Reframing the Refugee Crisis, with Sana Mustafa

Mar 29, 2023 59 min listen

For our final Women's History Month podcast, The Doorstep launches a special live event series traveling across the country over the next year. In collaboration with Marymount Manhattan College and their Social Justice Academy: Great Migrations, co-host Tatiana Serafin speaks with Sana Mustafa, CEO of Asylum Access, about the need to re-frame our discussion about forcibly displaced persons starting with understanding how language shapes rights.

In 2022, over 100 million people suffered displacement with greatly divergent access to rights and resources. What more can we do to build intersectional alliances and bring refugees into decision-making? How can we counter decades of structural bias and bring more accountability to states and NGOs? What can we do at a local level local to increase the pace of change?

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TATIANA SERAFIN: Welcome to the first collaboration between Marymount Manhattan College and Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. We are so delighted to welcome special guest Sana Mustafa to speak with us today, but first let me say a few words about Marymount Manhattan College's Social Justice Academy, which is co-sponsoring this event with Carnegie Council.

I am a professor of journalism here at Marymount Manhattan College and also a senior fellow at Carnegie Council. We are so excited to bring these two organizations together to focus today on a very important issue in the world, the forced displacement of people. We can talk about it in many different forms, and we cannot wait to hear from you, but I want to tie it to our Social Justice Academy called Great Migrations, which begins with a question: "As a global community, we face a choice. Do we want migration to be a source of prosperity and international solidarity or a byword for inhumanity and social friction?" That quote and comment is from António Guterres, United Nations secretary-general, and has led us here at Marymount to question across disciplines, across classes, and across professors and students about who we are and how we respond to the crisis of our generation, one among many but such an important one.

This migration academy is all semester long, and we thank the students and professors who come to share our thoughts today, and we thank Carnegie Council for helping us put this on YouTube.

Welcome to everyone online. We are live tweeting with my fellow co-host Nick Gvosdev of Carnegie Council, also a senior fellow. He is live at @doorsteppodcast. He is taking questions and live tweeting, so please, if you are on YouTube joining us—also you can go online at @doorsteppodcast—share you quotes, comments, and feedback. We welcome that and we welcome your thoughts because this conversation should not just stay in this room. It should be part of a global conversation, and this is what I hope we are starting here with this collaboration with Marymount Manhattan College and the Carnegie Council.

On to our speaker. While you are all here, you are here to hear from Sana Mustafa. She is a movement leader in the forced displacement sector and a feminist human rights activist fighting against systems of oppression in Syria and around the world. Sana's work has been informed by her experience as a Brown, queer, Arab, and forcibly displaced woman. After being forcibly displaced by the Assad regime, Sana led the establishment of global efforts for the representation and inclusion of forcibly displaced persons such as the Global Refugee-led Network.

Sana is currently CEO of Asylum Access, where she leads the organization's work to dismantle decades of colonialism, fight for self-representation, and build intersectional coalitions to demand human rights for all forcibly displaced people. Thank you again for joining us, Sana, on this important occasion.

SANA MUSTAFA: Thank you, Tatiana, for having me, for all the students to be here and those who are tuning in, and for Marymount Manhattan College and Carnegie for hosting me. I am very excited for the conversation. Having gone to school in the United States I have had my own experiences, and it is nice to be back in this space to discuss these conversations.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I wanted to start with Asylum Access and your work there and then maybe take us back through that to understand how you came to Asylum Access because certainly as part of your profile your experience has really shaped everything about you and everything that you do, which I think is wonderful and wonderful for our students to hear, that your experience has shaped your career, your life, and your passion. Could you take us through that?

SANA MUSTAFA: It is a journey. It has been a journey, and I think for me it started very early on in the household that I was brought up in. I was born and raised in Syria into a very political family living under a dictatorship. The Assad regime dictatorship has been in place for decades. My father was born into it, I was born into it, and many kids now are born into it.

At the time there was always this constant navigation of existence in the private space and the public space. The private space for us was our home. Our house was the place where we would have discussions and examinations. I would witness my dad mobilizing and organizing very informal, secret political discussions with his friends. I was very young at the time, but at the same time I was very aware of being censored.

It was very organic to us that I always say that we would disconnect the phone and close the doors, and if someone knocked on the door we would say no one is here and we are outside. It was a whole setup around creating space for conversations within the private space because the public space, the moment you step out of your house you are censored. We joke in Syria, we say there is someone watching over every single Syrian. I do not think it is much of a joke as much as a reality. That is a reality because not only of those perceptions but because of living it. So many Syrians throughout the years have been forcibly disappeared by the Assad regime for even thinking about questioning the existing structure and oppression.

I think being born into that and being fostered in that environment while at the same time being constantly indoctrinated at school in all different propagandas, it planted in me lots of tools to continue to examine and critically think about my environment. For us as a family that translated when the revolution started and the Arab Spring started in 2010 in Tunisia and Egypt and then arrived in Syria in March of 2011. It was not a question of us being a part of this, leading this, and mobilizing. It was the organic, immediate thing to do.

I do not think we were naïve. We knew that the price would be very, very, very high. I still think we did not think we would be 12 years into it right now and that we would lose that much, but I do not know. When you believe in something, you would be willing to lose everything for it, and then with time you realize that actually the price is high. We just marked on March 15 the 12th anniversary of the Syrian revolution. I think one of my reflections was that I would do it over and over again despite the fact that I have lost a home, a country, a father, friends, and the life that I had there. For me that is what brings me into existence.

From the moment my father was forcibly disappeared by the Assad regime on July 2, 2013, my family and I became forcibly displaced persons by the Assad regime, also known as refugees. I always say that I thought when I was forced to flee Syria that your fight is over in many ways, but as I landed in the United States I realized that actually my fight had just started.

Again, as someone who tries to examine her existence constantly I immediately lived the exclusion in the system. I was in Washington, DC at that time seeking asylum, and the refugee crisis had just started in Europe. I would be invited to attend panels about refugees. I would be sitting in the audience in DC talking about what does it feel like to be a refugee and the solution for my communities. It did not make sense. It was like, "What?"

For me it was very obvious, and realizing the fact that it was going on and had been going on for a decade shocked me. Had it not been that obvious for others? How come I am the first to address this even? So it was organic for me to be able to realize that, no, I did not flee that and lose everything to come here to be excluded and deprived of my rights. Absolutely not.

Of course I then realized on top of this all intersections of systems of oppression from race to class to gender to ethnicity, the United States thrives on those colonial systems, imperial systems, so all of that expanded my horizons if anything and expanded my understanding and awareness that my fight is intersectional and the systems of oppression are rooted in history and continue to manifest today with all different shapes and forms, and my fight for rights is across all of those systems.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is such an important comment for what we are studying here at Marymount. In every class we are studying that intersectionality of oppression, we are tackling colonialism and colonial structures and how they exist today, and how we need to talk about them.

You mentioned that they were not really acknowledged in the panels. That was 2013. We are ten years later. Are they acknowledged today, aside from here at Marymount Manhattan College?

SANA MUSTAFA: First, I am not a historian. I would not say I am an academic person per se at all. I am very much a field, grassroots, doing person. Yet I think and believe it is very important to understand where things come from to understand why we are where we are. Again, I think for me my personal experience with all the legacies of colonialism and racism in the system it was personal for me, living it. I had to go back a bit and understand how did it start. I just wrote an op-ed about that.

It was fascinating for me. One of the studies I came across about creating the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, refugee rights, and the definition of refugees. As I was reading the notes from 1949, Member States at that time were discussing how to define refugees. They spent a year in discussion because they wanted to define refugees only from and within Europe. They did not want to include refugees from the Middle East, from Africa, from Latin America, from the global majority. That was the foundation of how we define refugees, and it passed.

It took until 1967 before the definition became universal and included refugees worldwide. For me it was like: "Oh, my god. That makes so much sense." I felt it, I knew it, here we are.

Again, I am saying it in a very informal way because it is not intellectual. I am not talking about something inaccessible. These are facts. People say that I argue. I do not argue. This is a fact. These are documented meeting notes that were discussed during that meeting at that time. For me also to live now in my work the legacy of the system, this perception of refugees being security threats, refugees being a burden, and the racist perception of who deserves access to legal rights and to dignity and to who does not, it is still present today.

Also in the way we look at aid, if we see where the money comes from, the money comes from the Global North to the Global South. It is still this way. It is not two ways around. Decisions around forced displacement, humanitarian and development issues, and peace building happen in Geneva and New York. None of these issues happen in Geneva and New York. Still today we are talking about this.

If we talk about academia, even knowledge production is still mainly Global North focused, by people in the Global North, and it is mainly in English, so we are not even talking about legacies. This system is alive, so dismantling it, questioning it, and changing it I find to be a responsibility on individual existence, but also in the movement at large. I do not think we can work toward a better future without acknowledging the past and working with reconciliation to rebuilt trust.

When you ask me if there has been progress, I would say yes, relatively. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) might have finally said, "Well, you need to have some representation of refugees in an agency about refugees," so they created an advisory group, which is like the most simple, tokenistic consultative way to include people. This is not meaningful inclusion. This is not shifting power. This is trying to make people fit within the system and check a box.

It reminds me of corporate LGBTQ support, like you have the flag in this big corporation that is abusing exactly the rights of those people, but they check the box of "Oh, we are doing something to support LGBTQ rights."

Similarly where the sector is right now I think there is more awareness and shame around not including refugees in panels or not having tokenistic representation, but also I think we are at a time where, as I always tell my team, that this movement is getting coopted, and that is dangerous because people could get along with symbolic changes and not internal, deep-rooted changes in the institutions that we live and work in, and then it looks like we achieved a change, and if anything it is actually just delaying real change.

Accountability at this point of anyone in every system that claims to be inclusive, that claims to be representative is I think what we should all focus on, continuing to demand and not watering down our demands. We need acknowledgement of wrongdoing. We need reconciliation. We need to build trust. We need accountability mechanisms for UNHCR and others: How are you spending billions of dollars and refugees still spend 20 years in camps without access to basic rights and why? How come decisions still live in Geneva and New York?

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think it is so important for us to begin that discussion. One of the ways I think is to look at what we can do at a grassroots level. You mentioned that word, you as a "grassroots" activist, and Asylum Access does that at a grassroots level. I would like to discuss what they do and how they do it for those of us in the audience online and here who might not know much about Asylum Access.

You practice that notion of inclusion because you have local offices and local people working on these issues. Could you talk a little bit about those efforts and where you do them?

SANA MUSTAFA: Absolutely. Asylum Access is a global collective of different locally led and run bodies of work that focus on refugee rights. I think it is important to mention that we are not an interim organization. We are not in development. We work on rights. For me that was one of the major reasons I joined Asylum Access. I do not believe food and shelter gives people dignity and solutions out of camps, and that is what the system has done for a decade, kept people in camps with food and shelter, an emergency feeling, and then never give people access to rights, access to work, access to legal existence, and access to travel and free movement. We are talking about basic human rights that most refugees do not enjoy because the system does not think this is important. They think it is too political to ask for rights.

What we do at Asylum Access is demand rights. We create laws that will bring about rights. We do detention release. We do employment disputes, we do housing, we do education, we do access to health care. It is all focused on rights. I always say, if it was not for my ability to exist legally in this country now, having had access to education and the right to work, I simply would not be here. You could have given me all the food baskets you want, it would not get me here. That is what we do. We believe in rights, we fight for rights, and we demand rights.

How we do it is what I want the sector to think about. We are very socialized, just asking about the what, and always the what justifies the means. You hear a lot of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) say that we have reached a million refugees with certain services, an amazing impact, and that is usually what gets donors and what gets everyone thinking that we have changed the world.

My immediate second question is how. Did you do it with dignity? How did the people feel while you were treating them actually? Who did it? Is it the same people? How are you not taking power in the name of empowering people because that is the reality right now? Most of the people who work on forced displacement—it is funny, they say it is conflict of interest for refugees to work on refugee rights while it is not conflict of interest for them to make money because I exist.

It is so obvious, Tatiana. It is so obvious for me. Am I asking a difficult question? Isn't it a basic question. And apparently the obvious is the thing that no one states. Also there is something I think about making a perception that things are complicated so we never question them and you never demand change. Immediately when you ask any politicians about something they say, "It's complicated." Sometimes it is actually not that complicated.

At Asylum Access what we have been doing is examining how we go about the work we do. How do we ensure that our work is not taking power in the name of giving power to people? How do we ensure that we are different? We are 120 people from all around the world with different backgrounds. How can we ensure that our work is actually culturally informed and most importantly trauma informed?

Our partnerships—and I think that is what is really missing. Every single conversation I have with UNHCR about any topic of work, I leave the conversation triggered and traumatized over and over again because zero, zero, zero trauma-informed thinking, zero thinking of trust has been broken and this needs to be built, zero thinking of I do not want to be called a "person of concern"—what, I am the problem? The system is the problem—and then having to fight constantly to change it, people being defensive, and you being questioned about why you are fighting those things. I think that is why again your how matters.

Also I want to ensure that my team feels valued and respected. I think that one of the major issues with the sector is that there is normalization of employees being paid nothing because you are doing mission-driven work. That is exploitation. That is not okay. It has only been this way because—again if we look at missionaries who went to South Africa and if we look at who actually has been doing this work, it is mainly white people who have money who are like, "I can volunteer and run an NGO," and then someone else makes money or there is a trust fund or something, so there has been normalization for all different reasons of not being paid equitably.

At the same time, we go into the global-majority countries, we send people, and we pay them too much money versus local staff, and we create a class issue in the country we go to, so both systems are not right. At the same time, local actors end up also being part of the problem of paying their employees nothing, first because they do not have the money and funders do not prioritize equitable payment and compensation, and second because they tell you we can never meet INGO salaries. We train people, people work well, and then INGOs steal those people because they pay them so much more than anyone else would get paid.

For me our how matters. For me it is important that my team is equitably compensated in a way that is informed by the different values, needs, realities, and context that we operate in.

That also takes me to our who. Our leadership matters. Asylum Access is on a journey. It is a not a perfect organization that is just doing it right. It is an organization that was at some point mainly led by people in California and New York. It took an awareness and commitment to change that. For the last four years we have been on a journey to realize refugee leadership and become representative of the communities that we live and work with. The combination that I invite my teams and people in the sector to think about is how can we ensure that our who, how, and what are tied together and all of them are grounded in our values and not focusing on one piece because that did not get us anywhere.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Can you walk us through specifically what you are doing in Mexico? I love specifics. It's the journalist in me.

SANA MUSTAFA: Totally. I can definitely give examples about things we are doing, one, to shift power and resources, and also to promote and realize rights.

For example, in Mexico, we are the biggest legal aid provider for all forcibly displaced communities and migrants who arrive. When people cross the border to Mexico from any point, my teams are the lawyers on the ground that go immediately to detention shelters because people will get detained unlawfully. We will take cases and represent people and work on detention release.

After that we present people with their rights and legal options as to how they want to stay in this country. We do not do resettlement to the United States, for example. This is not our mandate. Our mandate is that if you are in Mexico, how can we ensure that you know your rights and how can we ensure that you can exist legally? Once we tell people about their rights and we do information provision in a way that is accessible and in a way that people understand it, we work with them on making their decision.

For example, if someone decides to stay in Mexico—because you actually can seek asylum in Mexico and that has increased considering that the border situation with the United States violating people's right to seek asylum in the United States—we do asylum representation. We file a case, work with people in court, and get them the right to stay legally in Mexico. After that, we work on getting them the right to work and the right for health care and education.

I have to say within the right to work we have created a program that is not only looking at the right to work but also rights at work, so we help people get access to placement in different jobs but ensuring that these jobs are not exploitative because that is also the default. Everyone wants you to be grateful to have a job regardless of how exploitative and problematic the job is, so we ensure that we are also accountable to where we are placing people, and that those places offer work rights is important to us. That is on the journey of the individual impact.

At the same time on the system level in terms of national governance framework, we engage with national governments. For example, in Mexico, we first examine if existing laws are being implemented because many times people actually have rights but the officers do not tell people they have them and the laws are not being implemented, so we implement existing laws, and then we advocate and engage in coalitions with other civil society organizations and the government on shaping and creating new laws that will provide protection for refugee rights, and that is the same in Thailand and Malaysia with nuances in context.

On the global level what we do is work together from taking all this input and all those experiences and say: "Okay, how do we translate that to the United Nations? How do we translate that to engagement in global processes and engagement with global institutions to make sure that this local first-hand knowledge is factored into the current conversations, conferences, and conventions around those issues?" That is one thing we do.

Another thing we do because shifting power means people need to have their rights and also need to have resources. Money is power at the end of the day, and people do not have access to resources. The moment we try to understand why refugee-led groups on the ground trying to help their communities do not have access to resources we found out it is actually very obvious. The reason is that most donor applications are in English. They demand high-capacity and very specific English to be able to write a hundred-page application to be able to get into an interview. It takes so much time and effort that people on the ground do not have. There is always that struggle, like a catch-22: You do not have the capacity to get money and you do not have money to build your capacity. That is really the struggle of local actors.

Additionally most of the grant applications, the funding, and philanthropy require certain standards and requirements that local actors cannot fulfill, so by design it is actually designed for INGOs. They require certain registration and bank accounts and having your finance systems as they like them in place, having fundraising in place, and having all the different institutional structures in place that again local organizations simply cannot have. If you cannot exist legally, how can you register your work legally?

Once we discovered all of those we decided to create a tool that will mitigate all of those barriers that donors say, "Yes, I want to support refugees, but I still have to fulfill all these requirements." We created a global fund that is led by refugees for refugees. It is actually the first fund that is putting philanthropic power in the hands of refugees themselves. This fund that we created is legally registered in the United States, so it gives a good opportunity for donors who want to directly support but are afraid of the different misconceptions around the risks of funding local actors. To mitigate that there is legal U.S. liability that we are liable to.

The way we created the fund is what we call "participatory grantmaking," which basically means that the people who receive the money are part of making the decision about how to receive it, where to receive it, and who is making those decisions. In that mechanism we are trying to walk the talk about what does shared decision making look like and what does inclusion look like.

There are no preconditions honestly. You can submit the application in any language. It does not matter. You can submit it in any language you want. Your registration does not matter. That you have no bank account does not matter. We work around those issues with you after you receive the support to address this catch-22 issue. Not having capacity is not a problem. We just want to make sure that you have an impact in your community and how we understand this impact. If you do, then we will work with you on the capacity.

That is also a fund that we launched two-and-a-half years ago. It is difficult. There is so much mindset shifting to be done with donors, philanthropists, and with policymakers to be like, "Women-led organizations should receive money to work on women's rights." That is the equivalent of what we are doing here. Refugee-led organizations should receive money to work on refugee rights, and here is a safe mechanism to do so.

That in general is our work in Asylum Access. We are against the status quo, so we approach all of those things that I mentioned in coalitions that are representative of different allies and stakeholders, and we try within those coalitions to ensure also that we have equitable ways of working as we work on any matter to address.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I want to just ask one question and then open it up to the audience because this is also for all of you. Speaking of Asylum Access, one of the things I noticed was your scorecard. I want to frame it in the fact that I think it is really important that we can talk about forcibly displaced people or refugees, but we are talking about people and we are talking about people who, as you say, want to work, have access to education for their children, and have access to healthcare to take care of themselves. These are human beings. I think sometimes in the language of saying "refugee" that gets lost.

You have this scorecard, which I thought was fascinating, because your point in the reading I was doing was that people want to work. People want to work and create a life, but you cannot create a life if you are not allowed to even start your life. So the scorecard is interesting because it takes into account the frameworks available in each country and which countries are doing better and which countries are doing worse in allowing refugees to start their lives. Can you talk a little bit about that scorecard and your goal with that and impacts?

SANA MUSTAFA: That was absolutely one of the projects our founder and former CEO Emily Arnold-Fernández thought of. She cared a lot for refugee rights specifically and constantly thought that every time we talk about refugee rights there is resistance and all this misinformation around what country is doing well, the different models out there, and the different rights that people have access to when it comes to employment in those countries.

We were the first to actually demand refugee rights and then to demand rights at work. So we had to create a tool, an academic research tool, and we did that in partnership with many other institutions. Let's bring facts into life. So we looked at different countries that host the majority of refugees and we looked at employment laws in terms of what refugees have access to and the different initiatives, and what is being implemented versus what it says exist because again in many contexts you will find politicians saying, "No, people have the right for this," and then in real life you find people do not even know it exists, do not have access to it, and it is not being implemented.

The scorecards have been a great advocacy tool to being like: "No, here you go. This is evidence in Jordan 100,000 work permits have been given to refugees but only to work in agriculture and construction." The Jordanian government would say, "We have given refugees the right to work," but the nuance of it is that the right to work has been given only to work within certain sectors that emphasize low-skilled refugees. We do not know about the rights within those sectors to start with, so I view it as an important accountability mechanism. I think if we take it into other rights the tool of the scorecard you will realize that unfortunately this reality goes across all different rights. There is a huge difference between rhetoric and implementation, and hopefully an accountability tool will help bridge these two together.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Absolutely. I am going to ask if there are any questions and look around. You can shout your question, and I will repeat it into the mic.

To paraphrase: "Where have you worked with maybe Asylum Access and also maybe other countries to give us some more anecdotes?" I think the Mexico anecdote resonated.

SANA MUSTAFA: Thank you for the question. Besides Asylum Access collective, besides Mexico, we work as of 2023 in Thailand and Malaysia. These are the other two countries where we are very closely engaged with the government I would say especially. Outside of that, in the past Asylum Access did exist in a number of other countries, such as Ecuador and Tanzania. In both places it made sense to end that work there.

It is a very good question because when we think of international organizations and bodies we always ask about expansion and where else you are going to work. I was asked this as part of my vision for Asylum Access as part of my CEO interviews. I said, absolutely not. That is for a number of reasons, and I will tell you why.

First, I do not believe it is the right model to go to places and try to fix them. I think that is an imperial model, and it did not work well in any place. Our model is defending Asylum Access in the sense of it is locally led and run, so we are providing a model of focus on rights and then people create that structure, but I also think it does not need to be under Asylum Access's name.

The way we have been approaching it in the last year is that we work in Colombia, Uganda, Egypt, Lebanon, and Indonesia, and the way we do it is through equitable partnerships. We identify local and refugee-led groups there, and we come to them with an exchange: What do you offer, what do we offer, what can you bring, what do we bring, and together what would make sense for us to co-create together? It does not need to be under our name or anything.

I think for me personally that is more in line with my values and I think with the organization we have realized that is more in line with our values of shifting power and resources and not taking credit for something that we should not be taking credit for and also making sure that it is not about us, that the solution is local. When the pandemic happened INGOs evacuated their staffs. Who was left to deal with the communities? The communities themselves. You cannot leave your community.

The same with the earthquake now in Syria and Türkiye. The communities were the first responders. I believe that is the long-term sustainable solution to address these issues.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We talk at The Doorstep at Carnegie Council about the point being that we are bringing international affairs to the local level. I think that is resonating with me, this idea that it starts from the ground up. Any of the students in here who have taken Political Reporting with me know that I always talk about the importance of the individual at the local level.

I am still looking for questions, but I am wondering since you asked that local question, is there something that we can do here in this room today at a local level?

SANA MUSTAFA: A lot. I always say start with the individual, with ourselves, and it is not an easy one. It is not an easy one at all—self-examination. We all, regardless of who we are in our different identities and lived experiences, have a lot to unlearn and learn because in the end we live in these systems. In these systems we have a lot of internalized oppression, racism, and classism. We all do in different ways. For it to transform into your group change, then your institutional change, and then to outside change it has to start from within.

I invite you all to do all the different needed learnings and unlearnings and have access to resources to think about "What is my role?" I think that is one of the major things. I invite people who want to pursue anything within social justice work is why. Who are you for this cause? What is your added value? What is your role? How can you show up in a way that is actually ethical, that is actually equitable, and that is grounded in values? I think if everyone examined their role we would not need to talk about systems change because the change will have started on an individual level. I think starting there is important.

To make relevance in our current context, allyship for the refugee rights movement is not different from allyship within the racial justice movement. All of us question who we are and we question how can we show up for our black communities and brown communities in a way that is supportive and in a way that we have examined our roots, our past, ancestry, and all of that. This is exactly the same here.

Racism within the United States is global, and that is the foundation of the global humanitarian and development system, so your examination of allyship in the U.S. context should also be taken into global affairs. What does it mean? What is my role? How can I show up?

The second thing is that concretely I always look in the room and see who is missing. That is a simple exercise. Whatever issue you are working on, are the people that you are targeting here, and in what capacity are they here? Because you can exist like there is a seat, but a seat is different than a decision-making seat. So question who is in the room and how the room is safe for them. How am I playing my role in ensuring that I am doing what I can to create a safe room for them and ensuring that they are in a place of decision making and they have the opportunity to weigh in, and then taking that into an institutional level.

Who has access to education? Especially in the United States it is one of the biggest issues, and not only for refugees. All different communities suffer from not having access to education. Especially for forcibly displaced communities it is the way forward, having access to education. If it was not for a scholarship that I was given, I genuinely would not have made it. In this country you need education, especially when you have nothing else. When you do not have wealth, when you do not have the right color, the right shape, and the right amount of money in your bank account, having access to education is instrumental. Are universities doing scholarships—which I know you are doing here and at other institutions—but the need is great, as we all know.

The last thing I would say is about knowledge production. Knowledge production is a thing that we struggle with in my sector a lot when we look at academics. Everyone wants research or evidence generation around this work, research around economic rights, and research about all different things. The issue is that most of this research is produced by Global North institutions from a Global North lens exclusive of the persons on the ground. It does not bring about real solutions. It brings about the same set of recommendations that I promise you I read in every single report.

Similarly to how we are trying to decolonize our sector and look at who we are, our ways of working, and what we do, I think academia, especially within the knowledge-production section, needs to examine that because increased inclusion, increased representation, and thinking about why thinkers in the global majority are not part of my institution, why they do not have access to be able to produce this knowledge. There are barriers, so they need to be identified and they need to be dismantled for this to happen.

Is it easy? Absolutely not. Especially for all our institutions it is going to take a very serious commitment and effort to undo a lot of our internal processes, systems, and procurements, questioning all of that, but it is very doable, and sometimes you will be surprised.

I have been surprised. The solution sometimes is just to have certain conversations with certain people and you realize: "Oh, that was not a legal requirement. That is a perception the system has created that I need, but it is actually not needed by law." Then you are like, "Okay," and then you undo that or all different policies, so examining that and changing internal institutional systems to be able to allow inclusion to happen and that will reflect on the outcome, in this case knowledge production.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Let me paraphrase the question in case it was not heard online: You are asking about our immigration system, how it operates, and how we can mitigate trauma in that system. I want to throw in on top of that an important definition question about "displaced person," "forcibly displaced person," "refugee," "migrant," and "immigrant." Maybe I should have started with that, but if we could backtrack a little and talk about the differences between them and then answer that question because I do think we need to understand the terminology.

I read an interesting article in the Columbia Journalism Review that talked about how journalists—and I am always self-critical of journalists as a journalist; we can do better too, and we will talk about that in a second—misuse the word "migrant" in media. If we can start with definitions and then go to the question, is that all right?

SANA MUSTAFA: Thank you for that question. Very excellent, two questions.

I will start with terminology. Terminology is political. Language is very political. It is not random that some people are called "refugees," others "asylum seekers" and "stateless" and others "economic migrants." I will talk about why the system defines them this way. Unfortunately the one fact is that within the legal frameworks sometimes you need some of those definitions to have access to certain rights and frameworks. We can absolutely question those frameworks and rights and systems that you have to go through, but I will be talking about language not within the legal framework that will allow you to have access to it. I will be talking now about language in terms of how it shapes those rights and how we talk about it as communities in my sector and in my work.

At Asylum Access we have thought a lot about the language. Every time we say "refugee," some people are like, "What about internally displaced persons (IDPs), what about climate refugees, what about all of those things?"

For us, we are like, "Yes, we mean all of those things." That is why we have shifted more and more toward the language of "people of forced displacement" or "forcibly displaced persons." I will explain why it was a very intentional choice of terminology.

The first reason is that we have put people first, so "people of forced displacement," because before any label you are a human. We hope so, so we have put the people first. Secondly, it was acknowledging forced displacement because it is not a choice. It is not only displacement. Even climate refugees, oh, my goodness. If we look at what started this climate crisis it is absolutely the same systems, and it is not a choice to stay at your place or not. Having taken this will of power and its being forced, I think is foundational to the experience. That is why we are like it is a forced displacement.

The way we understand it is that first it is a self-claimed identity. No system can give you this or take this away from you. Again I am not talking in legal terms because in the end when I have to claim for something I am operating in a system, but outside of that people say, "I am not sure if I am a refugee or not" or a person of forced displacement or not.

I am like: "No, no, no. Reflect. If you think you are, you are. No one can take or give you that." I think it is very important for people to sit, live, and be comfortable with who they are and also to not give anyone the power to label you. It is a self-claimed identity.

Secondly for us we define it to include any person who self-identifies including asylum seekers, IDPs, climate refugees, or any person who had to flee their home because with refugees you have to have left the nation-state border to become a refugee and if you are displaced within your country then you are not a refugee, which actually does not give you access to many rights. There are so many issues, but at least for the terminology, "persons of forced displacement" or "forcibly displaced persons" we promote as inclusive language that includes any and everyone, and you decide if you want to be part of it or not.

In terms of the system and defining migrants, that was a whole debate around the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Migration. Those are two different UN processes. The United Nations agreed to separate them. They wanted us to all think that refugees are different than migrants and that refugee rights are different than migrant rights. To show you how racist those two separations are, any persons who flee to any place from Africa, when they go through Libya and the Mediterranean to cross to Europe they are considered economic migrants. Black people are considered economic migrants. What a surprise. Anyone else, traditionally it was agreed that if there was a conflict or war, then you are a refugee. That is why we have two different terminologies. Still people in Geneva and New York decided who is a migrant and who is a refugee and how that shapes your life and access to your rights. I hope you examine this, I hope you all challenge this, and we do not agree with it, but at least we keep acknowledging where it comes from.

In terms of the migration system in the United States and what we could do to make it better, there are so many things. This did not start with Trump, by the way. It actually goes way back, and it has not ended. The Obama administration was not better at all in terms of refugee rights, especially at the border, and resettlement. The Biden administration has done worse, and the Trump administration goes without saying.

I think as young people we have the perception that maybe things were better at some time and now things are worse. Actually, no. It is about the rhetoric. Trump spoke about it in a very blunt way. Others just masked it with other terminology. They are not speaking about, but the violations that are happening daily at the border between the United States and Mexico are documented and are violations of international human rights and the different conventions that the United Nations has signed on to.

One of them is accountability. The communities, the civil societies in Mexico and in the United States, are coordinating and trying to bring together advocacy points to the administration, but to be honest there is no political will or interest in undoing any of the harm that has been done and the policies that prevent people from having access. I think changing that, undoing that, and allowing people to have access, to be able to come forward and claim asylum is their international right.

That means technically that they need to employ more people. The federal government complains about not having enough staff, and that goes for the border. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services are overwhelmed. I have friends and community members in New York who claimed asylum seven years ago, and they still have not gotten their interview. For you to understand, this means that their life is on hold, is pending until further notice. They cannot leave the country. Their work permits need to be renewed. They cannot see their family.

It is the same on the border. There is not enough staff. They have created a few technologies that are not working well. At the same time—and it is an important distinction to make, how when there is will things will change—so many Ukrainian refugees arrived in Mexico to come to the United States through Mexico, there were two lines at the border, one for Ukrainian refugees and one for all other immigrants from Latin America, and Ukrainian refugees had access to the United States with legal rights. They are inside the United States right now, whereas there are people who have been waiting in the system for years who still do not have access.

Is this a bad thing? No. This is how it should be for everyone. We are not saying don't do that. If anything, it is clearly when there is political will things will just show up and happen, but there isn't, so it is important to also name that and ask for that to be fair to everyone regardless again of race, gender, and ethnicity.

In terms of the trauma informed, there is no priority at all in any of the institutions to create learning opportunities for their teams to understand who they are dealing and working with. Everyone does this government training on psychosocial support or how to talk to people. Government training is very corporate. They are not human, they are not updated even to the different movements that have taken place in the United States and globally, the things that we have learned and unlearned, and there is no accountability mechanism for any of that. How can you file a complaint even to start with if someone mistreated you? We do not have that within UNHCR. Even with all my privileges when someone mistreats me or my colleagues within UNHCR there is no clear accountability mechanism of how we can seek that. So imagine someone at the border being mistreated and abused by an officer. Accountability mechanisms are not accessible for people. That is also one of the major issues that the system needs to work on. We are bringing solutions forward, but again the political will is not there.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think political will-wise, one of the ways I encourage all my students always is your right to vote for the people who do have the political will. I think that is one very important way that we can change, by being part of the movements like you say but also by exercising our right to make what we want known to the people in power and not feeling that we do not have power.

Let me ask for one last question because we are at our mark. The question is about the new U.S.-Canadian pact. I am going to insert my personal opinion: It sucks.

SANA MUSTAFA: I think I would agree with your personal opinion. I think it is a diversion from both governments from having to do what they should be doing. It is a classic move. The United Kingdom is now sending people to Rwanda to process their applications.

It is 2023. It drives me crazy that we are talking about this happening in elite political circles that govern and rule all of our lives. They are doing that. They are doing explicit clear abuse and violations of human rights publicly, and we are doing nothing. What can be done about it? We call it out, you try to hold them accountable, but it is devastating.

We would like that agreement to be challenged. Is it going to result in something? I am not sure, but first and foremost I think that the fact that it might not have a result should never defeat us from challenging. I think challenging systems of oppression in all their forms in its way is resistance and is a political act, and that in itself if it does not change them it will prevent them sometimes from getting worse. It shows them that there are people who will always speak up. No matter how hopeless sometimes we feel we will always challenge them and always hold them accountable. This agreement is an explicit diversion from having to do the right thing.

Also, I have to say, it is very important when we talk about the role of academia, private sector, civil societies, and all different people in solving the issue of migration, governments love that because they are not doing their job: "Go try to do my job, but actually I will never allow you because I am not going to change so much policy for you to do the job, but will make sure that everyone feels that they are doing something." It is a bit of a delusional sector as well of why we exist, how we exist, and what is happening. For me personally maybe I cannot do much about, it but I want to acknowledge it as part of the conversation at least.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Acknowledge it, and elections are coming up, so take part, and your vote does matter.

SANA MUSTAFA: Or run for office eventually.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Exactly, run for office. Even better.

I want to ask you a final question because I do think as a journalist I want to know what you read. Where do we find the best information? Who do you trust?

SANA MUSTAFA: It depends on what, but in general being from the communities and very connected to my communities I get my knowledge from the communities eyeball, through discussions, similar to what my dad used to do. I come in community with so many different individuals from not only refugee rights but the feminist movement, indigenous rights, all different rights, and just have discussions and exchange of information. I think that movement exchange is very critical.

Besides that in terms of actual reading I am someone who is very grounded in lots of the Brown and Black feminist writers, thinkers, and teachers. My favorite is Audre Lorde. Two books I would highly recommend and I keep recommending—not that I am reading them now, but I have read them before—one is Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, a selection of essays by Audre Lorde. All of us would be surprised but also relieved by how relevant it is to our day. She talks about all different struggles across class, race, ethnicity, and capitalism, and also talks about solutions, resistance, and self-preservation. I think that is very important for us to think about. It is very relevant and affirming to what I am doing for me personally, and I think it would be for others.

Another one is by Sara Ahmed. It is called Living a Feminist Life. She is also a Brown feminist. Whatever your holy book name is, it is my holy book because it has concrete tools of how to actualize the values of your life, the intersectional values of feminism and questions like liberal feminism. It is not that, talking about feminism, about the working class, about the color, that is really addressing all the different, various, and systematic oppressions.

I feel like these two books when I read them years ago provided me with so much to think about and also so much foundation to come back to. Every time I feel like I am facing a difficult question I come back to those and try to think about the values that those thinkers and others have thought about, dealt with, and how can we bring that into our current moment.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is a perfect, beautiful way to end our conversation today. Thank you so much, Sana, for coming and joining us here at Marymount Manhattan College and Carnegie Council. Thank you for those online, thank you to those who have attended. We hope to continue the conversation online, on Twitter, and for those of you who are online, sorry but you are not going to get a chance to get some Girl Scout cookies that we have outside. We welcome you to join us. Thank you again, everyone.

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Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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