Johana Vazquez Staff Writer
The Campus Activity Board (CAB) invited Isra Chaker, social justice activist and public speaker, to speak at Eastern on Thursday, March 28, in the Student Center Theatre. The daughter of two Syrian immigrants stood tall and spoke on the personal injustices she faced in her own life growing up Muslim; commented on the current political climate surrounding Muslim refugees; and encouraged the attending students to become social advocates themselves within their community and among their friends.
Proudly wearing her hijab, Chaker recounted the events that led her to first put it on. Her childhood in Boulder, CO, was like anyone else’s, but it was right after 9/11 when the attacks changed everything for her and her family. Chaker was only in the fifth grade when her family became targets of hate crimes on the basis of their different religion—their house was egged, rocks were thrown that broke their windows, “terrorist” was graffitied on the walls of their home, and more. Seeing her mother continuously wear her hijab amongst the received hate made Isra Chaker want to start wearing the hijab too, standing alongside her mother and supporting her. Despite her mother’s initial lack of approval, Isra Chaker went to school wearing the hijab. This was how she came to find her purpose in unapologetically representing her faith.
Things did not get easier for Chaker in her high school where she was the only one who wore a hijab. She became a target of bullying: constantly called a terrorist, poked with a stick, pelted with eggs and balloons filled up with urine. After having had enough, Isra sought a change.
When she was only fourteen, Isra Chaker approached her school administrators and did not seek to hold anyone accountable for the acts against her, but rather asked for a space to allow her to speak. With the implementation of the Diversity Panel, Chaker was able to recruit other minorities of all races and identities to speak alongside her. On the subject, she said: “I came to realize there that when you center the voices of those that are directly impacted; when you give them the space and the platform to share their feelings, their stories, you can actually start to see change happen.”
At a very young age, Isra Chaker knew she wanted to become an activist even before she knew what it meant. In her undergrad, she studied architecture, but soon realized with her involvement in protests and student government, she wanted to become a “social architecture,” organizing and bringing people together. Having earned a Master’s in Public Policy, Chaker moved onto working with non-government organizations (NGOs) that focused on providing aid for the Syrian crisis as the civil war that started in 2011 (and is still active) severely picked up. She felt she had to do so to support her family and everyone in Syria. Chaker had not seen her family since before the war started when she would go to Damascus, Syria every summer to visit them. What made the situation harder for her and her family was Trump’s administrative policy, the Muslim Ban, which prevents people from select Muslim-majority countries from entering the country. This policy made it completely impossible for her family to visit.
Isra Chaker is currently the Campaign Lead at Oxfam, a major NGO specializing in global humanitarian aid, in Washington D.C. She spends her time advocating for not just refugees, but TPS holders, Asylum seekers, the vulnerable at the Southern border, and anyone who is affected by discriminatory policies. She also spends her time speaking —sharing the stories of refugees and dispelling misconceptions surrounding refugees. Chaker gave out pocket-sized info cards at the Eastern providing responses to three common misconceptions about refugees (which can be found at here). The first misconception is that “refugees are a threat to U.S. security,” but the reality is that they go through the world’s most rigorous vetting process. Chaker attested with the story, from a refugee she knows, that even newborn babies have to go through this process.
In the world today, there are over 25 million refugees. Less than one percent of the global refugee population gets resettled. An even smaller percentage is selected to come to the U.S. “We are blocking people from seeking a safe haven here,” Chaker pointed out. “On top of that, we are still demonizing them in the rhetoric that’s still going on in the media today.” The presidential determination in the U.S., which sets a quota on how many refugees will enter the country in a given year, is at the lowest it’s ever been under the Trump administration. In the past two years, the quotas have failed to rise above 45,000. Other countries like Lebanon and Turkey with fewer resources are each supporting over two million refugees.
“Part of me being here today is to not just shed light on the refugee crisis that is today,” Chaker told Eastern students, “but also to inspire you to keep doing what you’re doing, to make you feel like your voices actually matter, that you carry power and agency.” Isra Chaker encouraged the attending students at her event to become active advocates, to not stay quiet in the face of adversity. She urged everyone to vote in the 2020 election, to volunteer at campaigns, regardless of the political party, and to keep in mind the most vulnerable that political policies affect. “Change is on us,” Chaker powerfully concluded.