Professor Hala Jadid al Kash spoke about the Syrian Civil War and other unrest in the Middle East during her visit to UP. Photo courtesy of the Office of Studies Abroad.
Hala Jadid al Kash sat in the Pilot House, sipping Moroccan mint tea, her bright blue eyeliner still visible in the dim light. She looked natural, despite being in a new place — something she must be good at after spending her life learning about and teaching how to understand and adapt to new cultures.
Al Kash was taking a break from her several day visit to the University of Portland, during which she met with faculty and staff, the Office of Studies Abroad, had a Skype session with Pilots abroad in Salzburg and gave a talk called “What is going on in Syria?”
Her visit was part of a tour to universities across the country on behalf of the Institute for International Education of Students (IES Abroad). She spent weeks educating American college students on the Syrian Revolution, the Refugee Crisis and sharing stories of her experiences as president of the nonprofit organization Syrians Without Borders.
Al Kash arrived at UP on day 15 of her 16 day college tour — an undertaking inspiring a laugh when asked what she does for relaxation.
Unlike how many Americans now think of Syrians due to the Syrian Civil War, al Kash did not go to Spain as a refugee, but as an immigrant long before the unrest began, to further her education. She taught Arabic and Islamic culture studies until the Syrian Revolution began in 2011, when she shifted her teaching focus to communication studies.
Al Kash speaks proudly of the course she designed and now teaches in Granada: “The Role of Social and Mass Media in Revolution and Change in the Arab World.” Students in the class learn about things like the role of social media in the Arab Spring and the Syrian Revolution, and al Kash brings in guest speakers from a variety of different perspectives. Al Kash has hosted renowned Egyptian feminist author and activist Nawal El Saadawi and Director General of news outlet Al Jazeera, Mostefa Suoag.
Though it is technically a communication studies class, al Kash says she is passionate about teaching a course that is relevant and accessible to students of all academic backgrounds.
“The course is designed for American students from different colleges in the U.S., they come with no idea (of this part of the world),” al Kash said. “At the end of the course, they are able not only to spread their voice, but to use this knowledge in their life or their career.”
Al Kash feels strongly about advocating for Syrian refugees in crisis, and dedicates much of her time and effort to educating people, specifically students, about the Syrian Revolution that has led to the current war and destruction in Syria, and how they can best help.
Her NGO, Syria ns Without Borders, is dedicated to ensuring the human dignity of those displaced as refugees due to the Syrian Civil War, and strives to provide basic necessities to these people. This organization is funded completely by donations.
Al Kash says that starting the organization was difficult, because people had yet to see what it could really do to help refugees, but once the public started to see the results, trust in the organization grew and as did donations to fund continued action in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. She says it was the positive results that kept her going during the rough start.
“When you see the reaction of the people, when you see it you forget many things … It makes you feel happy, even if it’s a very sad story,” al Kash says, “so you decide to continue.”
While on campus, she presented on the Syrian Revolution, which triggered the Refugee Crisis that has impacted both Europe and the United States, and has even been witnessed by UP stu dents. Before delving into detail about the situation, she played a video entitled “The European Refugee Crisis and Syria Explained” to make sure students were all up to speed on the the basics. She proceeded to talk about the power of the Al Assad family which has been in presidential office since 1971, and their refusal to step down, as well as the complicated involvement of ISIS.
About 20 students attended the event, and were particularly intrigued by U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern politics. And Al Kash challenged them as well, asking whether or not they believe ISIS would remain in the Middle East if the turmoil came to a halt.
“The exciting thing for us about having professor al Kash here is that what she’s teaching and what she’s doing aligns very nicely with what the President (Fr. Mark Poorman) has proposed in his new vision for the University,” said Director of Studies Abroad Eduardo Contreras. “He has announced this strategic plan, one of the areas of excellence is enhancing international and intercultural learning.”
Although al Kash has committed to improving the situation for Syrian refugees, she understands that most of us cannot do so as wholly as she has. But, she says, “We cannot just wait, we must act.”
“(People don’t need) to pay money or travel to Jordan or Lebanon to help,” she said. “We are not helpless, you can help in many ways.”
She emphasized the importance of giving a voice to the refugees who do not themselves have a voice in their current situations.
Students at Knox College in Illinois, one of the schools she visited during her time in the states, hosted her during their week-long Global Learning Retreat. The school currently has a petition collecting student signatures on campus in order to persuade the administration to fund scholarships for Syrian refugee students. Monmouth University in New Jersey is also currently supporting the education of 20 Syrian refugee students.
Al Kash works tirelessly to further common knowledge about Middle Eastern politics among college-aged people, and improving the lives of the people who have been forced to leave their homes as refugees. She says she is thankful for her own success as a Syrian, and this motivates her to help others.
“I have had a very good experience, I can’t say that all the Syrian people have had the same experience,” al Kash said. “(I want to) give them a new hope.”