Central Michigan University student Kaci Clayton is on a mission to correct some misperceptions about refugees.
"Refugees are people who have experienced terrible circumstances and are forced to start a new and unfamiliar life," she said. "Too often they are judged based on stereotypes and treated as 'other.' We want to combat that through education, advocacy and philanthropy."
The junior majoring in social work wasn't always passionate about the issues facing displaced people. Clayton said she knew only what she had seen on television or read in the news.
But last year Clayton, a Centralis scholar, began learning about the issues of armed conflict and forced migration in an honors class taught by political science faculty member Prakash Adhikari.
"Teaching about forced migration doesn't work if the class is just a lecture. I took the students to organizations where they could interact with people who had been affected personally. I wanted them to hear those stories firsthand," Adhikari said.
Adhikari was forced to flee from his home country of Nepal twice and became passionate about the way armed conflict impacts the lives of children and families. His research focuses on the lives of displaced people before, during and after periods of conflict. He wanted to engage his students in face-to-face interactions with refugees to help them understand the human story behind statistics.
The class traveled to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to spend a day with Bethany Christian Services, a nonprofit organization that offers a variety of services for refugees and their families. Clayton said she and her classmates spent time working with small groups of people who were practicing their English language skills, as well as completing volunteer projects such as sorting donations and moving furniture.
“A small group of passionate individuals doing their best to advocate
for others is all it takes.” – CMU student Kaci Clayton
During another class trip, to Freedom House in Detroit, she participated in a cultural exchange with asylum-seekers from countries like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The nonprofit provides temporary housing, legal support services, education, job training, and assistance with resettlement in the U.S. and Canada.
Discovering a new path
Immediately following the class, Clayton knew she wanted to do more. Together with a few classmates, Clayton formed a new student organization called Student Advocates for Forced Migrants. She completed a brief internship with Bethany Christian Services last summer in the resettlement program.
The experience led her to consider a new career path: starting a nonprofit.
"Before finding my passion for the issues of displacement, I wanted to work in adoption or foster care. Before that, I wanted to be a pharmacist. I decided I wanted to dedicate my life to people instead," she said.
Clayton said she was shocked to learn that Freedom House was the only organization of its kind in the U.S. and began to see a career path that would allow her to continue advocacy for refugees in a leadership role.
Lessons in personal leadership
"I've never thought of myself as a natural-born leader. I'm actually a better listener than a speaker, and a better planner than presenter," Clayton said.
Being at the helm of a student organization has given Clayton opportunities to flex her leadership muscles, grow in new areas and meet others who share her passion. In the fall, her organization made the decision to merge with the international Refugee Outreach Collective as a campus chapter. The larger organization includes representatives from four other Michigan colleges and universities.
"In leading the CMU ROC chapter, I've learned it's much more effective and healthy to collaborate with peers and delegate tasks, and that perfection isn't necessary to make an impact. A small group of passionate individuals doing their best to advocate for others is all it takes."
The organization hosted tables in the Bovee University Center to encourage their peers to write letters to their senators about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals legislation. They are currently organizing a global pen pal project. In April, the group will co-host a symposium on the global refugee crisis with partners from the political science department and CMU's College of Humanities and Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Working with a 'Lost Boy of the Sudan'
Alumnus Benjamin Machar is one of the speakers scheduled for the symposium. Machar migrated to the United States in 2001 as one of the 'Lost Boys of the Sudan,' a phrase used to describe the young Sudanese men displaced by the longest-running civil war in Africa.
"Our experience is a war experience. We were displaced from our rural homes and trekked for thousands of miles," he said. He lived in refugee camps where he said living conditions were harsh due to a lack of clean drinking water, poor health care facilities and limited opportunities for education.
Machar came to CMU to study political science. He received his undergraduate degree in 2007 and followed it with a master's degree in 2009. He went on to pursue a doctorate at Howard University in political science with a focus on Africa and the Middle East.
"I left my home country during the second civil war and came to America at the age of 20 with little support. I am the first in my family to go to college, and of the more than 4,000 Lost Boys in this country, I am one of six to earn a Ph.D.," he said.
"Like most of the Lost Boys, I was faced with several challenges immediately after I had arrived in the U.S. I was faced with cultural, food and weather shocks."
He is working with Clayton and the Refugee Outreach Collective to share his story of forced migration with young people. He hopes it will help them participate in what he sees as heated and emotional national debates about refugees.
"I want people to know that refugees are people like us. They are refugees because of the political, economic, religious or social circumstances they have found themselves in. No one is born as a refugee. I was once a Lost Boy refugee from the Sudan. However, my circumstance changed after I migrated to America."
There is power in stories
Clayton and her peers are working on a number of projects to do additional campus education, including the upcoming Critical Engagements events on forced migration. They also plan several trips back to Grand Rapids and Detroit to do hands-on service with refugee support organizations. Clayton hopes to spend additional time working with individuals and families.
"They have truly miraculous stories that can change your view of the world."