Opinion: UBC’s inconsistent statements about international crises show selective solidarity

Chaimae Chouiekh (she/her) is a Moroccan first-year Master of Journalism student with a background in finance, mathematics and communication. She aspires to pursue a career as an international reporter, focusing on topics related to community, politics, race and social justice. Her work reflects a dedication to amplifying underrepresented voices.

Navigating life as an international student can be quite a challenge. One moment, you are cocooned in the warmth of familiar faces in a place you call “home,” and the next, you find yourself propelled into a foreign country. You spend your time figuring out currency conversions or struggling to find the right words in your second or third language. But most importantly, you continuously try to build a bridge between your new life and the one you left behind.

Many like myself, who hail from Morocco, keep juggling our schedules around precious calls with loved ones stay up to date with news. It’s comforting to believe that everything remains peaceful in our absence.

However, the tranquillity I have experienced since coming to Canada was unexpectedly shattered one late night with a single Al Jazeera English push notification: “Breaking News: over 2,000 dead as powerful earthquake hits Morocco near Marrakesh.” It left me in a state of turmoil and hopelessness as I checked-in with my relatives and lived through their distress and fear while being unable to provide any tangible assistance.

On September 8, the Kingdom of Morocco was violently hit by an unprecedented6.8-magnitude earthquake. This disaster was the most devastating in Morocco’s recent history, killing more than 2,900 people, injuring 5,500 people and plunging the country into chaos.

As this heartbreaking news dominated international headlines, it was quite surprising and disheartening to see no mention of this international catastrophe in UBC’s official statements or communication channels the next morning.

Life at UBC seemed to follow its course while mine was flipped upside down. Here I was supposed to pretend that everything was fine when, on the other side of the planet, my community was in mourning.

The absence of a formal acknowledgment from the university highlighted just how essential such official statements are, especially during times of crisis. Official statements function as a beacon of reassurance, providing assistance and a collective voice of empathy for those directly affected. Moreover, these statements serve not only to offer support but also to acknowledge the pain and challenges faced by affected communities, validating their experiences.

By reliably issuing these statements, the university ensures that all members, especially those in crisis, feel seen, heard and cared for. The latter is only true if these statements are released uniformly and consistently across the various crises unfolding around the globe.

In times of crisis, the absence of an official statement expressing sympathy and solidarity will undeniably evoke a profound sense of isolation and a feeling of being “overlooked.”

UBC’s vocalness on certain crises and its silence over others show signs of selective solidarity, making me question the motives behind such statements. Is it the gravity of the situation? The space it takes in the mediatic sphere? Or maybe the density of the UBC community affected by these tragedies?

Drawing upon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assertion that “there is power in numbers,” one might observe that UBC’s silence on this matter indicates a perception that if a demographic isn’t sizable, its concerns may not be granted recognition.

To illustrate, following the recent case of the Indian-Canadian geopolitical conflicts, UBC promptly acknowledged and addressed the potential anxiety and stress affecting the community. While such an initiative is very needed and helpful to the affected community, one might speculate that UBC’s prompt response could have been influenced by the substantial Indian student population. This responsiveness can be seen as a testament to the university’s commitment to its diverse population when the numbers are indeed substantial. It may also reflect an understanding that the well-being of a large demographic has a profound impact on the broader university community, reinforcing the notion that there is indeed strength — and therefore attention afforded — in numbers.

Observing other Canadian universities acknowledging the earthquake and expressing solidarity with Morocco created a stark contrast in my mind. For instance, on September 12, the University of Toronto released a “Message to the University Community on the Earthquake in Morocco and Flooding in Libya” assuring that “The University will continue to monitor both situations and provide updates as needed.” The University of Dalhousie was also “reaching out directly to [their] students from Morocco and Libya.”

The issue extends beyond the mere content of these statements; it’s about the acknowledgment and unity demonstrated by peer academic institutions that UBC failed to embody during a critical situation.

Almost one week after the “Al Haouz” Moroccan earthquake, Islamic Relief UBC emerged as a beacon of compassion on campus. They took the proactive initiative to organize a Krispy Kreme fundraiser featuring donuts with proceeds earmarked for the Moroccan cause. This heartfelt effort was swiftly followed by another fundraiser, which took place during the Muslim Student Association’s welcome-back social event on September 15. The funds raised during this event were destined for the International Development and Relief Foundation (IDRF), a trusted organization with strong ties to both international relief efforts and the Moroccan community.

These events marked the first occasion since the onset of the earthquake where a moment of silence and direct prayers were held on campus for all the Moroccan families who had lost everything in the disaster. It was the first time I felt not only heard and represented but also deeply touched by the empathy of those around me at UBC. Despite being the only Moroccan in the room, I found solace in that shared compassion.

This particular initiative underscores two observations. First, it is often those who share similar backgrounds, experiences or beliefs who are more inclined to empathize with one’s suffering. In this case, it seemed that the Muslim community, perhaps drawing from shared cultural or religious ties, was more attuned to the urgency and significance of the Moroccan cause.

Second, it’s worth noting that the university itself appeared to abdicate its responsibility in responding to this humanitarian crisis. Instead, students came together to fill the gaps left by the institution, demonstrating the powerful need for fundraising and solidarity events on campus. This serves as a powerful reminder of the impact that collective student action can have on addressing pressing issues when the official channels fall short. The latter should be unacceptable to an institution branding itself as an “inclusive intercultural space” with international students at the centre of its DNA.

When the university neglects to extend condolences to any community, it leaves individuals grappling with a sense of being alone in their concerns. It’s more than just a matter of words on paper; it’s about the reassurance that, even in a foreign land, there is recognition and support for the emotional weight carried by those connected to the affected area. One cannot claim to be a global institution while being selective about its solidarity and choosing which tragedies are worth public acknowledgment. On the contrary, the UBC community should stand united against any tragedy.

The act of acknowledging the pain and uncertainty that community members may be experiencing is not just a formality; it’s a crucial step in fostering a sense of belonging and solidarity during challenging times.

UBC’s ongoing silence on international matters risks perpetuating feelings of exclusion and unmet expectations, leaving students and staff to navigate their distress without the support of the institution they so desperately want to call home. But what is home if it shuts the door on you when you need it the most?

Unfortunately, this pattern of selective solidarity extends beyond the Moroccan earthquake. UBC has also refrained from making official remarks about other significant global events, such as the Afghanistan earthquake, Libyan floods or pro-Palestine protests happening on campus. The fact that these communities are not considerable in terms of number on campus again suggests a correlation between the university’s response and the size of the respective international communities within the campus body.

This is a call not just for acknowledging specific incidents but for a more comprehensive and empathetic approach toward the global events that touch the lives of the UBC community. Recognizing the interconnectedness of our world and standing in solidarity during moments of crisis is not just a fancy word to put on a university website; it is a crucial element of fostering an inclusive and supportive campus environment. Inclusive representation is not only about cultural diversity on campus but also about acknowledging and empathizing with the trials that affect different communities.

UBC, with all its resources, must do better at refining its communication approach to handling international crises. It stands to reason that the only path forward is for UBC to shoulder the responsibility for all its students and staff, embracing an empathetic stance as an educational pillar. If such a powerful entity fails to recognize and address the pain within its community, one must wonder — who else will?

This is an opinion letter. It does not reflect the opinions of The Ubyssey as a whole. You can submit an opinion at ubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion