The Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health collaborated with The Stoop Storytelling Series — a Baltimore-based live show and podcast — to host “In Search of Safety: Stories about Migration, Displacement, and Advocating for Refugees and Asylum Seekers” on Nov. 21. Laura Wexler, co-founder and co-producer of The Stoop, introduced and moderated the event, which took place at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Ellen MacKenzie, the dean of the School of Public Health (SPH), discussed the growing importance of international human migration.
“In 2018 there were over one billion migrants globally, of whom over 7 million are refugees, the latter being the largest number in a generation,” MacKenzie said. “We are excited about this evening’s events and want to introduce refugees as people.”
The first speaker was Monica Guerrero Vazquez, an Ecuadorian woman who at a young age left her native country and immigrated to Spain. She has since dedicated herself to finding community-centered solutions to what are called the social determinants of health. These are things such as the physical environment people live in or the social networks they are a part of.
She explained how her time living in Spain influences how she feels about the work she now does in Baltimore with Latinx youths as the executive director of the Hopkins Center for Salud/Health and Opportunity for Latinos.
“Baltimore became like a home for me. I help people who look like me, who spoke like me and who are going through the same struggles that I went through. I am so grateful that life brought me here,” Vazquez said. “Here I am blessed to serve moms and dads who are looking for a home. I work with kids who remind me of my siblings. My work here became an extension of my life.”
Another speaker was Dr. Houssam Alnahhas, a Syrian refugee who worked for the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations in order to develop a response to chemical attacks within Syria and a graduate student at the SPH. Alnahhas shared the details of his participation in the Syrian civilian protests, which ultimately led to his imprisonment. He explained how he believes his work in the United States is a continuation of his drive to help the people of Syria.
“I spent two years in what was considered as the most dangerous city in the world, which was Aleppo. I lived in the hospital that was targeted by the government on a daily basis,” he said. “Then I got the chance to come here and study. I still have the same commitment to my country, to my people, to help them not only with my passion but also with the knowledge that I am going to get.”
The co-founder and CEO of the Southern Sudan Health Care Organization, Jacob Atem, centered his story on his experience as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.
“I wanted to contribute. You see, what I needed was not money; what I needed was opportunity,“ he said. “People like my mom gave me that, people like [Center for Humanitarian Health Director] Paul [Spiegel] and others gave me that.”
He explained that bipartisan humanitarian legislation enabled him to finally resettle in the U.S.
“Let me tell you about the America I can brag about. Let me tell you about the America I know. Let me tell you about the America that brought me here. The reason my being here was ever possible is that both the Democrats and the Republicans actually got together with a bipartisan bill,” Atem said.
Katherine Narvaez Mena, a Sommer Scholar at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and an immigrant from Guatemala, explained the difficult journey she had gone through in order to make a life in the U.S., as well as the gratitude she felt for the people of Central America who helped her in the journey.
Narvaez, however, also expressed the disillusionment she had felt with the U.S. after having had opportunities denied to her and her place in the country questioned because of her immigrant status.
“How is it that we use people’s humanities as a leveraging tool to advance a discriminatory agenda? It’s more than numbers. It’s more than trying to seek refuge. We are humans too, and a lot of the time we forget that,” she said. “When I was six years old, I looked and I thought America was hope, and for the past 15 years I have had to fight to belong.”
She argued that immigrants should not have to deal with being treated like criminals. Most immigrants are simply people seeking a better life, she said.
“It is important that we understand that migration is not a crime. Seeking a better life is not a crime. Wanting something better for the future generation is not a crime,” Narvaez said. “My mother is not a criminal for wanting something better for me. And I don’t want to be used to advance a political agenda at the expense of the mother who gave me wings to fly.”
Nancy Glass, the associate director of the Hopkins Center for Global Health as well as a professor at the School of Nursing, has worked to promote gender-based violence prevention across the world. In her story, she recounted the time she participated in a charity event for the Republic of the Congo where she ran seven marathons in seven days.
Her story was punctuated by what she called the charity director’s lack of foresight and care, especially where it concerned the community of Congo. Glass highlighted a conversation she had with the director where she tried to explain why she felt it was immoral to visit women in the hospital that had been raped.
“My company’s colleagues always told me that it’s white people coming to look at the zoo of our raped women. It was very hard for me to look at this as a good thing,” Glass said.
Laura Wexler, co-founder and co-producer of The Stoop, said that she hoped that the event had exposed some of the commonalities that exist across all different kinds of human experience.
She said she hoped that this might convince the audience to leave feeling more a bit more connected to refugees and immigrants.
“While the stories you will hear have settings that are unfamiliar, whether Syria or wherever, you will find that the emotions and the stories are familiar and this way hopefully you’ll find that strangers may feel less different that you after the stories,” she said.