Writer: Gilli Weinstein talks about High Tech High’s San Diego Sanctuary Project, which Invites Leadership and Empathy-Building Related to the International Refugee Crisis.
Society often forgets that teenagers are at the edge of becoming the leaders of tomorrow’s world. We need to know about the wider world, with the complicated web of politics, culture, religion, economics, and more. We are thirsty for this information; when teenagers are given information, space for innovation, and a voice, many possibilities arise. We must recognize the needs of those around us and the world in which we live, and when we are invited to engage with complex issues through connections with others affected by those issues, we are ready and eager to contribute toward solutions.
Our current Humanities and Spanish project at High Tech High in San Diego, a school that uses a project based learning approach, has 9th and 10th graders learning deeply and taking actions concerning the international refugee crisis. Attending such a school that not only allows, but encourages outside-of-the-box ideas and is willing to support in any way possible, gives students the motivation to learn and act. The SD Sanctuary Project is based on a current complex challenge in the world, which has news and information that changes daily, and the learning and creativity we apply to solutions can go in many ways. The students participating in this project will all create and follow a unique action plan and art piece, based on interviews with refugee crisis stakeholders as well as literature related to refugees and asylum seekers , which will produce different outcomes that include physical products and new perspectives for both our team and the public. We have met and interviewed refugees, nonprofit leaders, researchers, and humanitarian aid workers to gain diverse perspectives that led to more research before proposing action plans.
“An obstacle I overcame was acceptance, because it’s hard and I don’t blame anyone that doesn’t accept me that I’m Muslim.”- Eman Abdulkadir, student at High Tech High. Recently resettled from Ethiopia herself, Abdulkadir attends our school as a 10th grader. This in itself is a powerful message within teenager’s involvement with refugees. Many may not be aware that she is a refugee but that is exactly the point; refugees are people like us. The label of refugee creates fear for those who aren’t fully educated about the refugee’s life. Just the same, refugees have a reasonable fear to those who don’t understand their circumstances or can’t relate to their situation. This is where the idea of empathy comes into play.
People who lack empathy tend to lack a feeling of relatedness as well. “Although the connection [to the Middle East] isn’t there, the need is definitely there-- more than anywhere else in the world I would argue.”-Laila Soudi, Stanford University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. The connection that Soudi referred to is America’s relationship to the Middle East. There is a structured and irrational fear of Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent that the current American president and administration have encouraged in their rhetoric. Even without the physical connection to a place or group of people, we should still express empathy when millions of people are in danger. We must attend to the needs of those in danger, regardless of an non-existent personal relationship.
One thing High Tech High implements into their learning process is teaching the students to ask why. Why are we learning about refugees? Why are we actively helping refugees? Why are we engaging in current events? As students, we are taught to challenge our thinking and explore the world around us in such a way that we can question the purpose through every step of the way. These interviews gave students a purpose to delve into this project.
“They [refugees] want someone to appreciate and show them they understand where they come from. . . they have been deprived of their dignity and ego, someone appreciating that these sort of guys or women or families had a really sort of good life before they moved here, is good enough. So just appreciating it, and being attentive to what they say. So for me, what I teach my medical students today and what I teach my residents today, is you NEED to address the patients as a human being.” -Hana Abu-Hassan, Jordanian Doctor who has worked with refugees in Jordan and Greece. Refugees not only deserve empathy, but also opportunity: Opportunity to build a better life and prove their addition is beneficial.
“I’ve met judges, I’ve met lawyers, I’ve met doctors, and now all of that is just -- down the drain -- for them. Can you imagine what that must feel like? And what the world needs right now is sympathy and empathy as a whole, and that’s what we need to get back.”- Rasha Abousalem, American volunteer working as an Arabic translator for Syrian refugees in Greece. The label of refugee overshadows any qualifications they have. We should feel a sort of responsibility when hearing these stories; and use them to as a reason to help in any ways we can.
Our team is energized and active, educated about the current events surrounding the refugee crisis, enacting our various action plans to benefit local and international refugees, and creating art and performance pieces sparked by these experiences. With project based learning, we are given the freedom to act, build, and create in such a way that we will have a very real impact on the world: refugee children in camps across 45 countries will receive our postcards and messages, three organizations here in San Diego will receive requested donations of food, cleaning supplies, hygiene supplies, and school supplies for recent refugees and asylum seekers. We are making a difference.