Passing the Mic

Seeking Refuge co-presidents on the power of a podcast in amplifying refugee stories

by Megan Wooters / Garnet & Black

The world is absolutely humongous. When faced with its many injustices, students can feel helpless, wishing there was a way to make a positive difference. What steps can be taken to produce real change, and how can college students get involved in the fight for human liberties? For Claire Mattes and Victoria Halsey, the co-presidents of the Seeking Refuge podcast, the answer can be found right here on campus.

The Seeking Refuge team interviews refugees and refugee advocates about their experiences, amplifying refugee stories in order to reach audiences that may not have ever heard them otherwise. They handle all aspects of the production of the show, while also advocating for policies that support displaced persons. “Refugee stories are often told not by the refugee themselves and that can lead to a really inaccurate depiction of their experience or lead to people exploiting their experience,” said Mattes.

Halsey noted that podcasts are a particularly effective medium for the team's purposes. “Podcasts are a really good format for the kind of stories that we’re trying to share because you actually hear the person’s voice," said Halsey. “As someone’s going about their day, they can be listening to it.”

Podcasts also provide a level of anonymity that can be crucial for the refugees interviewed. “It’s also nice because they don’t always have to show their face, which can be a thing for some people," said Mattes. "They give their identity and they talk about things, but we’re talking about very personal or traumatic things that have happened.”

Seeking Refuge started as a project in 2019, and Mattes and Halsey joined the podcast in 2020 during their freshman years. The project was originally conceived through Maxcy International College because it was part of the Carolina Global Scholars program. The podcast team ultimately decided to become their own student organization with the hope of making these stories more accessible to the student population. “I think having students be aware of the refugee crisis and understand what a refugee is is the smallest thing I hope I can leave with the podcast,” said Mattes.

When discussing displacement issues, there is often misunderstanding about the proper verbiage for addressing different groups of displaced people. “The term refugee is complicated because people typically think that immigrant, migrant and refugee are used interchangeably," said Mattes. “A refugee is someone who is actually facing persecution in their home country, has been displaced and has to flee. And they have to actually go through a series of vetting processes at the UN to receive refugee status, which can take years."

While some refugees are leaving their countries of origin because of war or unrest, there are a multitude of other factors that may force someone to become an emigrant. “There are refugees who are having to flee because of climate change or refugees that are having to flee because of starvation. These aren’t necessarily persecution, but it should qualify,” said Halsey. Natural events continue to plague many communities in insurmountable ways around the globe, creating the need for countries of reprieve that don't face the same climate or topographical challenges. “We have an episode with one woman who is the CEO of Climate Refugees, and she was talking about farmers in various South American communities that are facing flooding, which can destroy their crops and make them unable to make money," said Mattes. "So this is forcing them inland.”

Mattes and Halsey both noted the sheer number of misconceptions that exist about the nature of immigration to the United States. For starters, immigration is a painstaking process with so many contingencies that it would make even the most seasoned political scientist's head spin.

“There are a lot of loopholes in the legal system that avoid naming a person as a refugee, and so technically, it’s illegal that they’re coming through the border," said Mattes. "Stricter border policies don’t actually ensure that people are being vetted properly, which is something a lot of politicians warn about.”

Refugees face immense obstacles to entering the US, being left to the lamentable conditions of a refugee camp. “There's a term, non-refoulement, that basically means that when a refugee or asylum seeker is within their country of destination, that country cannot send them back to their home country," said Halsey. "That is illegal under international law. However, because these refugee camps are a limbo space, [refugees] are stripped of their citizenship from their home country, but they also don’t have citizenship within the country where they’re staying. They’re basically within these almost open-air prisons oftentimes. They’re meant to be a temporary solution to whatever geopolitical situation has caused them to need to flee their country, but a lot of these people are living their whole lives there.”

While some Americans are under the impression that the immigration process is swift and unregulated, the length of time that refugees can be forced to spend in these camps tells a different story. “Some people are in refugee camps for twenty years,” said Mattes.

In the past decade, there has been an uptick in the number of American citizens concerned about border security. A CBS News poll found that 45 percent of Americans see the border situation as a crisis, and another 30 percent see it as a serious problem. Mattes offered support for a different perspective.

Mattes explained that while statistics can suggest that crime follows refugee populations, these figures are a result of skewed reporting. “Stricter border policies don’t actually protect us the way people think they do. A lot of the issues that supposedly come with refugees or immigrants are already here and are just amplified in the news when it’s a refugee or immigrant doing that said thing,” said Mattes. “People are reporting more crimes by immigrants, so that’s why it looks like they’re committing more crimes.”

Fears about national security are perpetuated in large part by the belief that refugees bring unrest. Mattes cited an instance in Germany that occurred during the Syrian refugee crisis. There was a rise in the number of rape cases reported to have been inflicted by refugees, but the truth was far from what the figures showed.

“When they looked further into this data, it was actually misreported because these refugees looked different from the typical men who get drunk and assault or rape women in Germany. With further inspection, they realized that the amount of rape cases hadn’t actually changed at all. It was almost exactly the same as the year before the refugee crisis, but because people can use that age-old idea of racism and of a darker-skinned man raping a white woman, which has been used for such a long time, it’s picked up by the media pretty easily. It creates this idea that we’re somehow in danger when in reality we’re just over-policing certain areas of immigrants and either misreporting or over-reporting those people," said Mattes. “And it’s done in the US too.”

The ethics of humanitarian aid can be extremely sticky, and Halsey said that much of it is based in the long-term effects of racism. “In my international migration class that I’m taking right now, we’re talking about how almost all humanitarian aid is founded in colonialism and white supremacy,” said Halsey. “The logic that was used to justify colonialism is the exact same logic that is used to justify international development programs. It’s very much so ‘backward,’ ‘uncivilized,’ ‘they don’t have the infrastructure,’ but [underdeveloped countries] don’t have the infrastructure because countries that are developed…were able to get where they are economically because they exploited other countries.”

This same sentiment has been shared by refugees who have spoken on the podcast. “I interviewed one refugee who said, ‘I don’t need you to donate to help me pay my rent, help me find a job so I can pay my own rent.’ It’s the same way in other countries," said Mattes. "They don’t need just money, they need an actual system that’s set up to help them progress. That’s something that Western humanitarian aid doesn’t do.”

Ahmad Alzoukani is a Syrian refugee who emigrated from his country in 2015 to escape civil war. Alzoukani settled in Atlanta where he is now the manager of a thriving business, Mint Coffeehouse. This year, Seeking Refuge hosted a podcast episode in which Alzoukani spoke about his experience coming to the United States and the process by which he was able to establish his restaurant.

"It was a nice feeling that people would like to hear our stories. It makes me feel like our stories can give some meaning to or inspire other people," Alzoukani told Garnet & Black. "It’s important because it reminds us that you shouldn’t give up. You can always start again after hard troubles."

Each story shared and each perspective broadened is one step in the direction of combating harmful or misinformed understandings about what it means to be a refugee. While the future can feel bleak for many college students embarking upon a new and boundless world, there's no better place to begin changing the narrative than in one's own community.

"With my international studies major, I’ve always planned to go into some kind of human rights advocacy, and my involvement on the podcast has made me more aware of refugee and displaced peoples' experiences, and it has made me more aware of the systems that are supposed to help them but aren’t really helping them,” said Halsey. “Words have so much power."