Growing up in Venezuela, Joze Moreno Pelayo always wanted to study abroad, and as his country slid into political turmoil and economic disarray in 2011, he knew that it was time to leave. Corruption and massive economic inflation had made it difficult for everyday citizens to make ends meet, and Pelayo had big dreams.
“When I realized that even if I finished college it would be impossible to afford a car, I knew something was wrong,” he says. “Things were getting so expensive; I knew I was not going to accomplish my goals there. I didn’t see any future, so I just left.”
Pelayo applied and was accepted to Southern Arkansas University as a political science major, and with some help from his family and some scholarships, he made his way through his undergraduate studies. Toward the end of his senior year, however, the political situation back home grew worse.
“I remember during my last term the Venezuelan government began to tighten their grip on citizens who were studying abroad,” Pelayo recalls.
The government blocked his bank accounts from receiving money from his parents back home. Pelayo wanted to continue to study abroad, and knew he needed to make his next move quickly and get into graduate school, so he began applying for master’s degree programs in international studies.
He poured all his effort into his applications, knowing that he would not be able to achieve his goals if he was forced to return to Venezuela. Pelayo says UO caught his attention because the International Studies Department had a focus in Middle Eastern Studies, which he was particularly interested in studying. He was accepted and was even offered a GE position that covered his tuition.
“It was such a big relief when I got the email,” he says, recalling the day he was accepted.
Upon starting at the UO, Pelayo was keenly interested in traveling to Lebanon to study its politics and to work to help disadvantaged people in the country. He planned a thesis project that would take him to Lebanon to work directly with the people there.
“I wanted to provide a way for disadvantaged people to voice their concerns,” Pelayo says.
While he was determined to travel to Lebanon, the trip would be costly. Pelayo applied for the Sandra Morgen Public Impact Graduate Fellowship to help fund his proposed research, and was granted a stipend of $6000 to carry out his research.
The prestigious award is given each year to recognize and support the work of up to two graduate students whose research has the potential to have a significant impact on society. Pelayo says winning the Sandra Morgen Public Impact Graduate Fellowship was vital to making the most of his trip to Lebanon.
“The award made it more viable and allowed me to stay longer,” he says. “If I had gone to Lebanon without funding, I would probably have only stayed a month and a half. This award allowed me to stay for four months and make connections.”
But even with funding, Pelayo’s ambitious plans faced doubts from his advisors.
“At first I wanted to do my research on the political side and look at how politics affects development in Lebanon,” Pelayo says. “But it was a risky arena, because politics are heavy and there’s a lot of censorship by the government.”
Pelayo’s advisor had safety concerns about his proposed research plans. Traveling to Lebanon to study the government’s policies could raise the eyebrows of government officials, a risky endeavor in a region that has experienced violent political unrest in recent years.
Undeterred to study in Lebanon, Pelayo shifted his focus to working with refugees and disadvantaged communities. In Lebanon, Pelayo says, Syrian refugees are not allowed to integrate into society as official residents, and are limited to working illegally.
“They’re pretty much invisible beings,” he says. “They’re heavily discriminated against. The general fear of refugees does not exist only in Europe or the United States; it’s also there.”
Pelayo says a fear of refugees persists in Lebanon due to the country’s long history as a destination for refugees from the around the region. From the Iraq war to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lebanon has received a large percentage of the displaced victims of recent armed conflicts. Over the years, social and religious friction between the Lebanese people and refugees has worn hot spots in the fabric of the community.
“They have a big stigma about all refugees,” Pelayo says. “And now they have the same fear of Syrian refugees, which is hard to change.”
According to the United Nations High Council on Refugees (UNHCR), as of December 2016 there were over one million registered Syrian refugees among Lebanon’s total population of six million. Pelayo wanted to find ways to help make life for Syria’s refugees a little better.
Pelayo drafted his thesis proposal with the goal of improving social cohesion and finding ways to integrate Syrian refugees into Lebanese society. However, at his thesis proposal defense, a Lebanese professor on Pelayo’s committee warned him that his ambitions might not be as easy to accomplish as he thought.
Nonetheless, Pelayo left for Lebanon with high hopes. But upon arriving, the reality of global politics set in. He met with representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with the goal of learning what could be done to help Syrian refugees integrate in Lebanese society. His lofty goals were met with a quick rebuke.
“UNHCR told me, ‘Don’t ever say integration, because under the law they can never be integrated,’” Pelayo recalls. “In their words, they were just doing their best to keep the refugees away.”
It was a confirmation of the harsh political reality that Pelayo’s committee advisor had warned him of.
“They told me, I was prepared,” Pelayo recalls. “I was being idealistic, but they were right. Social cohesion is a hot topic when it comes to refugees and their host communities.”
But Pelayo was not easily deterred. Despite the setback, he continued his research and visited refugee settlements in the Bekaa Valley, 19 miles east of Beirut and 10 miles west of the Syrian border. Even if the Lebanese government was not open to considering Syrian refugees as residents, he still wanted to know what challenges existed for them, and he aimed to expose those challenges through his thesis. He set a new goal of making policy recommendations to stakeholders and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that would help improve the lives of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
During his four-month trip, Pelayo stayed in a hostel with other foreign students and NGO workers. The hostel provided a great place to network with people doing the kind of work he wanted to do. He met with NGO workers from organizations like the American Red Cross, who were helpful in coming up with alternative ideas for helping refugees. He investigated the economic contributions that Syrian refugees could make in Lebanon as a labor force, focusing on the benefits of their presence to the Lebanese people as he drafted his policy recommendations.
“It was probably the best opportunity I’ve had during my studies,” he says of the professional connections he made at the hostel.
Despite what many westerners might perceive as a trip to a dangerous country, Pelayo said he enjoyed himself tremendously and felt a sense of belonging in Lebanon.
“It almost felt like home, despite the different language,” he says. “People were very nice there. What you hear on the news and on the travel warnings is to not go there, but I felt extremely safe.”
Pelayo returned to the UO this past fall and is hard at work writing this thesis, but he’s already planning his return to Lebanon after he graduates this spring. He plans to work for several years in Lebanon with conflict resolution organizations with the goal of creating development projects that will benefit both Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees. By helping initiate development projects like building schools and hospitals, he hopes to both provide work for refugees in the short term, and improve the country’s infrastructure for its permanent residents.
“I’m more determined to continue to work with disadvantaged communities in the Middle East,” Pelayo says. “When you go there, you see this other side that is not portrayed in the media. You see the human side of the people, how many misconceptions there are. That’s what I want to focus on; we are all so similar.”
If you would like to help students like Joze Pelayo make a difference in the world, please consider donating to the Sandra Morgen Public Impact Graduate Fellowship, which empowers graduate students like Pelayo to go out into the world and make a difference in the lives of those who need it most.