Cole Phillips (’12) Shares His Middle East Experiences

Recent Collegiate graduate Cole Phillips (‘12), a current resident of Amman, Jordan, and a Fulbright scholar, visited Collegiate Friday, January 6.  Phillips spent time with Erica Coffey’s and Rhiannon Boyd’s Senior Seminar classes (“International Emerging Leaders: Americas” and “Challenges of the Global World,” respectively), as well as Vlastik Svab’s Writing for Publication English elective class. He shared his perspective on the current political and economic situation in Jordan, as well as the situation of Syrian and Iraqi refugees living there.  

Phillips was easily able to identify what sparked his interest in political science and international relations involving the Middle East. It all started at Collegiate, when he was a participant in the school’s first International Emerging Leaders Conference (IELC) in 2011. He then went on Collegiate’s first Morocco trip in 2012, an experience of a lifetime. After graduating from Collegiate, Phillips pursued studies in political science and Middle Eastern studies, as well as a semester abroad in Jordan, during his time at Wesleyan University. He currently works for a non-profit organization as part of his Fulbright work, helping the refugee population in Amman.

Phillips speaks with a Senior Seminar class.

Olivia Jacobs (‘17), a student in both the Challenges of the Global World class and Writing for Publication, said the conversations helped her “understand the [Syrian] crisis on a more personal level.” One of the most interesting parts to her was hearing about how horrified Phillips’s Jordanian friends were to hear that “they were being so wrongly generalized.” Students of Svab’s class were also very moved by Phillips’s story. Libbie Alexander (‘18) thought “it was cool to hear how his experience at Collegiate influenced his involvement in the Syrian refugee crisis, and it was inspiring to see how passionate he was about the cause.” Overall, the students found Phillips relatable and inspiring because he comes from the same school. In a post on Collegiate’s website about Phillips’ visit, Coffey stated that “when alums come back to visit our school, it shows (current) students that they really can have an impact on our world.”

Phillips discussed that while some Syrian refugees live in refugee camps in Jordan, most live outside of camps in urban centers such as Amman. He explained that inside the camps, there is very little opportunity for refugees and their children. Phillips works at the Collateral Repair Project in east Amman, an emergency response program that provides basic needs and English classes for any overlooked refugees. He works with adults of the program by teaching English classes, which he described as an invaluable asset to their success. Phillips referred to the project as one of the most influential experiences in his life thus far. He has had the opportunity to help lead the organization in its work, and due to many projects assisting refugees, Amman has come to be a city of refuge for millions

Phillips also spoke about media in regards to the Middle East in the Writing for Publication class. One main issue is misconceptions in the media, especially related to the refugee crisis. He cited Donald Trump, Jr.’s controversial tweet, which compared the complicated Syrian refugee situation to a bowl of candy, as an example. While attacks led by refugees are virtually nonexistent in numbers, many believe them to be much more common. He also offered a new perspective on ISIS: “I’ve had countless conversations with people where, unprompted, they tried to convince me pretty much the entire time that ISIS is not Muslim and that terrorism is not supported by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims.” Another point Phillips brought up is how he keeps informed when in Jordan. He told the students that he reads mostly American news, and explained that Jordan has an authoritarian government, leading to the news being somewhat restricted.  

Writing For Publication class speaks via Skype with Syrian refugee Ahmad Bayer.

One of Phillips’s main goals when speaking to the classes was to make sure the students know there is no reason to be afraid of refugees, particularly Muslim refugees. He explains, “it is essential to understand that refugees are victims of the problem, they are not themselves the problem.” The refugees have no choice in the matter; fleeing their countries is a life-or-death situation for so many families.

The classes also participated in a video call with Phillips’s translator and friend, Ahmad Bayer. Originally a Syrian English teacher, Bayer was forced to leave his country in 2012. In Jordan, he works as a translator for journalists and others, as well as an English teacher. 

Phillips was heartened by his return to Collegiate. “I think progress on these issues starts with young people in our country.” Phillips said. “ I was really inspired by the students that I met [on Friday] and, based on my conversations with some of them after the classes, have faith that they will continue to spread this message in the future.”

Photos courtesy of Collegiate School.

About the author

Amy is a junior at Collegiate.