2014 David Roth Scholarship Award Winner
Maryam Zoma, Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College
As a first year Masters of Social Work student at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in the Community Organizing, Planning, and Development concentration, I have learned about political activism in my social welfare and community organizing courses. I apply these skills at my current field placement at Seafarers and International House (SIH), a Lutheran social service agency in Manhattan providing assistance to domestic and international seafarers, visits to immigrants in detention centers, and temporary housing for asylum seekers. At SIH, I educate the community about issues asylum seekers and immigrant detainees face by visiting local congregations and speaking with congregants about immigration policies. This experience influenced my future career goals in political activism and makes me qualified to apply for the David Roth Scholarship.
Immigration policies have always impacted my family and I since my mother is originally from the Philippines and my father’s family originates from Iraq. As a child, I always wondered why my relatives in the Philippines could not visit me in America or live in the United States. This personal experience stimulated my interest in immigration issues and advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform. As more people immigrate to the United States because of economic considerations, conflicts in home countries, and climate change, it will be increasingly important for the United States to adopt immigration laws that evaluate and prioritize asylum applications in accordance with international human rights laws. Input from social workers is imperative in this campaign and they must continue being active in informing politicians and the public about the importance of immigration reform and equitable laws for asylum seekers.
As an undergraduate student at Fordham University, I developed an interest in multicultural studies and women’s and human rights after studying abroad in Egypt. My own Iraqi heritage influenced me to study the issues Iraqi refugees face and ways wars directly affect women. After I graduated from Fordham, I received a Fulbright Fellowship to Jordan and studied the ways faith-based organizations impact the psychosocial well-being of Iraqi widow refugees. I conducted group and one-on-one interviews with the women and their families. During a group meeting, one woman asked me, “What are you going to do to change immigration and refugee laws in the United States?” When she asked that question, I was stunned and did not consider I had any power to change immigration laws and policies, but they saw the power in me.
When I returned to the United States, I volunteered at the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture as an English tutor for their immigrant and refugee clients, and was exposed to the issues these individuals face such as finding employment and the immigration process. In fall 2013, I began the MSW program at Silberman and received honors/A+ grades in three classes, including Dr. Terry Mizrahi’s Social Welfare Policy course.
At SIH, I lead volunteer groups, mainly from Lutheran congregations, into detention centers to speak with immigrant detainees and asylum seekers, and get a firsthand experience
about the issues they face. Churches are in a unique position to advocate for immigration reform since welcoming immigrants and strangers is built into their mission, religious literature, and traditions. In addition, these churches do not have proselytizing motives and respect the heritages of the newcomers they welcome. Detention centers do not provide the support asylum seekers need when they enter the United States, especially since these individuals may have experienced previous human rights abuses and might suffer from unaddressed mental health issues. Detainees have reported inadequate medical care, poor treatment, and unsanitary facilities. I encourage congregations and volunteers to educate their friends, families, and social networks about these issues, write letters to local representatives asking them to support comprehensive immigration reform, and organize or partake in immigration events in New York City. Volunteers who visit detainees speak about their deeper understanding on the ways immigration laws and policies directly impact individuals, families, and communities, and are knowledgeable of the injustices and inequalities these individuals experience solely because of their immigration status. I am also working on uniting asylum agencies in the New York City area to coordinate multiple efforts and communicate programs, goals, and resources with one another in order to provide more robust services to asylum seekers.
Before this internship ends and in my second year field placement, I plan on facilitating more political activism among congregations and volunteers by having a voter registration drive, educating these groups about politicians’ and candidates’ stances on immigration reform, and working with other interfaith immigration coalitions to organize rallies and demonstrations showing support for immigration reform. I hope these actions influence politicians to pass immigration reform laws to end mandatory detention policies and allow these individuals to become fully integrated, respected members of their communities. Current immigration laws and policies do not recognize the inherent dignity these individuals deserve and treat asylum seekers as criminals, isolate them in detention centers, and remove them from their communities, networks, and families. After I finish my MSW, I plan to work on immigration, asylum, and refugee issues at an organization advocating for these populations on a national and international level. I want to interact directly with lawmakers to help them understand why the United States needs immigration reform laws and more effective refugee and asylum policies.
My personal and professional experiences helped me realized what the Iraqi women in Jordan always saw in me— someone that can have an impact on immigration laws and policies. Social workers have a duty to assist oppressed and vulnerable populations, and must be focused on immigration issues because individuals without citizenship lack the ability to vote and change laws and policies. Social workers’ unique viewpoints and experiences working with asylum seekers can inform politicians that comprehensive immigration reform is necessary, and the United States must recognize the human rights of asylum seekers, since these individuals come to the United States to avoid detention, abuse, or political punishment in their land of origin.