PHOTO: Professor Aparna Nayak and CSULB Spring Study Abroad students in Strasbourg, France
CSULB University Honors instructor and Professor of French Literature, Professor Aparna Nayak, led 13 students from various majors on a Spring Study Abroad trip to Paris, Brussels and Strasbourg this past March. Nayak’s capstone seminar course was intended to broaden and deepen students' perspectives on contemporary European society through the seven-day international trip. Students conducted multiple interviews and held discussions with organizations including the EU Commission, the EU Committee of the Regions, the Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organizations (UNPO), Utopia 56, European Parliament, and the Council of Europe.
While meeting with representatives from the UNPO, an international pro-democracy organization that facilitates the voices of unrepresented and marginalized nations and peoples worldwide, the students examined case studies about Crimean Tatars, a Turkish ethnic group originally from the Crimean Peninsula; as well as Abkhazians, who are fighting for autonomy in northwestern Georgia. The students learned how the UNPO advocates for various peoples at the EU Commission and Parliament.
PHOTO: CSULB students at the European Commission in Brussels
Professor Nayak's students unanimously stated that visiting Utopia 56 was the most meaningful part of their trip. Utopia 56 is a non-profit organization that assists refugees through the exhaustive asylum process and provides important social services that the governments of France and other countries don't. The students were struck by the fact that most of the refugees at the NGO were young males from Eritrea, a country they knew little about before this trip. One student remarked that she had never 'been exposed to refugees or learned about [their stories]', including how they had to leave their wives, children, and families behind. They then undertook a dangerous and difficult journey to avoid mandatory and indefinite military service in slavery-like conditions in Eritrea.
One of Nayak's students remembered several refugees talking about leaving Eritrea and journeying on foot through the desert, often losing friends along the way due to the lack of water and the strenuous nature of the journey. Many refugees said that they desired gainful employment so they could bring their family to France.
The students helped Utopia 56 staff sort through buckets full of blankets and various other donated items from members of the community. One of Professor Nayak’s students even accompanied a refugee, who was a minor, to the Doctors Without Borders office; while another student accompanied an Eritrean refugee to the hospital to seek immediate medical attention. During the morning breakfast distribution, there was also a visit by Unity Instruments Collective, another NGO that seeks to bring happiness to refugees across Europe by providing musical instruments, art equipment, teachers, and art and music therapists. Although the refugees were hesitant to initially participate, they eventually played with one another and became comfortable expressing themselves through music in front of the students.
PHOTO: CSULB students helping to distribute blankets and other supplies to Eritrean refugees
The CSULB students became increasingly aware of the difficult challenges facing refugees seeking asylum, including the challenges they face in overcoming the Dublin Regulation, which mandates that refugees be transferred and held in the first member state through which they entered the EU. They also learned that refugees under the age of 18 face extreme difficulty in proving their status as minors without proper identification, essentially allowing the French government to deny social services such as foster care and education to these young men. Another student remarked that engaging with the Eritrean refugees broadened her knowledge about the real life experiences of refugee populations, and she learned that many are forced into homelessness after being denied asylum.
One student reflected how the refugee crisis is a global issue and is affecting every border of our world, including the southern border of the U.S.
'Talking to the refugees felt a lot more personal,” she said. “These are actual people and not just some random people in a story on the news. Last week, I was watching the news about the refugees coming from Central America to Mexico, hoping to seek asylum in the United States, and it made me remember [our time at Utopia 56] and feel more empathy for these individual people who have real concerns for their safety.'
Professor Nayak believes her students uniformly became more aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world through this short but impactful Spring Study Abroad program and capstone seminar course. She remarked how her students noted that U.S. media tends to be inward-looking, especially in comparison to the comprehensive international coverage provided by European news sources. The students were also struck by the fact that the Europeans they interacted with were able to converse in multiple languages with ease, shedding light on the mono-linguicism of the United States. As a scholar of French literature and history, Professor Nayak engaged her students in discussions about events leading to the creation of the EU and the resurgence of global nationalism and Brexit.
Nayak's students will undoubtedly be monitoring the situation in the EU for years to come, as this trip has sparked the students’ deep curiosity about and passion for the region and its people. Professor Nayak is hoping to lead another group of engaged CSULB students abroad next spring, to continue researching and understanding the EU’s most pressing concerns.