Several loud pops from under a tarp a volunteer was walking across made some people flinch during the recent International Day of Peace program at The Highground Veterans’ Memorial Park near Neillsville.
“Those are landmines,” said Dr. Khalil Dokhanchi from the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
In reality, the pops were from bubble-wrap placed under the tarp to demonstrate what can happen as refugees make the difficult decision to leave their homelands. The tarp represented the border between Afghanistan and Turkey, which Dokhanchi pointed to as one of the places Afghanistan refugees left their country. It’s all part of an educational program Dokhanchi – known as Haji around the UW-Superior campus – takes on the road to demonstrate some of the challenges refugees face.
Haji is a professor and department chair in the UWS Department of Social Inquiry, and said he has passion for helping people understand those challenges. He also wants them to understand the processes in which refugees are vetted by countries that will accept them.
The refugee presentation is something Haji said was a natural offshoot of a work he and students had done to reduce landmines around the world, and of the UW-Superior War and Peace in Bosnia and Northern Ireland Study Abroad Program he and Dr. Karl Bahm developed.
Though not considered a refugee, Haji is no stranger to finding a new homeland. He arrived in the United States from Iran as a 14-year-old in 1977 to be with his older brother, and never turned back. His parents remained in Iran after the 1979 Iranian Revolution – he’s had extremely limited in-person contact with them since the revolution.
Though Americans have been giving much attention to Afghan refugees, finding landing places for refugees is not new and is ongoing — refugees arrive in the United States daily. He points to Wisconsin’s acceptance of refugees from 2001-2015: Haji asks for audience guesses about the homeland of the most refugees to settle in Wisconsin during those years: nobody provides the correct answer of Burma. Haji also noted that there are differences between refugees and those who otherwise want to immigrate to the United States.
“In order for you to be a refugee, you have to have a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, social grouping, or political opinion,” Haji said.
He said refugees are vetted for 18-24 months before being allowed into the U.S., which greatly reduces security issues.
“They interview you, and your stories have to line up,” he said. “If they don’t line up, this is where the red flag comes in and you get rejected.”
Great numbers of refugees have been in the United States for many years, working only to improve their lives and the lives of others, he said.
Haji has developed a dice game in which audience members roll a die to determine what factors and choices participants would have to make if they were refugees. Some choices would be what clothes to take, and what food they might be able to carry; issues such as money and transportation also figure into the basic choices. The bubble-wrap “landmined” border crossing is part of that dice game.
Doing the presentation at a place such as The Highground Veterans’ Memorial Park is important to him because “people are here because they want to be, not because they have to be,” Haji said. That importance is amplified when the program is done on a day such as the International Day of Peace.
“It’s great to celebrate Peace Day. We’ve been celebrating at my school for the last 30 years. I actually have peace beads that I give to students, in celebration of this particular day. And it is good because we don’t get to think about peace; we all say we want peace, but we never say what it is.”
The professor said it’s good to reflect about what peace is, and that he’s happy to remind people of that.
“Peace is good,” Haji said. “Peace is good for your kids, peace is good for your grandkids, peace is good for your relationship.”
Haji said there are many ways to help refugees, but that humanitarian action is up to each individual.
“The choice of action is yours,” he said. “What you want to do is your choice. But there are plenty of things that could be done to help the people move.”