Volunteers to share experiences helping refugees

Kennedy Nolen, Multicultural Reporter

The ‘Panel on Refugees’ will give insight into the experiences four speakers had while helping immigrants, migrants and refugees. The discussion will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Coleman Auditorium.

The EIU Students for Peace and Justice will host this educational panel, and other events throughout the week, in honor of EIU Global Justice Week.

Graduate student Chelsea Picken, one of the panelists, said she worked with the organization Help Refugees in Calais, France. She signed up online ahead of time, gave her information to the organization and chose the dates she was going to volunteer.

Picken said she worked in a camp known as ‘the Jungle,’ which held about 6,000 refugees during the summer of 2016. She made her way over to Calais from England during a long weekend while studying abroad at Harlaxton Manor.

This particular camp pops up in times of crisis on the border of France, with England in sight, Picken said. The refugees’ main goal was to eventually make their way into England, since many had family currently there or knew of a community of people to stay with, she said.

‘The Jungle’ was not an official refugee camp, so the United Nations does not run it or provide assistance, Picken said. Instead, she said the camp is run by a non-profit organization.

Picken said she worked for a few days in a large warehouse sorting through donations, and then a few days were spent in the camps distributing packs of clean clothes and toiletry items.

“Most are living in tents and in the dirt and mud. There is no sanitary system set up,” Picken said, “Any shelter that existed was pretty much plywood put together.”

In November 2016, the French government destroyed the entire camp and put many refugees on buses and relocated them to centers run by the government.

Picken said it really is a privilege having an American passport and being able to travel freely.

Another panelist, Beth Murphy, will also share her experiences working for several years in a refugee resettlement center in Detroit.

Habiba Behnam from Iraq will speak about working in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. Behnam was later displaced when the Islamic State group entered the villages in 2014.

Brenda Cuellar, associate director of international recruitment at Eastern, said she volunteered in Nashville, Tennessee with World Relief for three months the summer following graduation from college.

Cuellar said volunteers connected refugees with the resources available to the community and translated foreign languages to English.

Cuellar also taught immigrants from Central America citizenship classes and high school classes, she said, and later moved to Mexico for a little over a year to help asylum seekers.

Cuellar served as the U.S. Director for the Migrant Resource Center and said the organization worked with different non-profit teams. The main focus was to provide basic needs to people who had been deported from the U.S. back to Mexico.

This organization is located just across the border from Arizona, and Cuellar said she could see the wall separating the U.S. and Mexico from the building she worked in.

“My parents are from Mexico. For me, I really wanted to learn about my own culture and identity,” Cuellar said.

She said her parents came to the U.S. years ago, and she did not realize the sacrifices they made until she began working at the Migrant Resource Center and saw other Mexican people facing the same challenges.

Cuellar said her faith called her to serve refugees, immigrants and migrants.

“There is so much going on with the refugee crisis. It is important for us to understand what is going on around the world. As Americans, we should be involved to make the world a better place,” Cuellar said.

Kennedy Nolen can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].