Students share service on spring break

Issues of immigration, volunteer opportunities, and campus life sparked conversation between Carnegie Mellon Qatar students prepping for a busy week in Pittsburgh and those returning to the city from their service trip to San Diego and Tijuana.

Alternative Spring Break (ASB) is a program for Qatar students that is geared toward Pittsburgh community outreach. The Pittsburgh Carnegie Mellon campus supports a similar program called Alternative Break (AB), which is a student organization in charge of community service trips abroad.

As part of Alternative Break, 15 students traveled from Pittsburgh to Tijuana, Mexico, between March 10 and 18. The trip focused on border control and immigration issues.

“They leave their family behind because they can’t make enough money where they live to support their family,” said trip leader Kris Elder, a senior decision science major, speaking of Mexican and South American immigrants.

Immigrants typically receive 10 to 12 times the salary they would get in Mexico but are deported if the U.S. government finds them, Elder explained.

The AB group met various migrant workers at Casa de Migrante in Tijuana, a Mexican migrant shelter. There, students cooked dinner, sorted clothes, cleaned, and heard personal stories from migrant workers. Elder recalled meeting one deportee who had lived in the U.S. since he was five and could not speak much Spanish.

“There’s not a whole lot you can do, charity-wise,” Elder said. “A lot of what is needed is understanding and learning.”

The group also took a trip with migrant workers to Palomar Observatory in California. On the way up the mountain, students and immigrants ate lunch and had a snowball fight.

“The purpose of that was just to spend time with the workers,” Elder said.

Sophomore chemical engineering major Chad Pugh further explained the spontaneous act. “Fun isn’t a part of their everyday lives.”

Migrant workers focus primarily on making money for their families, he said.

The group heard the sympathetic viewpoints of various organizations, said junior business major Jeremy Astor. In particular, Pedro Martinez of the American Friends Service Committee talked about the need for an improved Mexican economy rather than the building of more fences.

The committee also provided a tour of the border.

But it’s also important to get the anti-migrant side of the story, both Elder and Astor noted.

“We all talked about doing our research.... That’s really important for any issue,” Astor said. A conference call with the Minutemen — a grassroots border control effort — is in the works, Elder said.
“The benefit of our trip wasn’t immediate,” Pugh said. “We really brought a lot back with us that we can pass on to other people.”

Because migrant workers are important economic assets, border regulations should be loosened, he said. The more people who are aware of such issues, the greater the chance that something positive will happen.

“It really makes you think about the things you vote for,” Astor said. He suggested informing other people of immigration issues through dialogue and contacting state representatives.

Alternative Break returned last week in time to usher in Qatar students involved in Pittsburgh community outreach. Both groups met on Saturday to discuss Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, immigration issues, community service in Qatar, campus life in general, and Qatar students’ plans for the coming week.

According to Director of Student Activities in Qatar and trip leader Kristin Gilmore, the week’s events are designed to offer a broad range of experiences. Students began by volunteering at the Wildlife Center in Verona on Sunday and will continue at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank headquarters in Duquesne today.

“I think everyone on the trip’s going to be impacted,” Gilmore said.

Business administration sophomore Mona Maher and first-year Basit Iqbal are two of the five students from Qatar. Alternative Spring Break is the easiest way for students to cross the globe and experience different cultures, Maher explained.

“It’s fun and inspiration for me to do community service work,” Iqbal said.

In Qatar, people tend to equate community service with philanthropy, explained Gilmore. She pointed out that Qatar is a wealthy community. “You’re talking about a society where you don’t see poverty,” she said.

Philanthropy has religious roots as well. Iqbal explained that “Zakat” is an Islamic way of giving a percentage of money to charity. Essentially, if people are rich and can spare money, they do — people just don’t want to take time to perform community service, Iqbal said.

“There’s this discomfort among families to experience the harshness and tough aspects of seeing people that are needier than you,” Maher said, viewing the philanthropic tendencies in terms of culture and society.

“If I’m paying the money, it’s the same as being involved,” Maher added, paraphrasing the general attitude.

Maher hopes to return to Qatar having grown but also having experienced those who aren’t so fortunate. Having seen poverty in her home country of Egypt, Maher described what it’s like to live in a society where poverty is evident.

“If you can give that pound to someone to eat, then you do it,” Maher said.

For Iqbal, community service provides satisfaction. “There’s something that you get out of these things that you can’t express in words,” he said.

Gilmore hopes that students like Iqbal and Maher share their experiences with others in Qatar and work to form a core group geared toward community service.

“This group of students can help cultivate that aspect of life in our campus,” she said.