leaving the EU, the UK is abandoning core values of freedom and democracy that the EU was built on. She expressed her fears and dissatisfaction with the outcome of the referendum, telling us that the most popular Google searches after the vote were “What is the EU?” and “How does leaving the EU impact the UK?” She also expressed her optimism to us, as she said that the youth have become much more politically involved since Brexit and the population is educating itself more. After serving her party and country for three terms, and after she has amassed success and a strong name for herself, Gill embodied humility and passion. As a woman, and specifically as a woman of color, I was so inspired after speaking with her.
After speaking with Gill at night, our day on Wednesday began with a lecture from Coralie Derais on “Refugees in the Alsace Region” in France. Specifically, France has been experiencing a significant rise in nationalism, anti-immigrant movements, and islamophobia and Derais explained the affect these sentiments have on refugees here. She told us about the initiatives the community began to help refugee resettlement, such as volunteer translators, donating food and clothes, and hosting events for the host community and refugees to participate in together. However, she also told us about the struggles refugees face and she did this by giving us asylum seeking forms to fill out, except the forms were in French and Arabic.
Needless to say, the class was struggling and when she asked how this made us feel, students expressed that they felt incompetent, stupid, helpless and were beginning to empathize with the situations that refugees are in. As someone who is constantly working with refugees, Derais’s passion for her work was very apparent. She referred to most refugees as her friends, and talked about how much she has learned from them. She framed the situation as one where we are obligated to help them, rather than suggesting that refugees are the problem and that the EU needs help. Although Gill was a woman of color with the same goals as myself, seeing a white woman express her support for a population of color was just as moving.
As an individual who researches refugee resettlement and integration, I did not need to see these forms to empathize, but I’m glad this helped people gain some perspective. To be frank, I cannot understand how someone does not see the pain of refugees. Living under horrible dictatorships, constantly being stripped of your rights, being tortured and attacked by your own government, losing your homes, and travelling dangerous roads and seas – these are just some of the most apparent trauma that refugees experience, never mind the psychological and mental trauma that follows, but as I said, I’m glad this activity helped open the minds of others. I learned a lot this last week, and I’m so refreshed to say the least. My optimism continues to grow for the program and I am excited to see what other amazing women I will come across.