An Education Without Borders

UCSC course and guest speaker teach impacts of Syrian Civil War

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Illustration by Celia Fong
Illustration by Celia Fong

Tony Hoffman’s class “Children and War” at UC Santa Cruz is always one of the first to be filled. The multidisciplinary psychology course focuses on the conditions and psychosocial experiences of war-affected children and families.

Past topics of the class include conflicts impacting children in Sudan, Congo, Uganda, Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Currently, students are learning about the effects of conflict in Syria.

“This year it just makes sense to focus on the world’s worst war,” Hoffman said.

Today, children make up more than half of the Syrian refugee population worldwide, making them the majority of the refugee population in numerous host countries in Europe, the Middle East and refugee assistance camps.

“Because people perceive the average Syrian as a terrorist, the international assistance for this is at a 50 percent funding level,” Hoffman said. “Even the so-called ‘safe’ place they are in isn’t ‘safe’ if they can’t get food or adequate medical supplies.”

Tight immigration laws restrict Syrians from getting the help they need and, even with all the legitimate documentation, make immigration difficult for people like Morhaf Alkordi.

Hoffman works closely with Alkordi, who is one of the 10.8 million Syrians — more than the population of New York City — internally displaced or forced to flee as a result of the five years of conflict in the country.

This month, Hoffman shared Alkordi’s story as a displaced Syrian with his class. On a slow day during Ramadan, Alkordi, who owned a bakery in Syria, was struck by a mortar bomb 300 feet from his store.

“I saw the neighbor’s boy playing outside when suddenly I heard a blast in my ear,” Alkordi said in Arabic in an email. “I suddenly found myself on the ground without legs.”

Alkordi’s legs were amputated. His inability to work cost him his business and then his home in Syria. He now lives as a refugee in Germany and is unemployed.

“My life in Germany is bleak for now because my work options are limited, and I see how people look at me,” Alkordi said. “Life is difficult and harsh. It’s definitely isolating.”

But Alkordi saw a chance for hope. He received an offer from Hanger Clinic in Downey, California for prosthetics. The type of prosthetics Alkordi needs can cost up to $90,000, and with his family scattered as refugees in Norway and Lebanon, he can’t afford to pay.

His aunt, Marianne Tawil, sought out humanitarian assistance and the Hanger Clinic offered to provide him the prosthetics at no cost.

“By coming to the U.S., I was hoping for what seemed impossible to me since my accident — to walk again,” Alkordi said. “I was given that hope by Hanger Clinic that with the right treatment plan, I could walk again and that meant everything to me and my family.”

After three years of rigorous paperwork and discussions with the U.S. embassy in Germany, they granted Alkordi a medical visa to travel to California to have his measurements taken to fit the prosthetics. Yet, even with a valid medical visa, he was turned down at the U.S. border. Alkordi said he hasn’t been given a reason.

“He followed all the instructions, followed all the policies and met all the requirements to let him get a medical visa,” Tawil said. “He did everything he was asked.”

Alkordi’s experience is one of many. With five months left to meet the benchmark figure, the U.S. is only 17 percent finished toward its goal of accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees, according to The New York Times.

“People wonder why people risk their lives and possibly drown to do this,” said lecturer Tony Hoffman. “And the average Syrian on the street will say they go into the sea because the land isn’t safe anymore.”