Student Activist Group Aims For Smith Scholarships For Refugees in Northampton

Photo by Eden Philips ‘19 | Katie Bei Heald ’18 sits at the Higher Education for Refugees table at the Organization Fair on Sept. 17.

Photo by Eden Philips ‘19 | Katie Bei Heald ’18 sits at the Higher Education for Refugees table at the Organization Fair on Sept. 17.

Hira Humayun ’17

Student activist group aims for Smith scholarships for refugees in Northampton since last December when Northampton decided to welcome 51 refugees, Smith students have been ready to dive into the cause and play their part in resettling the refugees into the community. Higher Education for Refugees at Smith (HERS) was an initiative that began last semester that aims to set up a scholarship for the incoming refugees to enable them to pursue higher education here at Smith.

This initiative came out of Professor Alfred Babo’s humanities lab on refugees and forced migration last year. Babo brought together a group of students who were interested in taking action and responding to the crisis they were learning about.

“Those of us who were interested came together and brainstormed what we wanted to do, and we decided that our main goal would be to try to get a scholarship set up at Smith for refugees who are resettled in Massachusetts,” said Khulood Fahim ’19, co-chair of HERS. The organization, which began as Smith College Students Action for Refugee Group, has since narrowed its focus to campaign for higher education for refugees. They are also deeply involved in other outreach initiatives in Northampton.

“We created a mission statement last year,” said Katie Bei Heald ’18, co-chair of HERS. HERS has collaborated with the Lewis Global Studies center as well. Last semester, the organization hosted a faculty tea featuring Professors Greg White of the government department and Steven Heydemann of the Middle East studies department to discuss the possible complications with the organizations work, specifically centered around immigration and visa requirements. They decided that since the organization is new, it would be easier to start out with those who already have refugee status and to limit their reach to Massachusetts for now. “We do hope to start expanding once we succeed,” said Fahim.

Currently, HERS is conducting foundation work. Since its inception the board members have worked on their mission statement, gotten support from faculty members and identified and compiled a list of contacts in town and around campus who can help and conduct further research into the issue.

“It was mostly setting the foundations and getting our name known, at least to the faculty members,” said Fahim. “And we have their support now, and they want to help. Just getting faculty support, getting support from these departments so that as we go along, we have people who are in faculty and staff who are working with us and who know who we are.”

“We had a lot of people — over 70 — sign up at the org fair,” said Heald. “So that was really exciting.” The co-chairs explained that this year, the group plans to do more outreach, both on and off-campus. Aside from the scholarship initiative, they also plan to engage in side projects with the community, to help support refugee resettlement in Northampton.

During previous meetings, the board members did a lot of brainstorming, coming up with ideas such as writing cards and holding winter clothing drives to help resettle the refugees. They also planned to spread information both on campus and in the local community regarding responses to the cause through events like movie screenings.

“I guess part of it is because we’re students and we realize how important it is and how lucky we are to be here because a lot of people don’t have a chance to go to university, to go to even elementary school, finish high school—so we don’t want that to be lost hope for refugees,” said Heald.

The faculty members and the Lewis Global Studies Center advise the group on appropriate steps to take, who to reach out to and provide feedback on the goals the group sets.

As we try to contact the higher-ups in administration for example, we hope that the faculty will be there to support us help us navigate those meetings and how we should approach things,” said Fahim.

The organization is still in the process of meeting with Smith administration to determine how much it is willing to contribute and accordingly, how much the organization itself must do. They hope to secure one to two scholarships every year, which would include full tuition, room and board, money for books and other necessary expenses.

The co-chairs explained that there has been a positive response from the Smith community. Professors and students have shown interest and expressed what an important issue HERS is tackling. “We already know that this is an issue that Smith cares about,” said Fahim. “This summer, the President sent out a letter which included this as [one of] the issues going on that she’s been thinking about so we already know that this is an issue that’s present at Smith and we hope that beyond the people we’ve already reached, that it’s going to be well-received.”

“I was really happy when I felt that the org was really established that I could talk about it during orientation,” said Fahim, who presented about the organization to the international students during orientation.

“I was really excited when I found out there was something I could do here,” said Fahim. “I find it very important to connect people with opportunities that they’ve lost at no fault of their own, opportunities that they never thought they would lose, that they thought were guaranteed that they would have. And for us to be able to do something to reconnect people with these opportunities that they lost is, I think, very important for us to do.”

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