BETA

Meeting our newest neighbors

Graphic by Haewon Ma

The daily routine of a refugee in New Haven doesn’t seem so different from that of any other New Haven resident—a mother sends her child off to school, a daughter is reluctant to finish her social studies assignment, a son is struggling with the school bully. In the evening, everyone gathers around the dinner table to unpack their day over a home-cooked meal.

Of course, for a Syrian refugee, there’s an array of added obstacles to this routine. Most refugees have little experience with English, making it difficult to navigate public schools and the job market. There’s also the cultural barrier—though most New Haven residents don’t express outright hostility towards their newly arrived refugee neighbors, culture shock and language barriers make it difficult for refugees to thrive socially. Even for New Haveners with a positive outlook on the city’s refugee influx, it’s all too easy to give these new neighbors a lukewarm reception, leaving refugees feeling isolated. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, with xenophobia sweeping the country, it is now more important than ever to make refugees feel at home.

A new student organization at Yale, Students of Salaam, is making an effort to bridge the intangible divide between refugee families and the New Haven community. The group takes its name from the Arabic word for peace, a word which is ubiquitous in the Arabic language’s colorful greeting conventions.  Instead of a simple “hello”, Arabic speakers often say the equivalent of Peace be upon you.  The response: And may peace be upon you, as well.  It is fitting, then, that Students of Salaam has incorporated this salutatory term into its name—the group’s mission is to forge interpersonal connections, and to facilitate the peaceful coexistence of refugees within their new community.    

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In September 2015, Stella Shannon, BK ’18, and Aaminah Bhat, BR ’18, saw an opportunity for Yalies to make a positive contribution to New Haven’s growing refugee population on a micro scale. Both Shannon and Bhat have experience with the Middle East, the Arabic language, and work in immigrant communities, so involvement with New Haven’s refugees was immediately relevant to them. In describing the inception of Students of Salaam, Bhat says she was driven by a desire to “make a sustainable, lasting impact” in the New Haven communityto leave behind something valuable after her four short years here.

Since its founding last year, Students of Salaam has expanded to provide a wide array of services to the New Haven community. According to Shannon, there are two central focuses of the organization: tutoring and community-building. Both intend to break cultural barriers and foster inclusion in New Haven, according to the group’s mission statement. Tutoring takes place in New Haven public schools, but it doesn’t focus on the minutiae of English grammar—it’s all about making refugees feel confident and at home in their new city. As Shannon puts it, “We want to devote the time to engage in self-expression, and liberal arts and creative writing, because those are the things that have been really important to us [Aaminah and I] in personal growth, and we recognize that these students are very smart and they’re also experiencing lots of change…They need a way to express that.” This alternative approach to tutoring was at first greeted tepidly by teachers who were hesitant to give up class time, but it quickly gained popularity among pupils and teachers alike. For many of the K-8 students served by Students of Salaam’s “ambassadors” (the term Students of Salaam uses to refer to their community outreach volunteers), spending time on self-expression has led to noticeable positive results in the classroom.

Tutoring intends to alleviate some of the cultural and linguistic barriers faced by young refugees, but for Students of Salaam, refugee resettlement is not simply a process of assimilation—educating the host community is equally as important. The organization has hosted public library screenings of films that showcase Arab culture and put together a talk about democracy. In an upcoming Syrian cooking class, New Haven residents will be given the opportunity to take home a bit of their new neighbors’ tasty cuisine. According to Bhat, just as Students of Salaam aims to help refugee families with their transition, an integral part of the organization is to access community members “who don’t really understand what it means to be a refugee, and help them understand.”

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During the year that Students of Salaam has been active in New Haven, the group has been warmly received both by refugees and native New Haveners. Though the group is new, its 30-or-so ambassadors have already made a splash around New Haven. After noting the success of Students of Salaam’s tutoring initiative, a local high school reached out to the organization to give a “peace talk.” The New Haven Register later contacted the group, interested in publishing an article highlighting Students of Salaam’s next public film screening.

But the slew of anti-refugee rhetoric accompanying the recent presidential election has raised fears that Students of Salaam will face new obstacles to fostering inclusion. Shannon surmises that most New Haveners currently have a neutral opinion of refugees; up to now, it’s been Students of Salaam’s goal to turn that neutral opinion into a favorable one. The protracted anti-refugee rhetoric could create much more resistance to attempts to change minds. Some of the younger refugees have also expressed concern and uncertainty about the election.

But Students of Salaam generally remains hopeful that America’s turbulent political year won’t pose major difficulties to their mission. According to ambassador Malak Nasr, many refugees and ambassadors have experienced comparatively “much worse” political upheaval: coups, dictatorships and civil war. From this perspective, New Haven remains a safe community where Students of Salaam can continue its interpersonal outreach, regardless of what’s happening in politics.

At the end of the day, Students of Salaam’s co-presidents are optimistic, too. Shannon explains, “We’re not pushing for policy…. Even the most averse to bringing in refugees, all we’re saying is we’re going to make life better for everybody involved once they get here…. We’re just trying to provide support.”

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Students of Salaam isn’t just breaking barriers between New Haveners and their new refugee neighborsit’s helping Yalies become active and integrated into the Elm City. Nasr leads Students of Salaam’s in-home tutoring program, through which a few Yale students pay home visits to newly arrived Syrian refugee families to tutor children and provide company. The families welcome the gesture, especially because many Students of Salaam ambassadors speak Arabic, Farsi, and other languages spoken by New Haven’s refugee population.

Nasr, an international Yalie from Egypt, points out how crucial it is that so many Students of Salaam ambassadors are fluent in refugees’ native languages. Shannon underscores the importance of matching refugees with ambassadors who can speak their language. “Most of them [the ambassadors] are refugees or immigrants themselves, or children of immigrants,” Shannon said. Yale’s diverse community, then, has a unique ability to make newly arrived refugees feel welcome in their Connecticut home. Many Yalies, like Nasr and other ambassadors, come from similar cultural backgrounds as the refugees. The fact that Students of Salaam ambassadors are so well-versed in the refugees’ culture, as well as the English-speaking American cultural sphere, gives the ambassadors a singular ability to make New Haven feel a lot more like home.

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A new organization with big goals, Students of Salaam is recognizing the unique ways in which we, as a diverse community of Yale students, can make a meaningful impact in our home community. Students of Salaam acts on a small scale, but works toward long-term results. The operation— commissioning its ambassadors to work with just a few children at a time, or one family, or a small group of high school students—may seem unassuming. The community engagement activities are not calls for sweeping political change, but, rather, movie screenings and culture workshops open to any passersby.

But ambassadors and the two co-presidents firmly believe in the lasting positive effect of micro-level community engagement. Ambassadors like Nasr have noticed previously reticent students becoming increasingly confident and cheerful as the recent Americans navigate the beginning of their new lives. With regularity and attentiveness, ambassadors help the refugees navigate the peculiarities of American pronunciation, and the surprising pickiness of American eaters. Students of Salaam recognizes that Yalies, especially those with relevant cultural and linguistic experience, have a unique opportunity to welcome New Haven’s newest families.  

Beyond the language barrier, New Haven’s refugee families are “just like us”—and that’s the simple message that drives Shannon and Bhat. Refugees experience the same daily victories and setbacks as everyone else, alongside everyone else, but with superficial hindrances that get in the way. Bhat explains that she doesn’t even like to refer to our newest neighbors as “refugees.” “Because guess what? They’re immigrants. They’re Americans now, too.”               

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