Bay High students address Syrian refugee problem at Model UN conference
Close to a half-million Syrians are now refugees fleeing their civil war-torn country where more than a quarter-million have been killed. The numbers are sure to climb, with another 6.5 million still inside Syria forced from their homes. The world must decide how to respond.
Bay High students explored the intricacies of this human catastrophe by adopting the roles of 15 different countries. They conducted deep and extensive research into each nation’s past positions on opening borders to refugees. They estimated potential costs of providing asylum. When the debates about how to help the refugees began in the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center meeting room on Friday, April 15, passions flared and the students learned there are no easy solutions.
“Some countries are accepting refugees. Others want to help but don’t want them,” said senior Claire Reid, co-chair of Bay High’s Model UN. “Some are content to do nothing at all. Many political, social and economic issues factor into a country’s stance on this situation.”
Arguments by the well-informed students included lots of facts, figures and emotional appeals. Plenty of finger-pointing took place. Countries such as Turkey and Greece cited the huge numbers of refugees they have already accepted. Both Saudi Arabia and the Russian Federation advocated for passing no resolution, stating that countries should help only as they determine individually.
Jacob Melaragno, a senior and another club co-chair, manned the gavel to keep the discussion on track, following a strictly prescribed structure of time allotted for caucusing and monitored debate, as well as rules of order for voting. Though students may have felt personal compassion for the refugees, they had to leave their biases elsewhere and argue on behalf of their assigned country.
“It’s very hard to put your personal feelings aside,” said sophomore Emma Legeay, who represented Turkey. “We do have to keep Turkey’s interests at the top of our minds. But that’s real life. It’s much like a lawyer representing a client. So it’s teaching us good life skills.”
Bay High junior John Reid had to defend Saudi Arabia’s position. “It’s difficult to speak so insensitively on this topic, advocating for their closed borders and so forth, since I really don’t feel that way personally,” he said. His partner, junior Carter White, offered specifics on why they took such a hard, anti-refugee position. “In the last seven years,” said White, “they’ve accepted people from other countries, but not those considered by the UN to be refugees. Being so close geographically, it was interesting to see their perspective, when other countries not as close were receiving the refugees.” Both students felt confident that they were realistically presenting the position of Saudi Arabia.
According to parent and advisor Dave Adams, it was the tenacious perseverance of the students, especially Model UN veterans Melaragno and Reid as co-chairs, which led to the successful conference.
“We had a lot of willing, excited, intelligent, bright students at the start of the year, but there was difficulty in finding an advisor,” Adams said. “I just offered that structure the school required. The kids did all the work, which is actually in keeping with the leadership mission of Model UN.” The club grew from a dozen to more than 30 members this school year.
Charlie Polinko, Cleveland Council on World Affairs, was on hand to observe the proceedings. “I think your students are doing a phenomenal job,” he said. “To see them interested and engaged, learning about the world and discussing these important topics, is wonderful.”
At the end of the day, two hard-fought resolutions passed. Israel proposed the “It’s On Us” resolution to provide food, clothes and shelter through non-government organizations (NGOs) like the Red Cross. Then this UN High Council of Refugees recommended that the UN Security Council provide ground troops to help.
Countries and the students representing them were Austria (Amelia Johnson and Jessica Sobczac), Bulgaria (Ava Walker and Anna Walker), Canada (Auden Stevenson and Ivan Slyepkan), Egypt (Danielle Cooke and Maggie Williams), Germany (Rose Mlakar and Logan Thomson), Greece (Clay Hull and TJ Cahill), Israel (Matt Dubil and James Urwin), Italy (Haley Russell and Fenja Eckart), Montenegro (Brian Hippler and Drew Ware), Netherlands (Sam Murray and Owen MacMillan), Romania (Charlie Adams and Kate Baeppler), Russian Federation (Laura Curry and Emily Taylor), Saudi Arabia (John Reid and Carter White), United States (Max Schell and Matt Semier) and Turkey (Aaron Risch and Emma Legeay).
Director of Communications for the Bay Village City School District