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Article 26 Backpack

Christelle Barakat, SVR volunteer interview with
Sereen Banna and Michaela Krulee, Lead Interns, Article 26 Backpack 

April 27, 2021


Article 26 Backpack is an initiative housed at University of California, Davis and carried out in partnership with the American University of Beirut (AUB). It is an online platform which allows individuals, particularly immigrants and refugees, to securely store their academic documents. This interview was conducted with two UC Davis students who are passionate and involved with A26 Backpack: Sereen Banna and Michaela Krulee. Sereen is the team lead for the Middle East group working on expanding Backpack’s reach to countries within the MENA region, particularly Jordan. She is simultaneously focusing on getting it to Northern California. Serving a similar role, Michaela is the team lead for the Hong Kong group. Their positions require extensive outreach and mapping of potential partner organizations and universities. 

Michaela concisely presents Backpack, stating that it is named after Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It aims to guarantee access to higher education by breaking social and institutional barriers. This feeds into enabling future employability for individuals. Adding on to this, Sereen emphasizes the 65 million displaced individuals in 2015 (currently estimated at 80 million according to UNHCR) who lack access to education or who might not have a “safe place to store educational documents.”

Michaela and Sereen point out that Backpack is for everyone who would like to use it. That said, the original intent behind its creation is that it would serve vulnerable populations and individuals who were forced to flee their hometowns and villages, thus becoming Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) or refugees abroad.

Having both taken a course with Dr. Watenpaugh, the Director of the Human Rights Studies program at UC Davis and the founder and lead on the A26 Backpack initiative, Michaela and Sereen were inspired to join the Backpack team. Michaela additionally found it a good opportunity to put theoretical classroom knowledge into practice. Firmly believing that “education affects every aspect of our lives,” Michaela recognizes the importance of Backpack in advocating for the often overlooked right to education.

Backpack is unique and sustainable because it is a student-led program through which students help other students. It looks at all students as individuals who have a right to education, no matter their backgrounds. The multiple languages of Backpack (Arabic, English, French, Persian, and Spanish so far) also add to its reach and strength. Furthermore, users can upload any document they would like; it is not only restricted to certificates and degrees. User friendliness and efficiency are core focuses of the initiative. Another strength is that it is tailored to individuals’ and organizations’ needs based on dialogues with these entities. Its storage in UC Davis servers adds to its security. 

Sereen conducts searches mostly through LinkedIn to locate universities in highly populated refugee settlement areas. Afterwards, she reaches out to staff and department heads to forge a connection and scouts the local organizations that these individuals and institutions collaborate with. Newsletters and word of mouth help further promote Backpack. Michaela works similarly, stressing on the prominence of establishing sustainable, long-lasting relationships with partners. Users are also routinely asked about their needs. This helps further strengthen and improve Backpack. 

Internally, weekly group meetings and sharing updates among UC Davis students working on A26 Backpack ensure coordination. They also each have their own Backpack profiles which helps them get a better grip over the process and tools. Michaela and Sereen speak fondly of Dr. Watenpaugh’s involvement in the project and his mentorship and guidance. They describe his on-ground experience in the Middle East as a big asset, increasing his commitment to the cause.

Both ladies have many fond memories with the program. They both agree that talking to different groups and individuals is very valuable and allows them to listen to individuals’ varied stories and experiences, further tailoring Backpack to their lives. Sereen stresses on the humbling aspect of the experience and the privilege as well as the moral responsibility about helping others. The collaborative effort to serve international target audiences is also heartwarming. Backpack’s impact is likewise felt in their personal and professional lives. Indeed, it has helped broaden their perspectives, allowed them to build meaningful connections, and has shed light on their professional passions in life.

Michaela believes that the key to a good mentor-mentee relationship is “listening and understanding that both parties have something to learn from each other.” Sereen tells us that it is equally prominent to focus on the goals of the relationship and on seeing the humanity in ourselves and in others.

As Sereen and Michaela endeavor to expand outreach and incorporate Backpack into more programs, they sometimes encounter some challenges. For the Middle East, the difficulty is due to current conflicts, tensions, and economic crises in the region. These obstacles often make it hard to coordinate about implementing Backpack as priorities might not be oriented towards educational initiatives. Strong ties with organizations on the ground help, however, in overcoming these issues. 

Getting the A26 Backpack handbook into the hands of individuals and populations is a current key aspiration. Both students assure us that going into the future, Backpack will remain accessible and free of charge to anyone who might want it or need it.

On tips to immigrant and refugee students, Sereen urges them to look at each day as a new opportunity. “Never give up on education if that is one of your goals” and look for initiatives like Backpack. 

On recommendations for universities and university officials, Michaela stresses the need for them to acknowledge and perceive existent barriers for immigrant and refugee students hindering their access to education. Universities and university officials should work on mitigating these added challenges.

Sereen further invites individuals wanting to find ways to volunteer and help organizations with their meaningful work targeting immigrant and refugee populations.

As both Michaela and Sereen move closer to graduation, they are keen on providing support to incoming UC Davis Backpacker students to help them ease into their new leadership roles within A26 Backpack.

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Meet SVR Volunteer, Christelle Barakat

Christelle Barakat, SVR Working Group 1 Volunteer, Graduate Peace and Conflict Studies Student, Center for New North Carolinians Volunteer and Fellow, University of North Carolina - Greensboro​

Christelle Barakat is a Lebanese Fulbright graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro pursuing a M.A. in Peace and Conflict Studies with a concentration on International Peace Development. She has been volunteering with the Center for New North Carolinians (CNNC) since she arrived in the U.S. in August 2020 and has been a CNNC fellow since Fall 2020. The CNNC engages in training and research, in addition to the provision of direct services to immigrant and refugee populations in Greensboro and North Carolina.

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