USC students embrace relocated Syrian refugees

USC students embrace relocated Syrian refugees



Sofi Deak poses with two refugee children in El Cajon. Photo used with permission of Deak.

When Lida Dianti turned on the news and saw Syrian children losing their homes, their families and their very lives, she wanted to help in a sustainable way. Her purpose became to give young Syrians something that could never be taken away from them: education.

Dianti founded the USC chapter of Students Organize for Syria in Fall 2016. The organization tutors students in English as part of their Students Teach for Syria program and co-hosts donation drives with UCLA to support families in El Cajon, a city near San Diego.

The Syrian Civil War is currently in its sixth year, and millions have been displaced from their homes. Three years ago, the United Nations called the Syrian Civil War “the biggest humanitarian crisis of our era.” Because of the prevalence of information about the war, Dianti is adamant that the purpose of her club is not to raise awareness.

“People know,” she said. “It’s 2017; we all have iPhones. People are well aware of what’s going on. I’m done having dialogue. I’m done raising awareness. I want action.”

Action is an understatement for Dianti’s role in the club. She spends all her free time on SOS, whether she’s picking up lunch ingredients for the kids, brainstorming ideas for new projects or driving down to El Cajon to help out — a trip she makes every weekend. The dozen or so families she works with in El Cajon know and expect her; they have her number, they know her name and they know her car.

The focus of Dianti’s club is education as she believes it is crucial for refugee children to continue their studies. As a senior majoring in international relations, she had been closely following the conflict. Over a year ago, she began tutoring a Syrian student, someone she still considers a very close friend. After meeting her, Dianti had a personal stake in the war.

“She changed my whole life,” Dianti said.

Dianti wanted to start a tutoring program here on campus because of the high demand for English speaking tutors.

In her experience, there are a variety of reasons Syrian children want English tutors. Primarily, students want to be prepared for placement exams so they can get into universities and make a life for themselves outside of their unstable country. Students also need English assistance to fill out applications for jobs, for asylum and for colleges. A third group simply wants to practice their speaking.

“[When studying a foreign language], it’s very common that reading and writing is easy, but speaking, that can only come from experience and practice,” Dianti said. “The best way to do that is with a native speaker.”

Sofia Deak, vice president of SOS, first got involved as a tutor.

“I had been looking for a way to help out with the crisis going on in Syria and have a lasting impact on the people who were suffering there,” she said.

Deak then helped expand SOS’ work to El Cajon and coordinated volunteers for their donation drives, and has had memorable interactions with refugees on each trip. Families invited her in for Arabic tea or coffee (which Dianti raves about), and one family even insisted Deak stay for dinner. Kids hugged and kissed her after receiving gifts, and one man cried of joy after the volunteers bought glasses for him after he was unable to fill his prescription.

“He was grateful for something that we thought was small,” Deak said.

Deak has been studying Arabic for two years, but knowledge of Arabic is by no means a requirement for tutors or volunteers, given the high demand.

“My Arabic is so bad, but they just want to hang out with you,” Dianti said of her frequent trips to El Cajon.

She visits nine to 15 families each week and has gotten to know each family well. On Jan. 6, she took a young boy to In-N-Out, and they were laughing and eating together despite the language barrier. She would try to speak Arabic, and he wouldn’t understand. The boy would speak English, and she would get confused, but they would both learn a little as they laughed a lot.

“It’s genuinely fun,” she said. “It’s like hanging out with family. They need compassion. They need to be treated like human beings because that hasn’t happened to them in a very long time.”

Dianti graduates this year, but she still has new plans for SOS in the works. Her latest is a program that allows USC students to improve their colloquial Arabic skills and allows refugees to earn some money. Students can study Arabic in school, but she feels that it’s focused on reading and writing formally, not conversing casually. Ideally, USC students could have Skype Arabic lessons from, for example, a Syrian mother with young children who can’t leave the house to work, and pay them $15 to $20 an hour. It’s essentially the inverse of the English tutoring program they have in place, but unlike the English program, there isn’t a huge demand for tutors.

According to Dianti, the hardest part of working with refugees is making promises that are difficult to keep. She said the executive board has no shortage of passion and enthusiasm, but there is a shortage of volunteers, forcing the few dedicated members to overextend themselves and work long hours to ensure they don’t let the refugees down. And yet, they keep doing it, over and over.

“It’s the best thing I’ve done with my life, honest to God,” she said. “They just want people to hang out with, they want to meet Americans, they want to practice English, they want to feel like they’re a part of the community.”

What schools and their students can do to combat binge drinking

Written for ASCJ 200: Navigating Media + News

Coinciding with my first year of college has been the rise of finstas, or Fake Instagrams. Finstas are carefully guarded accounts with arcane usernames, often used, at least among my peers, for posting drunk or otherwise incriminating pictures. I used to only see idyllic sceneries, carefully chosen selfies and effusive birthday posts, all from accounts desperate to increase their “ratio” (of Followers : Following). A few weekends ago, though, scattered among the usual Instas, I scrolled through an unexplainable broken nose, a destroyed room, a friend laughing about being taken home by the LAPD. Finstas might be a new trend, but they’re just the latest way to perpetuate a culture that’s been around for ages: that getting too drunk to function is glamorous or silly, and either way, normal. We’ve seen plenty of harrowing stats and tragic stories, and we all know that alcohol abuse is a problem. But few people know how to step in.

So what can we do about alcohol abuse on college campuses?

Underage drinking is a virtually unsolvable problem, but there are specific ways students and administration can work together to keep the campus safe.

The theory of Occam’s razor tells us that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. In terms of drinking on college campuses, though, the obvious answers just don’t cut it.

“If we were to eliminate alcohol, we’d see a different day,” said Officer Wyman Thomas of the University of Southern California’s Public Department of Safety.

And we would. The correlation between sexual assault and alcohol is well documented, and in Thomas’ 35 years on the job, he’s also seen it lead to accidents, fighting, property damage and disregard for the lives of others and oneself.

But a sweeping ban can quickly get complicated. Early this year, Stanford University banned hard alcohol on campus two months after former student Brock Turner was sent to prison for raping an unconscious student. The school faced backlash for its apparent “solution” to sexual assault — critics argued that this ban put the blame on alcohol instead of a rapist’s behavior. If only Turner hadn’t been drinking, he would have behaved better, the ban seems to suggest. Or, more offensively, if the victim hadn’t acted irresponsibly, she wouldn’t have been in this situation.

Banning hard alcohol can have other unintended, seedy consequences. Dr. Mary Andres, Professor of Clinical Education in the Rossier School of Education and licensed drug and alcohol therapist, explained that bans like that can lead to hard alcohol shifting from public pouring to closed doors, to students saying, “I have the good stuff in my room”.

An anonymous freshman explained that a frat party, the only options were beer and wine — a common occurrence this year. A friend of hers wanted harder alcohol, and someone who lived in the house overheard and offered the vodka he had in his room. The two girls sat and drank and eventually ended up on his loft bed. When he tried to initiate something, they left, and he let them.

“In retrospect, it’s so stupid,” the first freshman said. “Luckily, nothing happened and I was with my friend, but going to a random guy’s room to drink vodka seems so idiotic when I say it out loud. I guess it was the only way to drink hard alcohol there, and we wanted to.”

Banning high-proof alcohol is not a foolproof solution — if students want to drink, they’ll find a way. So what can administrators do? For starters, the campus needs students to know that the public safety department’s purpose is to keep students safe, not to “get them”.

Students who believe they’ve been unfairly penalized for drinking on campus might not believe this claim, but the evidence is there. For example, students don’t get in trouble for tailgating on campus. Clearly underage freshmen march down Trousdale unapologetically with a glass bottle of Lagunitas in hand, and face no consequences. It’s hard to stop everyone, and the public safety has bigger things to worry about than spirited underclassmen drinking beer or playing Rage Cage.

Officer Thomas believes that part of the negative image students may have of DPS is based on their  view of officers in general.

“This goes beyond the borders of USC,” he said. “A lot of people view the uniform as a threat. Whatever experience they have from their family background, their cultural background, of their police, of their military”.

He believes that this contributes to a reluctance to come forward and report crimes, but stressed how essential it is do so.

“A crime that’s unreported for us — it’s as if it never existed,” he said.

According to him, students think, “I’m not going to get my property back,” or, “They’re never going to catch the perpetrator,” and wonder what the point is. But reporting a crime can give officers information about the date, the time and the location of future crimes. Multiple incidents can mean officers should add more lighting or otherwise change the environment, or even add a guard or two to the area.

But that’s after the fact. DPS also gets panicked calls during an incident.

“Someone notifies us, or we find someone staggering on the street, or lying in the grass,” Thomas said.

They call a rescue ambulance, and take down information about the student so Student Affairs can follow up with them. After too many incidents, the consequences can be severe — Thomas likened it to being “called to the principal’s office”.

Of course, campus police is not always around — they can’t be.

“The things that we do know,” Thomas said, “We’re there. But sometimes we don’t know. If we knew that [beloved neuroscience professor Bosco Tjan] was going to be stabbed, we would have been there. We didn’t know.”

So when students see their peers in trouble, they need to step in, to not be a bystander. This might mean stopping a random drunk girl at a party from walking into someone’s room, or it might mean confronting a close friend about their slipping grades and lack of sleep.

Dr. Andres feels the best way to intervene in the latter situation is to have a 1-on-1 talk. She recommends expressing care, and pointing out specific behavior, which is harder to refute.


Hey ________,

I’ve realized you’re always talking about how you never get your homework done, but you’ve been coming up in super late a lot. Are you doing okay?

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She emphasizes not saying things like, “I think you drink too much”.  She wants students to make connections and offer help, or simply an ear. That might not work, but sometimes it does. And students have the responsibility to help themselves and each other.

Underage drinking and alcohol abuse has always been a problem, and it may always be one, but it’s up to everyone involved — both administrators and students — to try to change the culture.

Match Volume

My interview with Everytable founder Sam Polk begins at 1:50

USC Annenberg Media 

Same restaurant, same meals, different prices. Everytable has $4 lunches in South Central LA, where affordable, healthy options are hard to come by, and doubles the price in its downtown location, where people can pay the extra few dollars. I interviewed founder Sam Polk, who left his Wall Street job to create the social enterprise. He spoke about career advice, hiring team members, and what he learned from leaving behind millions of dollars.

Community gathers to discuss teacher retention and recruitment

Assemblymember Rich Gordon holds panel for local educators, citizens

The lack of affordable housing in Silicon Valley is driving teachers out of our school, out of our district and out of our state. On May 7, at 10 a.m., local teachers and school board and community members gathered at FUHSD District Office to discuss teacher recruitment and retention in California. The event was hosted by assemblymember Rich Gordon.

Video interview with former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims

Video interview with former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims
Guest speaker Julie
Lythcott-Haims is the author of “How to Raise an Adult,” a former Dean of freshmen at Stanford University, and a mother of two. Students and teachers filled the auditorium during 7th period on March 7 to hear her talk about the important lessons she has learned from working closely with college students and criticize the role of  “helicopter parenting.”

“We [parents] are treating you like bonsai trees,” Lythcott-Haims says to the crowd. “But, you are not bonsai trees; you are wildflowers.

How did you come to speak to students, teachers and parents at MVHS?

Have you ever presented to faculty and teachers before?

How different is it for you to do an assembly at a place so close to home?

What is about this generation that compelled you to write a book?

Have you ever received criticism that Stanford, the school you were a dean for, often perpetuates students to strive for that perfect resume you advocate against?

Are the students wrong or is the system broken?


Should schools be taking further steps to regulate student stress? If so, how?

If you could give a message to the students and parents of MVHS, what would it be?

Reporting and photography by Alina Abidi, Itay Barylka and Avni Prasad