Photo: Annalisa Galgano

How would it feel to be forced to leave your home and never return? It’s a feeling no one wants to experience. Yet Annalisa Galgano, a recent graduate of NYU Abu Dhabi, has dedicated the last few years to studying the crisis of refugees fleeing their homes, making their plight a cause of her own. 

Photo: Annalisa

Annalisa Galgano, 2017

Social Research and Public Policy
Abu Dhabi

Annalisa, who hails from Colorado, has been traveling back and forth from Athens, Greece, to NYU Abu Dhabi, in order to understand how refugees assimilate into a new society. But her interest in the subject—and how international relations can play a role in resolving the refugee crisis—started much earlier: when she was applying to NYU Abu Dhabi. In high school, Annalisa saw NYU Abu Dhabi as her “dream” school, a place whose international reach could open for her a world of possibilities. “NYU Abu Dhabi, with all of its diversity, just made sense to me,” says Annalisa. “Most of my education until college had been very centered around the United States. Even my world history class studied only European history. Yet here, just sitting at lunch with my friends is ‘international relations,’ and it’s been eye-opening to have that global perspective in every single class I take.”

While pursuing a degree in Social Research and Public Policy, Annalisa began to study refugee issues as a junior in a public policy class. As a final project for the course, she and her classmates had to propose housing solutions for refugees in Greece. This task was made possible because Greece’s depressed economic climate had caused property values to plummet and apartments to be left vacant because their owners could not sell them. “We then went to Athens and proposed a program that would put refugees into those apartments,” says Annalisa. “We spoke to different groups and politicians, and now one of the organizations we spoke to is running a very similar program to what we proposed and giving landlords incentives to participate.”

Photo: writing on side of building that says "refugees welcome"

Photo: Annalisa presenting at a conference

Learning about refugee interaction so intrigued Annalisa that she decided to make it the subject of her Capstone Project, a yearlong research project that all NYU Abu Dhabi students undertake. As part of her Capstone, Annalisa spent last summer in Athens, interviewing refugees, policymakers, and volunteers. She then returned to Athens last winter to follow up on her research and visit several refugee camps to interview the people living there.

“Syrians and Afghans are the two biggest groups in the camps, so I worked with Arabic and Farsi translators in order to do the interviews,” she says. “I discovered that most of the refugees came overland from Turkey and then by boat to Greece. So the images we saw on the news—overcrowded boats tipping over, people swimming to shore, children drowning—were very real and very traumatic for them,” she says.

Nevertheless, Annalisa points out this isn’t how the refugees themselves define their experience. “Surprisingly, what is even more difficult for many of these people is not knowing whether they’ll be allowed to resettle somewhere else,” she says. “Even the conditions in the camps are much more traumatic than the initial boat journey.”

The uncertain status of many refugees has fostered an urgent public policy crisis in Greece. Although the Athenians have been very welcoming to the refugees—from setting up soup kitchens and medical clinics to opening abandoned buildings to serve as housing—Annalisa sees areas that still need improvement. For one, she’s concerned about the education of refugee children and their assimilation into a new country. “Within refugee crises, there’s this concept of a ‘lost generation’—that is, the children of refugees who may spend their entire childhood displaced in refugee camps,” says Annalisa. “One of the big concerns of policymakers are these youths, who have little education and no sense of home. What can be done to support them, then?”

Photo: Annalisa speaking to Youth Conference participant

“Here [at NYU Abu Dhabi], even sitting at lunch with my friends is ‘international relations,’ and it’s been eye-opening to have that global perspective in every single class.” 

For her part, Annalisa has raised awareness of the refugee crisis across college campuses while working as an intern with the US State Department Virtual Student Foreign Service. While there, she supported the Virtual Student Foreign Service as part of the No Lost Generation Initiative, a program that helps to protect refugee children and see to their health and education.

But Annalisa hasn’t just been active on refugee issues—she’s also been exploring the differences between herself and her fellow students at NYU Abu Dhabi. In order to highlight the diverse and global body of students on campus, Annalisa got involved with the Interfaith Council at NYUAD. “The Council works with the Office of Spiritual Life to organize events for people who are looking to practice their religion or are searching for something new,” she says. “I think because we are such a diverse campus, our first instinct is to look at the similarities and say, ‘Oh, we’re all the same. We all get along.’ But once we’ve done that, we need to start talking about our differences and how those differences are powerful and positive.”

Photo: Annalisa working on laptop

She’s also cofounded a peer support program that aims to address sensitive topics among students. “In my sophomore year, there was a lack of counseling services on campus, and so my friends and I decided to start a peer support group.” Two years later, the group has grown into an entire program that not only does peer counseling but also runs mental health programs and workshops on sexual health and alcohol education. “As students,” Annalisa says, “we feel we have a unique ability to communicate topics from a peer-to-peer perspective. To create programs based on what we see are the needs of the student body is one of the things I’m most proud of.”

From her courses to her campus activities, Annalisa has searched for new, community-based initiatives to tackle the most global of issues. It’s a testament to both her altruism as well as her commitment to international relations. But her work has only just begun. As a recent recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, Annalisa has been able to continue her research on the refugee crisis with renewed support. In fact, she’s already returned to Athens as of September 2017, once again showing solidarity with both refugees and grassroots activists in Greece. As Annalisa says, “I feel drawn to go back to Athens to learn more about how Greeks are responding to this humanitarian crisis with solidarity and empathy.”