15 September 2015, Pleasanton
Foothill High students from German, AP Human Geography, and International Relations classes met with Melissa Fleming, Head of Communications and Spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in a Google Hangout to discuss the Syrian refugee crisis and the European response. The session was coordinated by Foothill teachers Heather Fleming (World Languages) and Nathan Parrish (Social Studies) and held at the Foothill library. PUSD Interim Superintendent, Jim Hansen and Nicole Steward, PUSD Coordinator of Communication & Community Engagement were also in attendance.
Students raised questions about issues such as the insufficient funding to help refugees, how media images of refugees affect the reactions of European citizens, and what students can do to help.
Speaking from her office in Geneva, Switzerland, Ms Fleming agreed that funding is sorely limited. She pointed out the enormous disparity between humanitarian and military budgets. She stated that given the seeming inability of the international community to prevent or stop the wars which drive people from their homes, helping the victims is the least that can be done.
Ms Fleming highlighted the role of education as a critical tool in preparing for the future of war-torn countries. Too few refugee children are enrolled in schools, yet they will hopefully one day return home to rebuild their countries. Without education and training, war and strife may be perpetuated. The international community should seize the opportunity to transform these children through education so that they return to their countries as agents of positive change, rebuilding, and reconciliation.
Pointing to the role of media, Ms Fleming said that television images and photographs are extremely powerful in shaping public opinion. Statistics and reports of millions of Syrians leaving their homes seemed to have little effect on the international community. However, the image of a little boy who had washed up on a beach in Turkey -- a Syrian refugee whose overloaded boat capsized while crossing the Mediterranean -- prompted widespread dismay in the European public, which soon led to the decision of the German government to welcome Syrian refugees into Germany.
According to Ms Fleming, students can help in a number of ways. Since there is much misinformation about refugees and what determines this status, it is crucial for individuals to educate themselves and others regarding refugees’ rights and circumstances. One can start at the community level and explore if there are programs for resettling refugees. One can also get involved in many social media groups which are working for refugee causes, as well as donate money to UNHCR and other organizations.
All in all, the event was extremely well-attended and provided a unique opportunity for the students to interact with the spokesperson of the UNHCR on an issue of immediate global concern and importance.
To view the Google Hangout meeting, please visit the YouTube Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qupML6h_90Y