Although she’s only in her second year of college, Kalamazoo College student Emily Worline is reaching out to make a difference in the lives of refugees and migrants, both within and beyond her community.
This past fall, Worline — who spent a month volunteering at a camp in Greece last summer working primarily with Syrian refugees — started the organization Refugee Outreach Kalamazoo (ROK) at her college as a way to connect students with local refugee and migrant populations and give them a platform to tell their stories of migration.
Now, the initiative has spread throughout Michigan — a state that in 2016 resettled almost 1,600 migrants from 21 different countries. There are now three chapters of ROK, one at Kalamazoo College, another at Michigan State University, and a third at Western Michigan University, with two more chapters waiting on the wings — at the University of Michigan and Grand Valley State University.
ROK’s message is simple enough: that the best way to understand the challenges of migration is to have dialogues with people who have experienced it first-hand. The organization has organized documentary viewings, open-ended storytelling segments, and even a participatory cooking class with Syrian chefs.
Global Citizen spoke with Worline about her initiative:
Global Citizen: What sparked your decision to go to a refugee camp in Greece?
Emily Worline: A really close friend of mine was going to Greece and he was telling me about the issue. I knew very generally what was going on but I didn’t have a very good understanding of why there were people that were displaced, or what displacement really was, or what it all entailed.
Then once he said he was doing that, I started thinking and looking more into it, and from there I was like, “You know what? I’m going with you.” So I took the spring quarter off, and went with him. The largest refugee camp I worked at was Idomeni [at the border of Greece and Macedonia].
What were your expectations going into this?
I didn’t really know what would happen. I expected to see people sleeping in tents. Then once I got there it was completely not what I expected. I was actually supposed to stay there for three months, and I ended up staying there for only one month because I realized how problematic going somewhere like that without a clear mission, without a clear understanding of what’s going on, was. It felt a whole lot like the “voluntourism.”
I basically hit rock bottom. I’ve never felt the way I felt after going there and just knowing that I’m not doing enough here, I’m not doing anything. Me being there wasn’t helping the people I wanted to help. It was really only benefiting me, I started to realize. I came home two months earlier and that is what really motivated me to start Refugee Outreach Kalamazoo. I realized that this situation isn’t something we can ignore anymore.
The more and more that I looked into these issues, the more and more I was called to action. And that’s when I started to think of the resources that I had available to me. I had a lot of friends that attended different universities [in Michigan] and that’s how we were able to kind of start working together and start funneling the resources we had available to us to those who could maybe use them a little bit more than we could.
What are the services that ROK provides?
We connect our community to the global migration disaster. This is our first year of founding, so our first year we were really focused on building relationships with the non-profits and resettlement agencies in Michigan, the two largest being Samaritas and Bethany Christian Services. We mostly have focused this year on advocacy work. We’ve strived to create a platform for people who have experienced displacement to teach the community what displacement really is.
Really, to me, the only way we can progress from here is finding a way to humanize this crisis and to do that I think more stories need to be told and the voices of those who are most marginalized, those are the voices that we need to hear, those are voices that we need to focus on.
What are some of those stories that you’re amplifying?
One example of this is that we had an event at Michigan State and Western Michigan University this year with [informal presentations from] people who have experienced displacement in a variety of ways. We had 50 people show up at the first and 70 at the second, and we basically just said [to the presenters]: “Hey, we value your story and we think a lot of people in this community can learn something from what you have to say, especially in regards to this crisis. Here’s a stage, tell any story that you think this community could benefit hearing from and learn something from.”
We had bands and live music playing in between. I think we created quite a safe space, while also facilitating a way for the community members to be introduced to someone who is labeled as “refugee” or “resettled migrant” in a new way.
Another way we’ve done this is we had an event at Michigan State and WMU, and we’re actually planning one at Kalamazoo College right now, where we screened a documentary, “The Lost Boys of Sudan.” Afterwards we were lucky enough to be connected with three of the people this documentary tells of and they were able to lead discussion and answer questions after the documentary. So, that was a way of saying, “We can observe this documentary but the only people who can really answer questions in the most beneficial way would be the people who have experienced it themselves.” It was really, really powerful and I was very, very humbled to be a part of that discussion and a part of the process of getting that up and running.
The last example, we’re actually planning a multicultural cooking class right now that’s set to start at the end of this month, and basically we’re connected with seven people who have recently resettled to Michigan from Syria and they’re going to teach a cooking class about a dish from Syria. [We’re going to] get people from businesses around our community to attend this class and this is another way of just saying, we appreciate integration, not assimilation. We appreciate what you can teach us. We value those who are largely undervalued in our society.
What are the biggest misconceptions in the US about refugees?
I don’t know if I can speak to the largest misconceptions, but to me the misconceptions that have been brought to my attention perhaps most frequently have been, “Oh, well how can we help [foreigners] when we aren’t even helping everyone in our society?”
And we are helping them, but to a certain degree they’re also bringing a lot to our society, especially when you look at people who are migrating. These people are, especially the people that I’ve met, coming with degrees, they’re coming with specialized experience. They’re coming into our society and they’re learning English so fast. Within six months, I’m able to have conversations with people who have never spoken English in their entire lives. People are going through this process, and they get to the US and they want to start their trade again, they want to start working again.
Another thing I’ve gotten: “They’re going to take our jobs.” That’s always a hard one for me to respond to. A lot of them create businesses once they get here. For example, one of the towns that’s not too far from Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, there are two Burmese supermarkets right now on the same street. So, people are coming here and they’re creating jobs, as well, and I think that’s also important to recognize.
I think the common theme in this is that they’re going to come into our society and just take, take, take from us, and that’s really just not the case.
What do you envision for ROK, how do you want that to continue to grow?
I want it to continue to grow throughout universities. How I envision this growing is kind of going state-to-state. Right now we are expected to go to five universities in Michigan and potentially at Seattle University, as one of our current presidents is going to a master's program there.
What does it mean to be a Global Citizen? How can we become Global Citizens in this day and age?
It’s holding yourself accountable to not only your own community, but also to communities that are overseas. As globalization increases, the more you think about America’s place in the world, for example, the more you see how we’ve taken advantage of various places. [Being a Global Citizen is] basically holding yourself accountable to staying updated and aware of what’s going on the world and then also critically assessing your place within that.
For me, I’m a white woman from a middle class family. How am I being perceived when I volunteer in refugee camps that are largely from the Middle East? From my experience i’ve pretty much only volunteered with people from the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crises — so, how am I being perceived? What are our cultural differences? When I go and do the work that I do is it truly benefiting them? Am i truly doing things that are helping or hindering their resettlement process, or their search for asylum?