An Opportunity of a Lifetime
Inspired by images of the Iraqi and Syrian refugee crises,
Mehra Gharibian decided to do his part to make a difference.
Last December, Mehra Gharibian spent his winter break in Nicosia, Cyprus, at the Hope for Children refugee shelter. He was motivated to do so by the recent Iraqi and Syrian refugee crises, which had touched him on a personal level. As a Middle Eastern American attending a university in California, with his family happy and physically together, Gharibian felt a responsibility toward families that were not as fortunate.
“The refugees I saw on my screen every day leaving Iraq and Syria seemed no different in situation or need than my family, who left Iraq under similar circumstances decades ago,” he said.
He found his opportunity to help with Generation Human Rights, a nonprofit program dedicated to supporting refugee youth around the world. Gharibian, an English and ethnic studies double major, wanted to help teenage refugees express their trauma through narrative expression and storytelling. To do so, however, he needed funding.
“When Mehra visited my office to tell me about this opportunity, his passion and commitment were palpable,” said Kathryn Rummell, English Department chair. “Many of us talk about wanting to help others, but Mehra was putting actions to his values. Helping him secure funding was a very small way that I could help him do that.”
Two English Department donors whose passions included helping students with experiences abroad supported Gharibian’s trip. “Throughout my trip, and now even more in retrospect, I recognize and appreciate the individuals at Cal Poly who made this experience possible,” he said. “I am forever grateful.”
“The refugees I saw on my screen every day leaving Iraq and Syria seemed no different in situation or need than my family.”
— Mehra Gharibian
Mehra Gharibian, middle, mentored teenage refugees
as part of the Generation Human Rights program.
Graffiti art in Cyprus.
While in Cyprus, Gharibian spent all day every day at the shelter, arriving before breakfast in the morning and leaving after dinner. He quickly got to know many of the boys, most of whom were nearing 18 years of age. In addition to the storytelling workshops he hosted, Gharibian took on projects to help them individually. He helped one teenager with his daily English homework. Another refugee aspired to attend a university in the U.S. after high school, so Gharibian worked with him to explore universities and scholarship opportunities. He also helped introduce the students to American culture. They decorated a Christmas tree together and discussed the cultural importance of the holiday in the U.S.
The trip had a profound impact on Gharibian and the young men he met. “Through my time at Home for Hope, I had the opportunity to befriend some of the most intelligent, motivated and resilient people I’ve ever met,” he said. “I hope that in addition to the workshops, tutoring and advising, I gave the boys hope for the future — perhaps one in which they settle in the West and have children who attend universities. And perhaps those children will return to fulfill their own responsibilities.”
Gharibian’s commitment to others is an example of the ways a liberal arts education can change lives. “This trip enabled Mehra to enact the humanistic values our program teaches: respect and empathy for others, commitment to social justice, and an understanding that one voice can make a significant difference. He was able to use his knowledge and skills to make a positive contribution to society,” Rummell said.
Gharibian served as an ambassador for the college and the university in his work on this project; in June, he received Cal Poly’s College of Liberal Arts’ Award for Contributions to the Objectives and Public Image of the University. This fall, he will attend UC Irvine to pursue a doctorate in visual studies with plans to become an educator.