Grads to watch: How Derakhshan Qurban-Ali became a global refugee advocate
International Relations and Peace, Conflict and Justice grad aids global community
Derakhshan Qurban-Ali believes in making a difference — not only at home in Toronto, but also 700o km away at the Bicske Refugee Camp and Integration Centre in Hungary, where she volunteered over the summer of 2013.
Most of the refugees at Bicske — and in Hungary as a whole — come from Syria, Afghanistan, and various other Middle Eastern and African states, a fact not lost on Qurban-Ali, whose own parents were also asylum-seekers.
“I had always wanted to volunteer at a refugee camp because my parents were refugees from Afghanistan and I wanted to pay forward the opportunities that I’ve been given in life.”
While at the camp — located about 30 minutes outside of Budapest — Qurban-Ali taught English, organized social programming and assisted social workers in their daily routine.
“Almost every preconception I had about refugees was dispelled,” said Qurban-Ali. “Learning about the lives, challenges and hopes of the wonderful people I had the pleasure of working with was an irreplaceable experience.”
The work was life-changing, but also very difficult.
“It didn’t take a big stretch of imagination to see myself in their shoes,” said Qurban-Ali. “But despite the emotional toll, my time at the camp was extremely rewarding because I learned volumes about both myself and the world around me.”
“The experience taught me that change can start from just one person, every action in life matters and that we are far more capable than we could ever imagine.”
At the end of the summer, Qurban-Ali returned to Toronto with a heavy heart.
“Everything had changed — my beliefs, my priorities and my perceptions of the world. Physically, I was back in Canada, but my mind and heart remained with the refugees in Hungary. I felt upset at the injustice of the situation, that one’s rights as a human being were dependent on a passport or place of birth.”
She realized that she could not just leave the experience behind her, so she began documenting the stories she’d heard and the conditions she saw.
“At first, I didn’t know what I was going to do with these stories; I just knew I wanted to raise awareness about the issues.”
With the assistance of a Fullerton Research Award — designed to assist students in the Peace and Conflict Studies program completing original research in the field —and the support of her faculty research supervisor, Robert Austin of the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (CERES) at the Munk School of Global Affairs, Qurban-Ali returned to Hungary to pursue independent research.
“Robert Austin is a phenomenal professor who sparked my interest in central and southeastern Europe through his passion for the region, said Qurban-Ali. “One of the most remarkable things about him is his utmost faith in the capabilities of his students and his support of their ideas, interests and development.”
She also travelled to Germany, where many refugees had ultimately migrated to conduct interviews for her undergraduate thesis investigating the barriers to refugee integration as well as the evolution of irregular migration trends in the European Union.
“I think that one of the most valuable lessons we can learn about cross-cultural understanding is the fact that the only thing that differentiates us from others is our passport. The refugees I met — whether from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq, Mali or elsewhere — have the same goals and dreams that we do in the West. They are willing to sacrifice their lives for a better future for themselves and their children.”
Back on campus, sharing her experiences with the University of Toronto community was important to her “because it helped to put a human face on the news headlines.”
“When I was co-president of U of T’s chapter of Amnesty International, I wanted to raise awareness about refugee issues because I realized that few people in Canada knew about the situation in Europe, said Qurban-Ali. “I shared my research, ideas, and experiences with students and encouraged them to pursue their own passions and research projects.”
Closer to home, Qurban-Ali has also worked hard to improve the quality of the student experience at the University of Toronto by volunteering with the First in the Family Peer Mentor Program, providing academic, personal and social support to first generation students by facilitating weekly sessions and one-on-one meetings.
Qurban-Ali — who graduates this month with an HBA in International Relations and Peace, Conflict and Justice — is currently in Germany at the G7 Summit as the Lead Analyst of U of T’s G8 Research Group.
She’s also been involved with Victoria College’s Humanities for Humanity program, which connects financially challenged people in the community with undergraduate student mentors.
Qurban-Ali — who will join the Studio Y fellowship program for emerging leaders at the MaRS Discovery District this fall — is one of two Dean’s Student Leadership Award recipients this year. The award recognizes an Arts & Science student who has played a significant leadership role supporting our international character by encouraging cross-cultural understanding.