On Feb. 5 students at the University of Northern Colorado shared the experience of a Somalian refugee, Shuab Mahat in a virtual reality format. The VR experience titled, “Return of the Dadabb” was held in the University Center near the bookstore in the afternoon.
Many students passing through were able to experience Mahat’s experience as he traveled back to the refugee camp he grew up in, the Dadaab. The VR documentary was co-directed by Shuab Mahat and Daniel Quintanilla.
On the same day in Michener’s Lindou Auditorium, students were able to attend a filming of a short film titled, “Not a Citizen,” which showed the experience of another Somalian refugee. The film was directed by Daniel Quintanilla in partnership with Movimiento Cosecha, an immigrant organization.
The film was based on the true story of a recent experience of Abdi Ali who was detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE in 2017. Ali became a permanent resident after his family came legally to Maine as refugees.
The César Chávez Cultural Center along with the co-sponsors, Caminando Unidos, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Diversity Advisory Board, the Department of Equity and Inclusion, Department of Hispanic Studies, the Dreamer Engagement Program, the Humanities and Social Sciences Advisory Board, the Immigrant and Refugee Center of Northern Colorado, the International Film Series and the Marcus Garvey Cultural Center, were all responsible for putting together these two events.
“When we talk about immigration often people think about folks from Latin America and we wanted to make sure we started a narrative around other identities,” said Joél Orozco Almeida, the associate director of the César Chávez Cultural Center.
This narrative included a population of Somalian refugees that can be found in the Greeley region. After the ICE raid on the local Swift factories in 2006, a new influx of immigrant labor was needed to fill the jobs. This brought many immigrants from Somalia or other similar regions for work.
After the screening of the films, there was a panel made up of the co-directors Daniel Quintanilla; Shuab Mahat, the Director of Advocacy at the Immigrant and Refugee Center of Northern Colorado; Collin Cannon and Idriss Siyat, a local refugee. During the panel, students were able to submit questions. The panel was moderated by Rudy Vargas, the Enrollment Coach and University Recruiter; a DREAMer Liaison and Joél Orozco Almeida, the associate director of the César Chávez Cultural Center.
A common theme of questions by the students focused on the legal aspect of the immigration for refugees. The process of becoming a refugee and coming to the United States was discussed at length. From personal experience, both Mahat and Siyat discussed the enormous investment of time that went into the refugee process.
“We had multiple interviews, I had to miss school for weeks actually to attend those interviews,” Siyat said.
“My mother applied in 2002 and she is still waiting,” Mahat said, on his mother’s status, who is still in the Dadaab refugee camp.
The conversation addressed the new restrictions on immigration placed by the Trump administration. The travel bans on countries like Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan and Tanzania have people in refugee camps, like Dadaab wondering where to go next, according to Mahat. Restrictions such as these already impact the amount of accepted refugee resettlement.
“The process [of refugee resettlement] is pretty severe in terms of vetting,” said Cannon, the director of advocacy at the Immigrant and Refugee Center of Northern Colorado. “Fewer than 1% of people get refugee resettlement.”
This was seen in the short film, “Not a Citizen” as Ali’s case showed the complex nature of trying to remain compliant to restrictions and rules placed on refugees.
“By the age of 18, his uncle had to file for citizenship, but they never did,” Quintanilla said. “He really didn’t know he wasn’t a citizen because this is the home he knew.”
The complexity of immigration laws can often confuse immigrants who have no one to interpret the steps for them.
“No one should be required to be an immigration lawyer just by being an individual human being [seeking asylum]” Cannon said.
Family reunification is the goal for many U.S. immigration policies, but this does not always happen. Cannon shared a story of past clients who wished to remain anonymous.
“A Rohingya family that we were dealing with, who fled Myanmar Burma into Bangladesh,” Cannon said. “The father came five years ago but he has been waiting all of those five years to be reunited with his wife and children. The father chose to go back to Bangladesh despite it not being safe for him because he couldn’t endure being separated from his family”
Mahat was separated from his family in a similar way, as he is the only one to have made it to the U.S. from the refugee camp in his immediate family.
“Every time I miss them, I watch the videos that I got of them,” Mahat said. “It feels like I’m there. I always watch the clips.”
In addressing previous comments made by the President, “And the current president says ‘people from shit hole countries’ I wish he was sitting tonight here watching that documentary… Why would you deny people fleeing from fights, war, fleeing from drugs; it’s sad,” Siyat said. “I’m waiting [for] the day that we will be holding hands together as one community.”
When answering questions about their experiences in the refugee camps, both highlighted the need for education and employment.
“If you have money, then they will treat you good, but if you do not have the money, then [they will not]” Mahat said.
Siyat expressed the opinion that having a good education was the key to improving life as a refugee.
“That’s another problem, unemployment,” Siyat said. “You are not allowed to work [as refugees].”
Further explaining, that without proper employment, even with aid, the bare necessities of survival are often harder to obtain.
When asked what people can do to improve or help local refugees each panelist had a lot to say.
“Reach out to the community center [of immigrants] and just be there,” Quintanilla said. “Use storytelling to further the conversation. Half of the work is getting it [the story] in front of people.”
Cannon suggested people get involved as advocates to help push immigration reform.
“Going to their local businesses and employers can hire these communities, hire from communities that you expect business from,” Cannon said.
Volunteering at the local Immigrant and Refugee Center of Northern Colorado, located at 3001 8th Ave Suite 170, Evans, CO 80620 can also help.
“We have [refugee/immigrant] kids who are going to high school and working a full shift 40 hours a week,” Siyat stated, calling attention to local refugee struggles. “Let the skin not divide us, let the political ideologies not divide us, let us treat each other as human beings [and to] change the perspective we have toward migrants and refugees. They have suffered a lot.”