CTAUN’s timely conference on refugees urges educators and individuals to be advocates for truth.

United Nations-NEW YORK, NY.

The date was ironic.

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in a room packed with more than 700 teachers, students, advocates, and refugees, ready to engage with each other on the issues facing the refugee crisis, the US President was mere hours from signing a grave executive order.

What has unfolded in the past 48 hours has been a dizzying assault on America’s values: the suspension of the US refugee program for 120 days, the barring of nationals from seven predominately Muslim nations,  and the refusal of entry, and subsequent sending back, of people arriving to the US legally, who were fleeing war and persecution.

Photo: Serajuddin Elalam


On Friday, January 27, I attended CTAUN’s 18th annual conference, this year titled: “Refugees: the 21st Century Challenge.” Weeks or months earlier, when we registered for this conference, we did not know the context in which we would be meeting on this day. Despite the looming executive order, we carried on, and I want to highlight the concrete and inspiring ways we can help, as highlighted by many of the speakers.

1.) Be an advocate for truth 

There are many misconceptions and fears about refugees. Please read and share, “Seven Common Myths About Refugee Resettlement in the United States” which dispels many common assumptions. It is vitally important to address these harmful myths within our communities, schools, and close circles.

Bill Frelick, director of Refugee Programs at Human Rights Watch, was vocal in denouncing the rhetoric from the current administration. Frelick also highlighted that while responsibility and action needs to come from the UN and governments, it is crucial that we as individuals, through our interactions with others, fight against xenophobia and discrimination in our classrooms, homes, and communities.

While walls look like simple solutions, and cutting back and saying “my country first’ seem like a simple solution, the fact of the matter is, containment is not going to solve this problem. Engagement will.” 

– Bill Frelick, Human Rights Watch

2.) Volunteer

Many organizations rely heavily on volunteer and pro-bono service to operate and serve the community. One of the speakers, Isabel Saavedra, a formely undocumented immigrant who is now an attorney for Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), spoke about the vast human rights abuses she has witnessed in US family detention centers. She highlighted the CaraProBono project, which seeks volunteers in its mission of ending incarceration and inhumane treatment of undocumented people. If you are not in a position to donate to an organization, please consider giving your time and skills to support a refugee or immigrant-serving organization in your community.

3.) Higher education and language training opportunities are crucial

Food, safety, and shelter are indeed important for refugees. However, education and language hold the keys to progress, security, and advancement. Universities should consider expanding scholarship opportunities specifically for refugees, or join the IIE Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis.

For students in the refugee camps, a solid and stable education is scarce. “They need help from the outside, ” said Mark Harris, President Emeritus of ELS Educational Services and Berlitz. “They need volunteers, they need NGOs, they need people to get in there and teach language.” Without language proficiency, refugees have significant troubles accessing the new country’s education system, if they are resettled. To help, higher education professionals and non-profits should mobilize to help provide quality language training for the youth waiting for resettlement in these camps, a place where their education has been interrupted. 

At the end of the day, no matter your political views, religion, or beliefs, it’s important to have empathy and support for our fellow humans.

“We should all be able to support people who have lost everything. Because that is what humanity is about.” 

Maher Nasser,  Director of Outreach Division at the UN Department of Public Information