By Logan Hullinger
INDIANA — Since September, about 1,300 of the refugees fleeing the bloody civil war in Syria have settled in the United States. In Indiana, Pa., a group of citizens and professors is preparing for Syrian refugees to settle here soon.
In January, community organizer Poom Sunhachawi-Taylor and attorney John A. Hanna established the Refugee Working Group to raise local awareness of the crisis and to lend a helping hand to those in need.
For Sunhachawi-Taylor, it’s personal. She lived most of her life in the Middle East, where her father was stationed by the United Nations Security Council. His final assignment was Damascus, Syria.
“At the time the area was a conflict zone,” Sunhachawi-Taylor said during an interview on Tuesday in the Hadley Union Building on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus. “I saw first-hand the violence that took place there. I remember tanks rolling through the area and destruction all over. That’s what made me passionate about getting involved.”
Hanna, too, has Syrian roots. He is of Orthodox-Syrian descent.
“Both of my grandparents were born in Syria,” Hanna said as he sat with Sunhachawi-Taylor. “Although I haven’t been able to return there, the innate affiliation I have with my family’s home country makes it heartbreaking to see the destruction there.”
Recent reporting from inside Syria pegged the civil war death toll at 470,000, substantially higher than what the United Nations had been reporting based on 2014 data. The latest figures estimated that more than one in 10 Syrians — 10 percent of the population — have been wounded or killed since the start of the war in 2011.
By comparison, one in 10 Americans equals 32 million. The U.S. Civil War, the bloodiest American conflict, killed 750,000, or 2.4 percent of the U.S. population in 1860, according to recent historical research.
ON MONDAY, the local refugee group will co-sponsor a Six O’Clock Series discussion, “Debunking the Myths About Refugee Resettlement,” in the HUB Ohio Room at 6 p.m.
Later that evening, the refugee group will co-sponsor a fundraiser by the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation at the Calvary Presbyterian Church, at 8 p.m..
It’s a humanitarian duty to help refugees, said Sunhachawi-Taylor and Hanna.
“This is a step-by-step process,” Hanna said. “The first thing to address is educating the community about what’s going on and why they should help.”
Monday evening’s church fundraiser will make that case. A slideshow by a SAMS representative will show what it’s like to be a refugee, to leave home and to assimilate into an unknown place, Sunhachawi-Taylor said.
“The refugees affect our society globally,” Sunhachawi-Taylor said. “The SAMS organization sees first-hand the violence and destruction overseas. The fact that they’re spreading awareness in our nation as well shows how the problem reaches from one end of the world to the other.”
Amanda B. Poole, associate professor of anthropology, referred to the collaboration as a “perfect marriage” between the university and the community.
“It’s wonderful to see,” Poole said during an interview in her McElhaney Hall office on Friday. “I hope it will prove that even a small community like ours can make a difference if we come together for a similar cause.”
Poole dismissed myths about Syrian refugees.
“Many people think that the refugees are the cause of these conflicts — and they couldn’t be more wrong,” Poole said. “They are the victims. And they have plenty to offer to the areas where they migrate, if people give them the chance.”
Poole acknowledged growing resistance in Europe to refugees fleeing conflicts in the Mideast and elsewhere.
“People are worried about refugees bringing extremism and violence into their home countries,” Poole said. “But if refugees see promise and kindness in the areas where they move, that won’t be a problem.”
URGENCY trumps anxiety, Hanna said.
“People are starving and being tortured because they were in the wrong place and the wrong time,” Hanna said. “So let’s put a stop to this.”
Sunhachawi-Taylor said she is hopeful of efforts here.
“I’m very happy with the collaboration between the university and the community,” Sunhachawi-Taylor said. “I’m positive that this effort, through education and awareness, can be a stepping-stone to reforming the terrible things going on.”
The RWG is developing a Syrian refugee awareness workshop for IUP’s 2016 fall semester and preparing to sponsor a Syrian refugee in Indiana County, Sunhachawi-Taylor said.
Logan Hullinger, a sophomore journalism major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania from Clarion, is a staff reporter for The HawkEye. He can be contacted at L.R.Hullinger@iup.edu.