SCHENECTADY -- More than a dozen Brown School eighth graders got a special lesson when they visited the United Nations for a conference on refugees on Jan. 27, the same day President Donald Trump suspended entry of refugees from certain Muslim-majority countries.
Leaving at around 5 a.m. for New York City, 15 students from the Schenectady private school spent six hours learning about the U.N. and hearing directly from refugees about refugee camps, leaving their homes, being separated from family and establishing life anew.
The students said they came home with a better understanding of the lives and stories of refugees from around the world and what it takes to safely land in the United States after fleeing another country.
Most of the students were critical of the idea that denying entry to refugees from seven violence-plagued Middle Eastern and African nations was critical to stamping out attacks on American soil.
“All that’s left for these refugees is to join the thing they are running from,” 13-year-old Lia Richter said of Trump's executive order. “That makes the thing we are all afraid of stronger.”
Some speakers resonated with students more than others: the girl separated from her sister and mother and the young Iraqi boy who was nearly killed by an American sniper before joining forces with the Americans as an informant and later fleeing to America. The Brown students also learned about life in refugee camps.
“People don’t know how bad the camps can be,” 13-year-old Isabel van der Veen said. “You have to choose between food and education. You have to wait in line for either food or education.”
Some of the students said hearing the stories of the refugees helped tune them in to their own privilege and status in life; many of the refugees were fleeing war when they were a similar age, or even younger.
“It makes you think about the little things in life. It makes you more grateful,” said 13-year-old Rosemarie Versaci. “I get to spend time with family, get to get in bed at night – it makes you think about how much you have. It kind of makes you want less.”
But Trump’s order undeniably shook things up at the conference. Word that the order was expected started to circulate early in the day, and before the conference concluded, it was in force.
As the Brown students listened to the stories of refugees, border and customs agents at the country’s international airports started to turn back or detain dozens of refugees – as well as some legal residents – who were trying to enter the country. A federal judge has since frozen implementation of the order, as lawsuits challenging the action make their way through the courts.
The Brown students worried that America was setting a bad example for other countries, shirking its responsibility to welcome refugees. And for some of the students, the ban struck close to home: One had immigrant parents from Nigeria and Kenya; another student’s father emigrated from India.
Ariella Huhn, 13, said her Jewish grandfather fled Europe during the Holocaust and found a safe home in America.
“I wouldn’t have an opportunity to be here today and have the opportunity to be in this classroom,” Kuhn said.