Journeys of Hope

Alumni on the front lines of the world's refugee crisis
By Gail Allyn Short
Photo of Somalian child refugee; headline: Journeys of Hope
Alumni on the front lines of the world's refugee crisis
By Gail Allyn Short
(At top) A child refugee from Somalia who traveled by foot and donkey cart to the Kenyan border. Photo courtesy of IOM/Brendan Bannon.
In recent years, millions of migrants and refugees from places such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have risked their lives to flee civil war and violence. Many have sailed the dangerous waters of the Mediterranean Sea while others have trekked hundreds of miles on land to find asylum in other countries. Some have languished for years in refugee camps along the way. They have left nearly everything behind—houses, jobs, and family members—in hope of finding freedom, peace, and safety.
Three alumnae have witnessed the refugee crisis firsthand while working in Europe and the Middle East for government and nongovernmental organizations. And all three say their experiences at UAB helped prepare them for the difficult job of assisting displaced people on their journeys.
Photo of Haven Hightower at border campHightower

Haven Hightower: At the Gateway

When deciding on a college, Mobile native Haven Hightower says she had two goals: to obtain an education with an international focus, and to do it without leaving Alabama. UAB offered that combination, along with a location in the heart of a diverse city.
“I liked UAB’s urban feel,” says Hightower. “I also liked the international studies program [in the College of Arts and Sciences] because it brought together different topics that I found interesting, like history, anthropology, literature, language, and political science.”
After graduating in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree, Hightower landed internships with the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, and later with the government of Macedonia. “I moved to Macedonia at the height of the refugee crisis in late autumn 2015,” she says. “In meetings, the refugee crisis constantly came up, and I wanted to see with my own eyes what was going on.”
For many refugees, Macedonia became the gateway from Greece and Turkey to northern Europe. Between 2,000 and 10,000 refugees passed through Macedonia every day, Hightower says. “I went on weekends with a local organization to the northern border camp of Tabanovce,” she says. “We offered extra support to camp staff, served food and drinks, distributed clothes, and talked with refugees—basically, anything that was needed at the moment.”
Hightower says most refugees were helpful and respectful. “It was so cold, especially at night,” she recalls. “People would do anything for a moment of warmth and were eager for a hot meal or beverage.”
One conversation has proven to be unforgettable. “I remember talking with a lady traveling alone with two kids,” Hightower says. “She told us that her husband had drowned just a few days before, and they were continuing on. She said it so matter-of-factly. I think it was a coping mechanism, but still, loss was such a part of their understanding at that point.”
Hightower, who continues to work in Macedonia as a political advisor on European affairs, says that helping refugees has made a defining impact on her life. In 2015, she earned her master’s degree in European studies with an emphasis on global and transnational perspectives from the University of Leuven in Belgium; now, she says she may pursue a doctorate someday.  
“Whatever I do,” says Hightower, “I want to work with people. In the midst of global crises, it’s important to remember that you can do something to get involved, regardless of where you are.”
Photo of Ebtesam RababahRababah

Ebtesam Rababah: Emotional Journeys

Lessons from Alabama have helped Ebtesam Rababah, Ph.D., comfort some of Syria’s youngest refugees.
In 2012, Rababah, who grew up in the village of Kufor-Rakeb, Jordan, graduated from UAB’s School of Education with a doctorate in early childhood education. Previously, she had earned education degrees at universities in Jordan and the United Kingdom. “Preparing people to teach and guiding future generations are the most important responsibilities that a university can assume,” she says. “UAB has a strong program in early childhood education, which gives students good opportunities to achieve their ambitions.”
Upon returning home, Rababah became an assistant professor of elementary education at Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan, where her research interests include literacy development of preschool children. There she learned about the Za’atari Intervention Project (ZIP), sponsored by the World Organization for Early Childhood Education and the Non-Governmental Organizations Committee on Migration at the United Nations.  
The Za’atari refugee camp is in Jordan, next to the Syrian border. According to Oxfam International, around 80,000 Syrians now live there. ZIP organizers needed help translating a training manual for refugee camp volunteers lacking experience in psychology, social work, or education, Rababah says. The manual would recommend activities to help traumatized refugee children deal with their emotions.
While visiting the camp, Rababah says she saw many children exhibiting signs of depression, emotional problems, and even post-traumatic stress. Many, she learned, had witnessed the violent deaths of family members back in Syria.
“I translated the manual from English into Arabic, edited the entire resource, and also developed the cultural songs, stories, and other ideas for ZIP,” Rababah says. Since then, she has spoken about her work with the young refugees at education conferences in the United States and the United Kingdom.
“I hope these fun learning activities helped to stimulate children’s eager minds, quiet their hearts, and give them hope,” she says.  “When you help young children feel safe and secure, they can be free to learn now and in the future.”
Photo of Grace Benton with child refugeesBenton (in back)

Grace Benton: New Homes, New Lives

Mobile native Grace Benton says the University Honors Program, part of the UAB Honors College, sparked her interest in the Middle East. She also credits it with cementing her decision to enroll at UAB.
“I loved the program’s interdisciplinary approach of coming at issues from so many different directions,” says Benton. She especially enjoyed learning about the Middle East’s cultures and politics in classes offered by the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures and the Department of Government. During her freshman year, Benton enrolled in an Arabic language class and eventually spent a summer on an English-language fellowship at the Tunisian Ministry of Higher Education in Nabeul.
After graduating in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in international studies and Arabic, she accepted a Fulbright fellowship to teach English at a high school in Amman, Jordan. While there, Benton also taught at the Jesuit Refugee Service, collaborating with fellow instructors to create a night school for Sudanese day laborers who had escaped violence in their own country. The laborers often spoke about the difficulties of adjusting to life in a foreign land, she says.
“They face issues such as tensions with the host community,” says Benton. “They’re seen as putting pressure on the housing market and the job market. We see those types of things in the United States—and not necessarily with refugees, but with migrants. Sometimes newcomers end up being scapegoats for a lot of issues.”
Those interactions inspired Benton to continue working on behalf of refugees and migrants. For a 2012 internship with the International Organization for Migration, Iraq Mission in Amman, she wrote reports on the status of refugees and internally displaced people. She later worked for the International Refugee Assistance Project and the St. Andrews Refugee Services Resettlement Legal Aid Program in Cairo.
Today, Benton is a research associate at the Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration in Washington, D.C., where she manages research projects involving topics such as internal displacement in Iraq and the plight of migrants caught in crisis. Her job often involves trips to the Middle East.
“It’s immensely rewarding,” says Benton. “I spend a lot of time in the region, and I love that I can use the language that I worked so hard to learn.”
While the United States has faced criticism over its policy to accept and resettle some Syrian refugees, Benton says the vetting process is thorough. “Refugees are the most closely scrutinized, most intensely screened group of any immigration category in America,” she says.
Benton, who has a master’s degree in Arab studies, is considering law school so that she can work on issues regarding international legal protections. But for now, she is enjoying her present career—and using it to expand her knowledge to help people in their journeys to safety.
“Nothing ever gets boring,” Benton says. “I’m learning new things all the time. I love this job.”

Photo of Syrian refugee on airplaneA Syrian refugee travels with his family to Canada. Photo courtesy of IOM/Muse Mohammed 2015.

• Learn more about the opportunities for learning and experience available through the UAB College of Arts and Sciences, UAB School of Education, and UAB Honors College.

Published March 2017