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Inaugural event sheds light on global refugee crisis


On Thursday evening, the Stanford Refugee Research Project (SRRP) and Stanford Global Health organized “Rise with Refugees: A Deep Dive into an Accelerating Crisis,” an inaugural campus-wide event to raise awareness about global displacement and develop opportunities for student engagement.

Speakers discussed the role of Silicon Valley technology in alleviating the refugee crisis, the challenges of delivering healthcare for refugees and opportunities for students to get involved. Audience members included refugees and humanitarian workers, who spoke in dialogue with the event speakers on refugees’ needs and their potential to contribute to their host nations.

Funded by University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and School of Medicine dean Lloyd Minor, and led by senior associate dean for Global Health and principal investigator Michele Barry, SRRP aims to accomplish its three main goals — identifying potential contributors, conducting research and implementing a pilot program — over an 18-month period.

Barry opened the event by providing background on the severity of the global refugee crisis. Among the many challenges this crisis presents, Barry listed the sheer number of displaced persons, donor fatigue, exclusion in countries of asylum, a lack of responsibility for refugee acceptance and the denial of human rights.

The first panel, moderated by Paul Wise, professor in child health, focused on the delivery of health services to displaced communities in areas of conflict. To preface the panel, Wise explained the importance of recognizing that most of the conflicts and needs affecting large civilian populations today are protracted, rather than acute.

“At some level, the humanitarian response — the human response — needs to address the epidemiology of need,” Wise said.

Wise was joined by Syrian American Medical Society board member Mayssoun Alhariri, former Médecins Sans Frontières board member Jane Coyne and UC Berkeley Human Rights Center research fellow Rohini Haar. The panelists echoed Wise’s claim that all humanitarian crises are long-term. According the panelists, this reality renders sustained support a critical concern.

Coyne distinguished between humanitarian funding, which is distributed based on death and displacement, and development assistance, which is extended when domestic political authorities accept the allocation of money to foreign support. She went on to say that that there is no efficient allocation of resources in either of these spheres.

“Is it a failure of ambition? Or is it that these challenges in the political and financial space are too hard to overcome?” Coyne asked.

Haar added that there exists a false distinction between human rights issues and humanitarian crises. In reality, however, Haar said that the two go hand in hand.

“You don’t have humanitarian crises without underlying development problems and human rights issues,” Haar said.

Haar also explained that the dialogue concerning refugees is often divorced from the actual conflicts occurring on the ground. As a result, issues like overpopulation and inadequate protection of human rights are often neglected.

Questions from audience members led the panelists into a discussion of how to quantify successful relief work, the tension between sovereign states and humanitarian groups and how to determine which services are most imperative.

One audience member, a refugee herself, said, “I don’t need money. I need emotional support.”

The seminar also featured guest speaker Sediq Hazratzai, a refugee who immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan in July 2016 with his wife and two children. Hazratzai described the extremely difficult circumstances under which he grew up after the death of his father, the collapse of the regime in 1991 and the ensuing civil war. He now works as a monitoring and evaluation consultant in the Ministry of Public Health, using expertise in the U.S. to address health needs back in Afghanistan.

Following Hazratzai’s remarks, the second panel of the evening was moderated by SRRP project lead and mental health researcher Laila Soudi. Soudi was joined by four panelists who discussed the role of Silicon Valley technology in alleviating the refugee crisis.

UNICEF-Innovation lab lead Blair Palmer discussed the ways in which the organization uses scalable innovation for social good. Palmer cited a New York Times article in which refugees were quoted saying that their cell phone was the item that had kept them alive.

“Man-made emergencies are becoming way more complex, so the need for connectivity is already playing out in unexpected circumstances,” Palmer said.

Palmer added that UNICEF has developed tech hubs at transfer points along the migration route, equipped with computers, printers and charging stations. UNICEF is also using technology to improve access to education among out-of-school refugee children by teaching both technical-based and design thinking in their “Social Innovation Labs” throughout Jordan.

“We want people to recognize that refugees are resources for host communities,” Palmer said, emphasizing the importance of education. “We must recognize their capacity to contribute.”

Heather Howard, senior global health advisor of the American Refugee Committee, attended the event as an audience member. Toward the end of the panel, she gave her input on the question of what refugees need.

“We have this idea that as humanitarians we know what people need for their survival, but we shouldn’t really just look to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to assume that we, as humanitarians coming in from the outside, know,” Howard said. “Ask them.”


Contact Olivia Mitchel at omitchel ‘at’

Olivia Mitchel '21 is a staff writer for the academics news beat. Born and raised in San Francisco, she fell in love with classical piano and various styles of dance at an early age. A biology major on the pre-med track, Olivia plans to complete the Notation in Science Communication.