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At Harvard, SIT Global Scholars share stories of challenge and hope

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SIT’s Global Scholars (from left) Bahati Kanyamanza, Kenneth Mukonyezi,
Fadia Thabet, Abdou Edris, and Tamam Abulteaf with Robin Young.

The strength and resilience that refugees bring to our communities and institutions came into sharp focus when five global scholars from SIT visited Harvard University’s Faculty Club on July 20 for a roundtable discussion with SIT alumni and guests led by Robin Young, host of the National Public Radio talk show Here & Now.

The scholars—from Syria, Yemen, Uganda, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo—all had to flee their homelands as a result of violence and conflict. They are attending SIT on full scholarships offered under the SIT Graduate Institute Global Scholar Program, which was launched in 2016. The program, which took shape as faculty and staff watched with alarm the xenophobia and nationalism that emerged during last year’s presidential election, is an extension of SIT’s decades-long history of engagement with refugees starting in the 1970s. 

Each of the scholars shared their experiences, both at home and in the United States.

“The challenges my father had are the same ones I face, and the same my daughter and every child in Uganda has to face,” Kenneth Mukonyezi told the Harvard audience about why he chose to leave his home. “I had to give a gift to my daughter to not go through the same challenges.”

Mukonyezi arrived in Massachusetts from Uganda largely by happenstance, when the seatmate on his flight to the United States mentioned that the state had a sizeable Ugandan population. “I arrived here two years ago, traumatized, hopeless, very broken. But along my way I met wonderful people” including two SIT alumnae from the Boston area who helped him learn to survive and eventually connected him with SIT Graduate Institute. 

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SIT’s Global Scholars with Dr. Sophia Howlett, president of SIT

Many refugees have endured horrific circumstances that have instilled a strong sense of survival, said Bahati Kanyamanza of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “For past 10 years, I’ve been working with children in refugee camps and I’ve realized there’s immense talent there. We have to offer them opportunities and show them a better way.”

“Refugees are not the problem, they are a symptom,” said Tamam Abulteaf, a member of Syria’s minority Druze community who was studying to become a Japanese language interpreter before war interrupted that dream. “We must decriminalize people first and listen to them through dialogue.”

Abdou Edris, from Sudan’s Darfur region recalled how he was abruptly arrested in 2002 after participating in a discussion at a Darfur university much like the talk he was giving at Harvard that day. “At that time, there was no genocide in Darfur. Rape wasn’t being used as a weapon. But there were indicators. I saw that and I told the students at the university that Darfur didn’t need weapons, it needed better education.” Two years after being arrested, he was able to flee Sudan for Egypt, where he lived as a refugee for 10 years and had to make a conscious decision to cling to hope.

Fadia Thabet of Yemen, who earlier this year received the U.S. State Department’s Woman of Courage Award for her work in Yemen with child soldiers, said it took her three weeks to decide whether to accept the prestigious award because she knew it would put a spotlight on her. “But when I compared my own story to 5-year-old children who have lost their arms and legs to landmines, ultimately I knew I had to take [the award] to call attention to what’s happening in Yemen, because no one is paying attention.”

As master’s degree candidates in peace and conflict transformation, sustainable development, and international education, the scholars aspire to return to work in their own countries or in refugee communities to help build the skills that can create peace at home.

“I’m hearing that giving back is what’s helping you survive,” observed Young.

Although he hasn’t seen his family in 14 years, Edris said, “If I chose to continue to live as a victim I couldn’t survive.” In Egypt, he trained to work as a psychosocial worker to help other refugees. “I encouraged my clients to try to do something better; to move from the situation that impacts them emotionally to one that gives hope in their life.” Now his focus is on helping children living with long-term trauma.

Like Edris, Thabet is also focusing on child victims of conflict. Through her peace and conflict transformation classes, she’s learned that there are a lot of different theories about how to reintegrate and restore victims of war, but one thing she’s sure of: “It’s not about taking away their weapons, it’s about how you empower [children] for the long term.”

Abulteaf said he’s studying international education at SIT so that he can “pass along the values we all want, to make a better education for our children.” Coming to the United States has given him time to think about his experiences—time he didn’t have in Syria, Abulteaf said. Although it’s a daily struggle, “It reminds me how grateful I am to be here in this global community, having this privilege compared to what my brothers and sisters in Syria are suffering.”

“The education that SIT offers trains our minds to solve these challenges,” said Mukonyezi. “We always have these conversations about empathy, putting yourself in someone’s shoes.” He added, “That is the right way to lead change.”

“These five are educating their fellow students, their professors, sharing stories that motivate all of us,” said Donald Steinberg, CEO of SIT’s parent organization, World Learning, who helped start the program. “Isn’t that a metaphor for immigration into the United States? We think we’re helping these individuals and they’re helping us far more than we could ever imagine.”  

SIT President Dr. Sophia Howlett, who assumed her office in January, said of her first meeting with the five scholars, “Even though I understood that I had come to this amazing institution with this amazing history, I think I really learned where I was when I sat with them and learned why they were at SIT.” She added, “Without a graduate level education you’re not going to build change-makers like this, who will go on to create a brighter future.”

Closing the discussion, Robin Young concurred. Nodding to the panelists beside her she said, “I think we will see these people again.”

These scholars would not be studying at SIT if it were not for the support of our generous donors. Please consider making a gift to support the Global Scholars program online or by contacting Tom Navin or calling 802 258-3173.