UA Little Rock students investigate migrant crisis in Europe

While touring Parliament, the study abroad group met with a member of the Scotland Nationalist Party, Alison Thewliss,

A group of University of Arkansas at Little Rock students saw firsthand how the growing migrant crisis has changed Europe in recent years. 

Dr. Rebecca Glazier and Dr. Christopher Williams, professors in the UA Little Rock School of Public Affairs, led 10 students to Europe June 4-20, where they visited London, Paris, and Berlin to learn more about the challenges Europe faces in light of the migrant crisis.

The students who attended the study abroad trip, “Identity, Migration, and a Changing Europe,” include political science majors Charlana Benefield, Jorge Gonzalez, Julie O’Hara, Leon Kockaya, Elizabeth Ray, Madison Rodgers, Paige Topping, and Allie Woodville, as well as Colin Davies, a criminal justice major, and Abigail Resendiz, a business major.

In recent years, Europe has seen massive increases in both intra-European migration and migration from Middle Eastern and North African countries. This has forced many Europeans to grapple more deeply with questions of national identity and with deep societal prejudices,” Glazier said. “The course was designed to provide students with firsthand experience to develop a deeper understanding of the effects that nationalism and large-scale immigration have on societies.”

The group first traveled to London, where they shared a Ramadan meal at the Central Mosque of London and attended a play about the crisis in the refugee camp in Calais, France. In Paris, they visited the famed Louvre museum, visited le Grande Mosquée du Paris, spoke with recent immigrants, and met with French National Assembly member Pacôme Rupin.

In Berlin, the group visited experts in human trafficking and migration and toured the Tempelhof Refugee Camp as well as the Ravensbrük WWII-era concentration camp and the remains of the Berlin Wall. They also took in the World Cup match between Mexico and Germany.

“The refugees that occupied this camp originated from countries all over the world, ranging from Syria and Afghanistan to Iran, Iraq, and Moldova,” said Topping, a senior political science major. “Reports of the experiences of refugees around the world have been and continue to be profoundly compelling. However, seeing their experiences and living conditions face-to-face truly triggers unparalleled human emotions and responses.”

Asylum seekers in Germany are allowed to stay in the country if they are granted political asylum, refugee status, subsidiary protection, or if the agency declares a deportation prohibition.

Refugees in Germany can apply for four different kinds of protection from the German government, including asylum protection, subsidiary protection, refugee protection, and protection from persecution if they can provide evidence that they are being persecuted in their homeland.

The study abroad students visit the Grand Mosque of Paris. The group (L to R) includes Back Row: Julie O'Hara, Elizabeth Ray, Dr. Rebecca Glazier, Madison Ray, Abigail Resendiz, Colin Davies, Leon Kockaya. Front row: Allie Woodville, Jorge Gonzalez, Charlana Benefield, and Paige Topping.
The study abroad students visit the Grand Mosque of Paris. The group (L to R) includes Back Row: Julie O’Hara, Elizabeth Ray, Dr. Rebecca Glazier, Madison Ray, Abigail Resendiz, Colin Davies, and Leon Kockaya. Front row: Allie Woodville, Jorge Gonzalez, Charlana Benefield, and Paige Topping.

“While most refugees are thankful to Germany for taking them in, they are all, for the most part, anxiously awaiting for their homelands to become safe enough to return to,” Topping said. “While Germany is extremely accepting of refugees and provides housing, food, recreational sports areas, playgrounds, and German classes for children and adults alike in areas such as Templehof, it does not take away from the very grim reality that most of the refugees living at Templehof had to leave their professions, homes and families behind in order to pursue a life in Germany safe from persecution”

In the final leg of the journey, the group returned for a few more days in London, where they toured Parliament, Palace of Westminster, and met with political leaders in the United Kingdom.

Although the students read two dozen academic readings and testimonials about what it is like to be a migrant in Europe, none of that compared to the actual experience of meeting migrants and hearing their stories.

“We went to Iftar with a group of Turkish refugees living in Berlin,” said O’Hara, a 21-year-old senior from Little Rock. Before dinner, we sat with them in small groups and they told us their stories. The first person I spoke to had been a civil engineer when he was working in Turkey. This man has five children, all still in Turkey, and his youngest was born shortly after he fled oppression. He is able to see her and talk to her through the phone, but he has never been able to hold her in his own hands. As far as he knows, he may never meet her in person. If he had stayed in Turkey he risked becoming a political prisoner, where he would not have been allowed to meet or see his family. He said to me, ‘At least in Berlin I have hope.’”

O’Hara heard many more memorable accounts from the migrants, and she realized that, despite talks by European countries of coming up with a solution to the migrant crisis, it is not something that will be easily solved. Meanwhile, millions of people are left struggling while the political debate continues.

The refugee crisis in Europe is too deep to be coated with band-aid solutions and left to fester. Europe will change drastically in the coming years because of this migration,” O’Hara said. “Watching them talk about their fears for the future and seeing the heartbreak they faced day in and day out because of circumstances so far beyond their control is something that I will never forget, but, beyond that, the strength and unwavering hope they showed is something that will stick with me forever.”

Students learned about the efforts to sustain migrant populations by the United Kingdom and European Union organizations, as well as the living conditions of displaced migrants and asylum seekers. Students also discussed migration issues and policy possibilities for alleviating tensions between residents in Europe. Throughout their busy schedules, students were asked to consider political and social policies that are currently enacted as well as their own solutions to Europe’s migrant crisis.

“I think the conversations that the students had with immigrants and refugees are experiences that will stay with them. We thought critically about migration policy, how to best integrate immigrants, and about what societies might owe to refugees fleeing violence,” Glazier said. “I don’t think we came to any easy answers, but I do think the students gained both substantive knowledge and empathy.”

The professors and students kept a travel blog of their journeys that can be viewed online.

In the upper right photo, the study abroad group met with a member of the Scotland Nationalist Party, Alison Thewliss, while touring Parliament.

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