Georgia College Front Page

Student research leads to empathy for Syrian and Central American refugees

 Anna Schendl and  Maria Bermudez

The minds of three Georgia College philosophy students are a world away – researching the hardships of refugees from Syria and Central America. 

One studies immigrants escaping civil wars started when the United States sent drug gangs back to countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Another examines migrants in Lebanon and Jordan, who resort to child labor for money or return to war-torn Syria so children can be educated in their native tongue.

A third student considers the mental health of refugees fleeing homelands in search of safety and acceptance.

“It’s good they get a sense of the wider world,” said Dr. James Winchester, coordinator of Georgia College’s Philosophy Program. “The refugee crisis in Europe is one of the most important international events happening right now. I think it’s good for students to do research and think about possible solutions.”

The three students are junior Maria Bermudez of Carrollton, who’s double majoring in history and philosophy; first-year sociology major Anna Schendl of Marietta; and Shelby Breitmann, a first-year psychology major from Augusta. They’ll be among few students attending the Association of Global South Studies conference Nov. 20 – 22 in New Albany, Indiana. Winchester said he’s confident their work can withstand scrutiny at a professional conference comprised mostly of faculty.

Being an election year – the students saw immigration in the news and wanted to know more.

Bermudez was surprised by stigma attached to immigration. Her research exposed U.S. policies in the 1980s that led to deportation of drug lords and gangs to Central America. This helped ignite civil wars, causing another wave of refugees to flee in terror.

“I was intrigued by the fear I saw in a lot of individuals, who were against refugees coming into the United States,” Bermudez said. “I tried to go into it with an open mind, to see both sides of the issue.  But I was really surprised. I didn’t know that, in part, the United States did play a significant role for the war and chaos that’s going on now.”

Schendl’s research uncovered disproportionate numbers of Syrian refugees taken in by Lebanon and Jordan. Lebanon has accepted 1 million immigrants – about 20 percent of their entire population. About 700,000 refugees have entered Jordan.

“It’s really quite shocking how many they’ve taken in compared to their size,” she said.

Both countries are struggling to accommodate newcomers, strengthening education systems and healthcare services. But Schendl said more can be done. Children often must work to help families survive. When asked for proof of residency, some families risk returning to Syria to educate their children.

“I just feel very strongly the West isn’t doing as much as it should,” she said. “It’s really interesting for me to learn more about the struggle they’re going through. The fear sets in and they leave. Some go back to Syria, and that just really surprised me because it’s so dangerous.”

Schendl believes the United States should help by providing money for school supplies and better housing.

Breitmann’s interest in mental health led her to research refugees. Most countries provide medical assistance but forget about emotional and mental problems. She was surprised to learn most refugees need help for temporary stress disorders,

Shelby Breitmann

not post-traumatic stress.

“A lot of issues can be addressed by building stronger communities and more spaces where people feel safe,” Breitmann said. “In reality, a lot of it just has to do with feeling accepted in a new place without being judged.”

This research opportunity taught her where to look up information and how to think critically. The conference will help with networking, public speaking and “experiencing a bit more of the world,” said Breitmann, who hopes to be a counselor after college.

Bermudez also values the experience she’s getting through research.  It helped her consider all viewpoints and be more broad-minded, she said. Bermudez wants to be a politician someday – and make a difference in the lives of immigrants.

The philosophy program prepares students for many jobs, Winchester said. It uniquely goes beyond Western thinkers, delving into Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Chinese philosophy and race theory. This exposure - plus learning to read and write well, think critically and present research – is what he believes sets students apart, giving them confidence to achieve their goals in life.

Learning about social justice issues, like ethical and moral implications of immigration, helps students to think beyond themselves and ask: What do we owe these refugees?

“These people are fleeing horrific violence,” Winchester said. “A humanitarian crisis demands a humanitarian response. They tried to stay in their homelands for a very long time. If they’re coming now, it’s because they have to. They’re fleeing for their lives.”

Dr. James Winchester speaking to students about the Syrian and Central American refugee crisis.



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