SJSU Global: Spartans Support Refugees in Greece

San Jose State University and I-House alumna Momoko Iwagami works with children at the Happy Caravan school in Thermopylae, where she teaches refugee children.

San Jose State University and I-House alumna Momoko Iwagami works with children at the Happy Caravan school in Thermopylae, Greece, where she teaches refugee children.

San Jose State University is dedicated to providing access to relevant educational programs that allow individuals to gain knowledge and skills that create a solid foundation for them to be engaged and productive members of a global society while also allowing opportunities for faculty to engage in research, scholarship and creative activities with global impacts. In a series called “SJSU Global,” we will be sharing stories of how our students, faculty and staff engage around the world and how people from around the world engage with SJSU.

In 2012, three students met at San Jose State University’s Phyllis Forward Simpkins International House. One was a business major from Japan, one from England studied film, and the other from France graduated with a master’s degree in physics. Little did they know back then, but their paths would converge this summer at schools for refugees in Greece.

Coincidentally 13 current SJSU students were in Greece this summer doing journalism fieldwork on the refugee crisis, as part of a study-abroad program with Professor Diane Guerrazzi.

These Spartans, converged this June in the land of Sparta, near Athens, through the long-distance efforts of Leann Cherkasky Makhini, director of the SJSU International House.

The students visited Happy Caravan, a school in Thermopylae, serving 200 refugee children who arrived from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. The focus is on education, art and creativity, cinema and sports activities. I-House alumna Momoko Iwagami who worked there as a
volunteer will start this fall as executive director of the organization, while I-House alumna Marie Hobdon is in charge of a campus in Malakasa.

“You see a huge shift in the children,” Hobson said. “I’ve been here almost six months…the children are tall and healthy. It’s amazing.”

The visit was one of many stops along the three-week trip in which the SJSU students explored questions of how refugees are impacting the economy in these countries, as well as what migrants face when they arrive.  The students interviewed refugees, local residents, business owners, government officials and aid workers.

Journalism student Cindy Cuellar produced a photo essay, and Gabriel Mungaray created a news video about the school. Mungaray noted that more than a million refugees flooded into Greece in 2015-16, before the Balkan border closed in 2016. Refugees continue to pour into Greece where they are kept in overcrowded camps, awaiting approval of asylum applications.

The school is run by a Dutch nonprofit. Iwagami is considering registering the school as a nonprofit in the United States. She and Hobson are also looking for interns and donors from the United States. The interns would learn about Happy Caravan, and they may help develop a financial model that is more sustainable than single donations.

“I hope that coming to Happy Caravan will do many things, but first I hope it is a catalyst for people to leave with their eyes less clouded,” Hobson said. “That they see something they haven’t seen before.”

The third alumni connection includes “Magic Tony,” from France, who completed a master’s in physics while living in SJSU’s I-House. Tony, who asked not to use his last name, has been traveling the world performing for underprivileged children with a company called Magic Brothers World. He thrilled the refugee children with his act at the Malakasa location while Professor Guerrazzi was visiting, proving once again that Spartan spirit knows no boundaries.

Read more stories produced by SJSU Journalism and Mass Communications on their SJSU Italy & Greece WordPress Blog.

Did you travel on a faculty-led program this summer or are you an international student arriving at #SJSU this fall? Share your #SJSUGlobal experience! Email your stories and photos to:

From International Student to Outstanding Grad, Alumna Lands Job at PwC

Qurat Syeda

Qurat Syeda

Qurat Syeda, ’19 Accounting, moved solo to the United States to study business four years ago. This spring, she was named one of SJSU’s Outstanding Graduating Seniors for her strong academic record, her spirit of service to supporting other students and leadership.

“I have always been passionate about learning,” she said. “But I wanted to do more than just learn about the world from books. I wanted to experience it. So I made the bold decision to move out to the U.S. on my own for my undergraduate degree, the first in my family to do so.”

Syeda was born in Pakistan, but was raised in Riyadh, Saudi Arabi.

“I grew up in a blend of two cultures, but they both share a strong sense of hospitality and warmth for their guests,” she said. “As a traveler, you will always be greeted with the utmost love and respect…receiving people with kindness and generosity has always been part of my upbringing.”

When she first arrived at SJSU, she had supportive faculty who checked in on her regularly before and after class to see how she was doing.

“My biggest support was from my supervisors at Peer Connections,” she said. “They were instrumental in both my personal and professional growth at SJSU and if I hadn’t found them or my job as a Peer Educator, I don’t know how I would have made it through college.”

Syeda celebrated her stellar academic record last month at the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business commencement ceremony. She maintained a stellar of a 4.0 grade point average 4.0 grade point average while tutoring and mentoring more than 500 students as peer educator with SJSU Peer Connections and the Jack Holland Student Success Center

“Qurat is not only focusing on her academics, but trying to help others as well,” said Michael Williams, an accounting lecturer. “She is competitive and wants to be the best, but not at the expense of other people.”

She counts among her top achievements receiving the Financial Women of San Francisco scholarship award in 2018.

“I was among four undergraduate female students from the greater Bay Area chosen for this academic and personal achievement,” she said. “As one of the oldest and largest women-only organizations in the Valley, it was an honor to be interviewed and to speak to a crowd of powerful and amazing women from all over the area and to be shown tremendous support and encouragement for the goals that I have chosen to pursue and the personal hurdles that I have overcome.”

A member of Lucas College and Graduate School of Business’ Sbona Honors program, Syeda also earned second place at the 2016 PwC Case Competition and the 2016 ISACA Research Case Competition.

While she is looking forward to winding down a bit after four rigorous years of studying and working toward her degree, she will be starting a full-time position with one of the big four accounting firms, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). She is also planning to study for CPA licensure soon.