“There is no one poster child for what a refugee looks like or what they are seeking safe haven from,” says Pamela Fiber-Ostrow, a Cal State Fullerton professor of political science.
Fiber-Ostrow leads a six-week study abroad trip to Italy each summer, where students learn about the complexities of the worldwide refugee crisis in addition to being exposed to Italian life and culture.
“The Mediterranean Sea has been called a graveyard,” explains Fiber-Ostrow. “Refugees from Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, Ghana, Sudan, Egypt, Sierra Leone and other parts of Africa are dying by the hundreds and thousands weekly, attempting to cross to reach the European Union.”
Students visit refugee centers and hear firsthand accounts from asylum seekers who have survived such harrowing experiences as being stuffed on boats and rafts, with unsanitary conditions and at the brink of capsizing.
Students also are challenged to consider how they would go about deciding which refugees — those fleeing death from famine, war, religious or sexual persecution, tyrannical regimes, political or ethnic threats — should be granted refuge when many countries have capacity quotas.
“Many students are not particularly aware of the crisis, but meeting with refugees and talking with them provides a critical link to bringing our global crisis into perspective for them,” says Fiber-Ostrow.
The 19 students who participated in the 2017 summer program visited two refugee centers — one in Villaggio La Brocchi, a hilltop village outside of Florence, and another in Porteci, a suburban town outside of Naples.
“Going to the refugee centers and hearing their stories of escaping war, poverty and famine really opened my eyes to how privileged we are as Americans,” says criminal justice major Natalie Serrano. “I would recommend studying abroad to anyone — exposing yourself to new things and learning how to adapt to new cultures are skills you can take with you throughout the rest of your life.”
Alayah Byers, a communications and African American studies double-major, finds herself paying closer attention to news beyond the U.S. since returning from Italy.
“I am much more aware of global news and spend more time reading about what’s going on in other countries,” says Byers. “It’s important for us all to remember that injustices are happening globally and not just in America.”
The “Human Rights, Religion, Immigration and Nationalism” program in Italy will be offered again in summer 2018. Visit the Office of Study Abroad website for application details and more information.