Students receive highly-competitive grants for summer projects

April 19, 2017

Five students from Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) have received grants that will allow them to study and report on projects in Pakistan and Malaysia. Ifath Arwa and Jueun Choi received a grant from the Pulitzer Center and Northwestern’s home campus awarded Neha Rashid, Zaki Hussain, and Ammar Younas an Undergraduate Research Grant. 

The Pultizer Center grants are awarded to students who have unique story ideas on underreported issues. They plan to conduct an investigation into the mental heath and education of refugee children from Yemen in Malaysia. Arwa and Choi have been following the Syrian refugee crisis over the past few years and discovered that there was little coverage of the refugees fleeing the armed conflict in Yemen.

“We learned in a conversation with our friends about the town of Seri Kembangan, which is now known as a “Mini Yemen.” We were curious to learn how Yemeni refugees were assimilating in the Muslim-majority country,” Choi said. 

“Refugees in Malaysia are prohibited from seeking employment or institutionalized education. This … means the way children assimilate in this country is different from how they do in other countries and is thus worth documenting,” Arwa said. “With the grant, Jueun and I will be able to cover the disenfranchised and create a meaningful impact on an issue that we care about."

Returning from their journalism residencies at the Pulitzer Center and USA Today, Arwah and Choi will interview humanitarian organizations, schools, refugee parents, and refugee children over 13 days to produce a comprehensive 2,000-word piece, a 10-minute documentary, and a story map over the summer. “Being able to report on an issue that really matters to us is an incredible opportunity that we want to make the most out of," Choi said. 

The grants from Northwestern’s home campus are through Office of Undergraduate Research. Rashid, Younas, and Hussain will be traveling in Pakistan to factories and agricultural sites to explore the reasons behind the thriving practice of bonded labor or debt bondage.  

This practice, which the has been defined as a form of modern slavery, is prevalent in poverty-stricken rural areas where a person is forced to work for little or no wages to pay off a debt. The Pakistani government has enacted laws to address the issue, but many feel more has to be done. The students hope to bring awareness to the issue with a documentary and a long-form feature on the social and cultural issues that keep bonded labor an active practice.

“We saw that Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind “Humans of New York,” brought international attention to the plight of these laborers on a recent visit to Pakistan, which helped raise more than $2 million for a local organization that works to help free the laborers from their debt,” Rashid said. “We want to step in and continue where Stanton left off,” Hussain added. 

The students plan to identify and interview ex-bonded laborers, lawyers, human rights activists, and bonders. Often driven by a lack of employment opportunities, the students hope to uncover the social and cultural factors that keep the practice in place and the reasons for the failure of its abolishment.

“One of the audiences we’d like to target is international human rights organizations. Very few of these exist in Pakistan and, through our project, we want to encourage more international organizations to settle in Pakistan and contribute to the efforts of abolishing this crime,” Younas said.