Fulbright Scholar speaks at SHU on European refugee crisis

Abramac shares her experiences with refugees to students and staff. Photo by H.Carnahan/Setonian.

11 million people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other middle eastern countries have fled their war torn homes since 2011. Hundreds of thousands of others have been killed.

Gabrielle Abramac, a Fulbright Scholar from New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, knows what it’s like to be a refugee. On Sept. 17, 1991, she was forced to leave behind her home in Croatia and survive in a refugee camp. Her home was liberated in 1995, and Abramac returned to rebuild her life.

She spoke to students and faculty about the current European refugee crisis on March 28 in Cecilian Hall. The event was co-sponsored by the SHU Division of Humanities and the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education.

“Europe is more alone than ever,” said Abramac. “When people think of Europe, they think of shared means and shared goals, not a place of common market. Europe is only handling a very small fraction of what the refugee crisis is.”

Excluding Syrians, Afghanistan refugees are the largest number of asylum seekers at 46 percent.

“These refugees are very different than the ones I knew as a refugee,” described Abramac. “The people today are more empowered than ever. People being disillusioned and suffering, not being able to coming to terms with what’s happening to you and not believing what’s happening to you– those are universal things.”

Over 21,000 people have risked their lives to save their lives by crossing borders in 2017 alone. There are three stages to a refugee’s journey– they find shelter at refugee camps, journey to Europe and then arrive at their final destination, wherever they choose to stay. Abramac showed a brief clip from the the 2017 Oscar nominated documentary “4.1 Miles” to illustrate this.

There are multiple difficulties that arise from refugee camps. Children lack proper education and more than three million of these children need psychological help that they don’t have access to. There’s poor security, health facilities and a lack of an opportunity for training or growth. Women face even larger risks in these camps, including domestic violence, child brides and prostitution.

Abramac dedicated her lecture to Rahmat Ullah Hanife, a Syrian refugee who was betrayed by smugglers. He and 15 other Afghan youths were told to cross over the frozen Tisza River in Serbia when the ice cracked. He couldn’t swim.

He was only 22 years old.

Refugees wait in line for food at a camp in Belgrade, Serbia. Photo courtesy of metro.co.uk.

“It really broke my heart,” said Abramac. “He told his parents he was going to find a better future for himself, and then just for them to find the news that he had died… This is just one of the many things that has happened. You’re told that there are 2.8 million refugees in Turkey. It’s not a number. It’s 2.8 million individual stories.”

While some countries take in refugees with open arms, such as Germany, others do what they can to deter refugees from stepping foot inside their borders. Macedonian police fire tear gas and fire rubber bullets. Turkey uses refugees as a bartering commodity with nearby countries. Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, or the Visegrad Four, place pig heads on stakes at their borders to scare refugees away.

“I think the solution would be to repair their countries so people can rebuild and expand,” said Abramac. “I don’t know if this is possible because the conflict is still going on.”

Abramac has a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Zagreb in Croatia and a research interest in sociology, language, identity and migration. She has worked as a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. She is also the executive director of the Sokrat Language Institute, which she founded in 2000.

Abramac is also fluent in English, Spanish and Croatian and is language proficient in German, French, Italian, Slovenian, Latino and Yiddish. She has also written books on Yiddish and other academic articles.

“I thought of this as a sort of payback to Seton Hill because they paid for my scholarship to study Holocaust studies in Jerusalem in 2003,” said Abramac. “I’ve also kept in touch with many of the people here.”

“She made us realize the enormity of this crisis, not only for Europe but the world,” said Sister Gemma Del Duca, a Seton Hill Sister of Charity, after the presentation. “We have seen so much from one century to another, and it is a different time. That’s the name of the game. People are going to be so different from what we used to be.”

“Different people are going to come into our lives, and we’re going to have to have open hearts and open minds to try to understand what they’re about,” said Del Duca. “The cultures are so different that we don’t know what goes on in these camps or what they’re thinking. We have to be decent human beings.”

The Balkan Route

The popular route to Germany includes many risks, including crossing many borders. Photo courtesy of independent.co.uk.

While officially closed in 2016, the Balkan route is still a frequently traveled path to Germany. In each of the countries, there are many camps for refugees to stop along the way. Some then decide they want to stay, while others carry on.

“Living room organizations” were set up in Croatia to provide fundraising, shelter, translation teams and other resources for refugees to utilize during their stay. Other European countries have similar sanctuaries for refugees.

But some countries are not as welcoming as others.

In Bulgaria, refugees are treated much like the Roma, or Gypsy, populations are treated. They are met with racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. Bulgaria also shut down their reception center due to a spread of disease.

Macedonians forcibly return refugees to Greek camps. The Czech Republic is solidly against taking in asylum seekers.

Despite these obstacles, refugees carry on since Germany is one of the few countries to welcome them with open arms. Many of these refugees view German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a mother-figure for giving them the hope they needed.

Germany has taken in millions of Syrian, Afghan and other middle eastern refugees since 2014. However, not all Germans approve of the ruling. The population has drastically increased and many feel as though their culture is being threatened.

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