Karen Culcasi, geography professor at West Virginia University, spoke to a full crowd at Grand Rapids Community College Tuesday night on the Syrian Refugee Crisis and, more specifically, women refugees in Jordan.
Culcasi’s main goal of the lecture, she said, was to “humanize” these women and share their stories in hopes of making them more relatable to the general public.
“Refugees do not equal ‘burden on society,’” Culcasi said. “They have so many abilities, they have so much hope, and they’re people.”
One of the women Culcasi talked about was Fatima – a young woman with two kids who fled to Jordan, and sought out work to support her family, while her husband worked in another country, because men cannot work in Jordan. There are about 657,000 refugees in Jordan.
“Fatima was amazing, she blew me away,” Culcasi said. “Her immediate circumstances were quite dire and her future looked rather bleak, but there are actually many amazing things about Fatima as well. She exhibited such incredible resilience and strength, it was mind blowing to me. It was humbling to me.”
In Syria, a very patriarchal society, men are the primary breadwinners of the family and if women work outside of the home at all, the pay is seen as supplementary, or “fun money.”
“Their gender roles were shifting and changing,” Culcasi said, describing many women’s experience in Jordan.
Culcasi spent about 10 weeks in Jordan where she interviewed 51 women, as well as some men and aide workers. Her research has focused on the women’s experience and gender role reversal.
April Shirey, president of GRCC’s chapter of Gamma Theta Upsilon, a geographical honors society, said she admired Culcasi’s awareness of her Western feminism. For example, Culcasi would often hear about parents’ hopes for their sons’ futures, but not much hope for the daughters’, and Culcasi would have to hold back comments about female inferiority.
“I thought that was so interesting, especially as a geographer and a woman,” Shirey said. ”You do have to remember that these women are from other countries, and you do have to remember to separate yourself. You never want to misrepresent them.”
Culcasi said she plans to return to Jordan to talk to these women before publishing her work. She is currently working on a book that will be based on her research.
In addition to talking about the human experience, Culcasi also cleared up some facts about the refugee crisis, and how it has affected Europe and the United States. There is an estimated 13.5 million Syrian refugees globally, with six million still in Syria.
In 2015, the refugee crisis in Europe increased dramatically.
“It became about Europeans,” Culcasi explained. “It became a debate in Europe about what they’re obligated to do out of humanitarianism, out of law … and had some incredibly polarizing debates about what you need to do to be a human being and to care for another human being versus what you need to do to keep your culture and society the way it is without change.”
Culcasi added that about 820,000 Syrian refugees have sought refuge in Europe.
Many compare Europe’s debate about refugees to those of the United States’, and Culcasi said the two are not comparable. This is because there is less border control in Europe and many refugees can arrive to a country “spontaneously” or “seeking asylum.” Whereas, in the United States, the process is very planned, meaning the vetting process alone takes about two to three years. Another barrier is the Atlantic Ocean divide and intense U.S. border control.
By the end of 2016, the U.S. had taken in around 16,000 refugees. Culcasi compared that to GRCC’s enrollment of 17,890 students.
“There’s more students enrolled at GRCC than there are Syrian refugees in the entire country,” Culcasi said, adding that Canada has taken in 60,000 refugees. “We’ve taken in incredibly, incredibly small numbers of them … This context is really important because we’re living this right now, these are debates that are going to continue.”
Currently, the U.S. refugee policy is at a standstill with little hope that it will progress quickly, Culcasi said, because of the current administration.
GRCC Geography Professor Mike DeVivo said Culcasi is one of 43 distinguished geographers, according to the International Geographic Honor Society and the American Association of Geographers. Many of his – and other professor’s – students attended the lecture and plan to write a paper about the topic for his class.
DeVivo said, in order attempt to help with the refugee crisis, we as a people need to think about “global citizenship.”
“To be a global citizen is a desirable endeavor, contribute to humanity and contribute to the world,” DeVivo said. “Not necessarily in a political or legal sense, but to recognize though we are U.S. citizens, we do have an obligation to contribute to the sustainability of the Earth and its entirety.
“What happens in one place is going to have an impact on another place.”