Members' Day Highlight: Sana Mustafa’s life as a Syrian Refugee in America

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Above: Sana Mustafa speaks at UNA-USA's Members’ Day at the UN in New York on February 19.

By: Reena T. Desai

Though the Syrian refugee crisis is in the news frequently, it sometimes feels like a horror movie that we can turn our back on (and many people do unfortunately). That is, until you can put a face with the crisis. 

I attended UNA-USA’s Members’ Day at the UN on a cloudy February morning in New York. The event was filled with lively and informative discussion on the most pressing issues facing the United Nations; topics ranging from refugees to sustainable development. One speaker, though, struck me most as a role model for women’s empowerment.

Sana Mustafa mesmerized the audience as she shared her personal story of being a refugee. Sana is from Syria and came to the U.S. in June 2013 for what was to be a six-week college course. However, since her homeland is caught in a civil war, she has remained at the college since then.

Sana’s story is all too common among Syrian refugees. She talked about her mother and sisters, who fled to Turkey while the Assad Regime detained her father. In Turkey, her teenage sister has not been able to attend school because she is not a citizen. Moreover, it has been difficult for her family to integrate to Turkish culture due to the language barrier. Thanks to technology, Sana is able to keep in contact with her mom and sisters often by using Skype, but it is no substitute for having them with her. Unfortunately, Sana has neither seen nor heard from her father in more than 900 days.

Sana’s mom and sisters want to move to the U.S. too, and they are registered through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to request to do so. However, the lengthy screening process and number of applicants makes it unclear if Sana’s family will be able to relocate. In some cases, the process can take up to five years with no assurance that the request will be approved.

Sana’s story is one of many. Some startling facts on the Syrian refugee crisis gathered from UNHCR.org include:

  • There are 4,719,605 refugees who are directly affected by the violence in Syria.
  • Women and children make up three-quarters of the refugee population.
  • The vast majority of refugees are dependent on aid, arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs.

UNHCR provides humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and hopes to reduce the number of Syrians falling victim to human traffickers and smugglers in order to reach safety elsewhere.

I do not know where Sana gets her strength from, but she was definitely the highlight of the conference and someone that I will not forget. I hope that more people will take action on the Syrian refugee crisis and realize that these individuals are just trying to survive day-to-day. We can all do something to help them.

For more information and ideas on how to help, go here.

Reena T. Desai is an Associate at Booz Allen Hamilton and an UNA-NCA Graduate Fellow in Washington D.C.  Ms. Desai is graduating with a Masters in Public Administration (MPA) from George Mason University in May 2016. Her ultimate goal is to become a key advisor on women’s rights, using her drive and untiring commitment to educate the public about human rights.  

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