Gregg Centre focused on teaching about refugees and welcoming newcomers

Cindy Brown has made it her life’s work to study how war affects people and communities. Although her primary focus is on the First and Second World War, her historical research interests give her a sense of what Syrian refugees endured before coming to Canada and the challenges they face as they rebuild their lives in a new country.

Dr. Brown and her colleagues at the Milton F. Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick are working hard to help refugees feel welcome in New Brunswick and educate citizens on the crisis.

It was natural for the Gregg Centre to be involved. The centre’s mandate is to inform students and the wider public about the realities of conflict and the people displaced through war.

“We want to help people understand the complex situations refugees are coming from,” said Dr. Brown, program co-ordinator for the Gregg Centre. “Our expertise is really in our knowledge and interest in the complex cause, course and consequence of war and its impact on society. Because of that expertise, the Gregg Centre is in a unique position to inform the public.”

While the centre is not working directly on resettling refugees, it is actively supporting those organizations at the forefront of bringing refugees to New Brunswick. With the large number of refugees being placed and the challenges that face the resettlement organizations like the Multicultural Association in Fredericton and the YMCA in Saint John, the support of the Gregg Centre and UNB in providing information and hosting welcome events is crucial for the community.

The centre, along with university and community partners, has held three information sessions and newcomer events to provide context to those who want to know more about the conflicts and conditions which created the refugee crisis.

A group of interested students, faculty and staff from across campus have come together to help facilitate these efforts. They meet regularly to share information, workshop ideas and make them happen. The committee organized a welcome event for refugees and community members on Feb. 27 at the Student Union Building.

That same community spirit was seen at the welcome event. The public library offered up board games and decks of cards. The Scouts came out to run activities including a hugely popular tug of war. Both refugees and longtime Canadians alike gathered. Children coloured while parents chatted over New Brunswick delicacies including maple candy and local cranberries. An anonymous donor delivered 15 trays of halal pastries.

The event was a hit, with more than 300 people attending. Abdelhaq Hamza, a professor in the faculty of science at UNB, speaks Arabic and attended the event. He was left with the impression that the families who attended were thankful the welcome they have received.

“They are struggling with the language barrier but they are enjoying the peace and quiet. They have been overwhelmed by the generosity,” Dr. Hamza said.

The event was a good opportunity for refugees to not only meet people living in the city, but also network with other refugees. Dr. Brown said the mixer was a way to build community.

“We are aware that there is a risk that all newcomers, regardless of their background, may feel a certain isolation in coming to a new community. This event was a good opportunity to welcome them while also letting them know the campus is an open place where they are welcome.”

The welcome event is just one of many initiatives at UNB in support of refugees. The UNB Student Union organized a mitten drive and saw an overwhelming response and last term another student group organized a clothing drive. Dr. Brown said it’s encouraging to see all parts of the community come together to help people in need.

For Dr. Brown and the Gregg Centre, this is just the beginning of what they hope will be a campaign that continues to respond to needs as they arise. They are currently working on several projects, including a food drive, furniture collection and fundraising efforts.

“One small way people can help is to support our fundraising campaign, which launched on March 21, in an effort to purchase new beds. People can also look in their basements for items to could donate to a Syrian family. Many of them have very little and need everything from larger items like couches and tables to smaller appliances and dishes.”

For more information on any fundraising campaigns, the various ways the UNB community is pitching in, or how to help, contact Cindy Brown.