Clarifications appended.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in March 2011, refugees have been fleeing the country and seeking asylum all over the world, creating the largest migration of peoples since World War II. 

The Women’s Studies Research Center’s World Cultures Study Group’s Nov. 28 event, “Finding Lina: Reflections on the Humanitarian Crisis in Syria,” sought to tell a story rarely told in the media about the crisis — that of a Syrian refugee. 

The panel featured scholars Rajashree Ghosh, Linda Bond, Karen Frostig and Pnina G. Abir-Am as well as the eponymous subject Lina Hussein MS ’16, alumna of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.

In her introduction of the panel, Frostig stated, “When Lina’s plight was brought to our attention, it was our instinctive response to help. Contemporaneously, the news was saturated with refugee statistics, especially from Syria. The region has remained in conflict and horrific accounts about migrant populations and refugees seeking asylum continue to this day.”

Ghosh reminded the group of the infamous photo of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned during an illegal boat ride to Kos, Greece. The photo’s publication caused a tidal wave of outrage in the western world about countries’ lack of action concerning the refugee crisis. In Lina, Ghosh says, the panel was “looking for an authentic voice” to tell the story of the disaster in Syria. 

While introducing Lina, Ghosh told her own refugee story. Her parents “were rendered refugees during the Partition in India, and [she has] inherited the sense of loss of community.” Ghosh added that “the immigration process in this country brought me onto a journey of temporariness.” 

Ghosh stated that when speaking to Lina, the scholars worked to assess her needs. One of the most pressing was finding a way to support herself; Lina’s husband was on a dependent visa, which allowed him to “live and travel in this country, but not take … payment for any job legally.” Ghosh added her personal experience with this visa, stating, “I’ve been on that visa. It undervalues you, it treats you like a non-person.” 

Hussein told her story to the group, first giving some background on her life before she fled Syria. She is part of the Ismaeli, a minority group which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad considers an enemy of the regime. In the early days of the Syrian Civil War, Hussein was alone on her way to work when she was held at gunpoint and kidnapped by armed men. As a result of this incident, Hussein choose to leave her town because of the trauma of this event. Yet Hussein decided to remain in Syria until bombs went off at a cafe she was sitting at, which led her to make the difficult decision to leave her home country.

Under a student visa, Hussein was able to immigrate to the United States to pursue her education at Brandeis’ Heller School. She applied for asylum after graduating, and her application is pending with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, but she and her husband were given work permits based on that application.

Abir-Am stated that Hussein was trying to immigrate to Canada to avoid the complications of her visa status in the United States, but is still having troubles with the immigration systems of both countries.

Bond showed the group a movie about Hussein’s story, stating that she was “so moved by her story that [she] and [her] husband asked to videotape Lina.” Bond added that “for most of us, these experiences of war are mediated. We’re reading about it in a newspaper, but we’re not there, and I didn’t know anyone from Syria, so meeting someone and having this be a personal experience ... it inspires me to make work that possibly communicates something about this personal human experience to others in a different way.”

At the end of the panel discussion, an audience member asked, “What are the two or three things you wish people would know before working for someone in your situation?”

Hussein replied, “I need a job so I can keep my dignity.”

This article has been updated to include a clarification regarding Hussein's application for asylum in the United States and the status of her work permit. A passage has also been revised to better reflect the Justice's standards for ethical reporting.