Search For Safety

Upper School students grapple with the intricacies of the global refugee crisis.

People flee their countries for many reasons—violence, repression, and danger are a few. But while these people may be leaving those problems behind, they also inevitably encounter new problems along the way and once they reach a new nation. Rachel Schmidtke wants to help solve those new problems.

The advocate for Latin America at Refugees International, Schmidtke came and spoke to the Upper School about immigration in general and her work specifically. Invited by Silvana Niazi, the Señora Supervía Spanish and Latin American Studies Chair, the Latin American Society students club, and Parents of Latinx Students, Schmidtke brought a real-world perspective to a situation that for many remains theoretical.

She began by introducing some definitions and their importance. A refugee, for example, is someone who has fled war, violence, conflict, or persecution and has crossed an international border to find safety in another country. An asylum seeker is someone who is seeking protection as a refugee but hasn’t legally been recognized as such. A migrant is someone staying outside their home country who is not an asylum seeker or refugee, and a displaced person is the umbrella term for anyone who has been forced to leave their home country.

Schmidtke touched on many of the refugee crises that are written about almost daily, from Syrians fleeing their government to Latin Americans running from gang violence. But one issue is becoming more and more common: displacement due to the effects of climate change.

“Twenty years ago, it wasn’t talked about, but we’re seeing it so much now,” she said. “And, unfortunately, if you’re someone who’s left your country because of a hurricane or tropical storm, you don’t qualify as a refugee. That’s a really big change in the work that we do—trying to get protection for those people.” That’s particularly important as climate issues will only keep growing.

Schmidtke also talked about the widely varying experiences of displaced persons. “Every country is different, and every displaced person is different,” she said. “Someone who is LGBTQ+ is going to have a very different experience than someone who isn’t, and someone who is of a different race than the community they move to is going to have a different experience than someone who’s the same race.”

So how can young people get involved? Most Upper School students can’t vote yet, but Schmidtke said: “You don’t have to be 18 to call a congressperson. Make it known to the people we’ve elected that refugee issues are important to you.”

Don’t just stop at talking to elected officials, though: Talk to as many people as possible, she said. “Talking to people who know about the topic and educating other people in our communities is one of the best things we can do,” Schmidtke said. “Refugees and displaced people just want to be able to do what we all want to do—go to school, go to work. They want to have a good life, and they deserve that.”

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