A campus event which intended to raise awareness for Canada’s Student Refugee Program (SRP) erupted into controversy this past week after the Facebook page for the event was titled “Mock refugee camp at the Y-Intersection.”
The McGill chapter of the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) sought to construct a “refugee tent” at the Y-Intersection on Oct. 27. According to event organizer Daniel Kent, the construction of the tent was intended as a symbol of the refugee experience that would increase awareness of the SRP on campus. “When we try to raise awareness about [refugee] issues, we try to talk about [the SRP],” Kent said. “We’ve been having a lot of events, but at [our last event, only] around six people showed up.”
The SRP’s mock refugee tent sparked public backlash, however, and a heated online argument almost immediately ensued on the event’s Facebook page. In a response to heavy criticism, the name of the event’s organizers changed its name from “Mock Refugee Camp” to “Info Station.”
Anne-Sophie Tzeunot, U3 Political Science and vice-president (VP) of the McGill African Students Association (MASS), explained why she was concerned by the event’s use of a mock tent.
“We think that having a refugee camp would not look authentic,” Tzeunot said. “Any kind of visual embodiment would not look respectful. We don’t think a simple tent can represent [the experiences of refugees].”
According to Kent, however, who arrived to McGill in 2011 from Kenya with the assistance of the SRP, the refugee experience is familiar to many of the WUSC event’s organizers. Kent hoped the event would allow him to share his own experiences as a refugee.
“Our SRP committee has eight refugee students and six who are active day to day,” Kent said. “[I thought] if I was able to show how I lived in a refugee camp, if I was able to recreate how I ate, slept, studied, and lived, people would be interested and would want to hear my story.”
MASS in turn acknowledged that many of the event’s organizers had past experiences as refugees, but still objected to the construction of a refugee tent.
“We’re not undermining the experience of the refugees themselves […], we just don’t think that the experience of a refugee can be reduced to a tent,” Tzeuton said. “There’s so many experiences and perspectives.”
WUSC released a statement on the event’s Facebook page, emphasizing a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the event.
“The event’s original description and title were poorly worded, and many well-meaning community members misinterpreted them as implying that we were attempting to romanticize or simulate what it means to be a refugee,” the statement read. “This was far from our intention, and we apologize for the distress we may have caused any member of the McGill community through the description of our event.”
The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP (Clubs and Services) Kimber Bialik acknowledged that the situation is complex.
“This is difficult for both parties involved because there are students on both sides [of the argument] who were refugees, or have close family and friends who were refugees,” she said.
The controversy was first brought to Bialik’s attention after complaints and a petition—started by student activists—began to circulate over Facebook, demanding that WUSC organizers refrain from using tents or other objects to erect a “mock refugee camp.” The petition has since been removed. Bialik referred the matter to the VP University Affairs, Chloe Rourke, and SSMU equity commissioners.
“Our equity commissioners try to be proactive and ensure that all students are comfortable with what happens on campus,” Bialik said. “The Equity Commission and the VP University Affairs helped WUSC write the statement that appeared on [the event’s Facebook page].”
Kent noted, however, that one such Equity Commissioner, Marilyn Verghis, also serves as VP Education on MASS’s executive board, a potential conflict of interest.
“[Verghis] made [her role in MASS] clear. She just told us that she had to put on a ‘MASS hat’ when she had to talk as an exec of MASS and that she would put on an ‘equity commissioner’s hat’ when she had to talk about that,” Kent said. “[Verghis], as the equity commissioner, told us the best thing would be to get rid of the tents.”
According to Rourke, Verghis’ involvement in both MASS and as an equity commissioner allowed her input to be even more valuable.
“I disclosed in my initial email that Marilyn was involved with MASS as an executive, and suggested that her perspective would be valuable in understanding the different views held by the student body on this matter,” she said. “WUSC agreed and myself, Marilyn, and four members of WUSC met to discuss the sequence of events that occurred over social media including the open letter.”
Rourke also noted that the decision for WUSC to release a public statement addressing the issues that had arisen amongst the McGill community.
“I believe the meeting helped to clear up a number of misconceptions on both sides, and it was agreed a public statement should be released on behalf of WUSC to address the community’s concerns,” Rourke said. “The event was always meant to provide a platform for individual members of WUSC to share their experiences and not meant to represent the diverse experiences of millions of refugees and displaced people [….] I believe a large amount of this conflict was spurred by miscommunication and a misinterpretation of WUSC McGill’s intentions and the actions they took in response to concerns.”
The event’s outcome
Without the presence of a tent, the event ultimately went ahead on Wednesday. Kent deemed it a success that allowed students to gain a better understanding of WUSC.
“I think that a lot of people got their misconceptions [of WUSC] cleared when they visited us,” Kent said. “A lot of people reached out saying that they had signed the petition, but didn’t really understand what was going on.”
Dean of Students André Costopoulos discussed the beneficial outcomes of the event.
“I think that it was a positive event and it went well,” Costopoulos said. “It was interesting to me that we had students who were refugees who wanted to tell their story.”
Costopoulos went on to praise those involved in the planning of the event for their attempts at resolving the dispute.
“[The organizers] were respectful of viewpoints that were expressed to them,” Costopoulos said. “Universities are about discussion, they’re about negotiations and expressing opinions—and we accomplished that.”
Going forward, Kent expressed his desire for good relations amongst everyone involved.
“I don’t think that there was any conflict,” he said. “We think that it was a misunderstanding and tried to clear things up. It was unfortunate that [MASS] released a statement without consulting us. We have many members who are also members of MASS. I’m hoping they will come together and work with us.”
Tzeuton struck a similar chord, also acknowledging the success of WUSC’s event.
“We think that WUSC did an amazing job,” Tzeuton said. “We don’t want an environment of conflict. There are WUSC members who are MASS members. MASS also has events upcoming to benefit refugees.”
The SRP, a nationwide initiative first introduced to McGill in 1986, and funded with a $0.50 student fee each semester, supports two international refugee students studying at the university each year. Though the fees are collected by the university, much of the administrative work is handled by WUSC’s volunteer SRP committee, which also helps those selected by the program with immigration paperwork in securing a spot in residence, and coordinating travel. Four refugee students will be accepted this year, as part of McGill’s response to the crisis in Syria.
Costopoulos also mentioned financial challenges currently facing the SRP program.
“It’s an expensive program, and they’re going to have to do something a little different [in the future],” Costopoulos said.
It was originally intended that the current fee, levied in 1986, would be adjusted for inflation over time. This has never been done, and 30 years later, it is proving insufficient to fund the SRP.
“One of the ideas that they’re considering is raising the fee,” explained Costopoulos.
Bialik explained that whether or not to raise the fee, and how to do so if deemed necessary, was currently being considered by McGill’s fee advisory committee.
“[The SRP fee] isn’t actually a student fee,” she said. “The money doesn’t go to WUSC, but to McGill, and WUSC never touches any of the money. They just help to settle the refugees.”