A Syrian refugee was in Albany Thursday to take part in a panel discussion, "Facing the Global Immigration and Refugee Crisis," at The State University of New York's Rockefeller Institute of Government. The event kicked off a celebration of immigrants and cultural diversity in the area.
Albany is quite familiar with the Global Refugee Crisis - In 2009, New York's Capital City became one of dozens of "Sanctuary" cities, towns and counties across the country that have laid out the welcome mat for those in exile. Initiatives like "Family Promise" have helped newcomers settle here.
Maher Nasser, Public Information Director of and a 28-year veteran with the United Nations, was keynote speaker at the Rockefeller Institute gathering. "Last year the UN counted more than 60 million people displaced, about a third of them refugees, and they are mainly displaced by conflict. 86 percent of those are in developing countries, in countries that are neighboring those conflicts. 1 million of them have made it into Europe. But the bulk of them are in parts of the world that you don't see often on the screen."
Panelist Sana Mustafa took a train up from in Annandale-On-Hudson to participate in the discussion. Now 24 years old, she left her home in Syria on May 1, 2013 for a series of workshops in Lebanon and Egypt on conflict resolution and peace building. During her trip, the young activist was accepted into a six-week U.S.-Middle East partnership initiative program at Roger Williams University in Washington, D.C., which began a month after her workshops. Mustafa's family encouraged her to go abroad. She last saw them in Lebanon. "I left my father behind coming here to the U.S. and it's been 985 days since we heard anything about him. July 2, 2013 he was kidnapped by Assad regime forces in Damascus, Syria, and that was it. We don't know if he's alive, we don't know where he is, we don't know anything about him. And this is not only my dad, this is the situation of over 70,000 detainees."
Shortly after her arrival in D.C. Sana’s mother and two sisters fled to a city in Turkey where they live today, getting by on her sister's modest wages as an online journalist covering the conflict. "I was left with nothing. I was not prepared. It was really shock. I did not have time to understand what's happened. I think I still don't."
After being granted asylum, Sana found an Institute of International Education survey that matched her with Bard College, which accepted most of her credits, enabling her to graduate in two years instead of four. She hopes one day to be able to return to Syria.
But Syria is being severely impacted by climate change: between 2007 and 2010 — on the eve of the revolution, unprecedented drought struck the so-called "fertile crescent," disrupting agriculture and forcing people to move.
In the interest of finding a global solution, the UN has invited world leaders to a first-of-its-kind conclave that will convene in Turkey. Nasser says it will include a plan to be better prepared to prevent crises and conflicts before they occur. "Deal with climate-change induced migration. The Secretary-General of the United Nations is calling for the first ever World Humanitarian Summit. It will take place in Istanbul 23rd 24th of May. That is meant to galvanize mobilize global support for at least dealing with current crisis but also looking beyond that."
Jill Peckenpaugh, the Albany-based director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, says 70,000 refugees have been resettled nationwide over the last two years. "In Albany we've been re-settling at a rate of about 400 the last few years. Since 2005, when the USCRI Albany office opened, we re-settled over 3100 people or so in the last ten years. This year we expect between 400 and 500 people to be re-settled in Albany."
As part of ongoing events in conjunction with the A City of Immigrants celebration in Albany, WAMC Northeast Public Radio and the Albany Times Union are partnering for a panel discussion at The Linda, WAMC's Performing Arts Studio, on Thursday, March 24th at 1 p.m. The live broadcast is free and open to the public.
:BONUS AUDIO: Q and A session that took place following the panel discussion at the Rockefeller Institute.