Hassan Shiban

Hassan Shiban 

Today there are 65.3 million displaced people worldwide, more than ever before. These people often suffer from a lack of representation, leaving them vulnerable to human rights violations.

That's where Hassan Shiban, BMus '10, comes in.

Shiban, who is based in Beirut, Lebanon, works for the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), an organization that provides legal support to refugees and displaced persons from all over the world. Women facing gender violence, members of the LGBTQ community, persecuted religious minorities, and U.S. allies are among its most common clients.

“IRAP inspires me because it is well-placed to recognize the injustices refugees face and effect change,” said Shiban. “Working with IRAP’s clientele face-to-face and online has moved me to appreciate how lucky and privileged we are, as citizens and inhabitants of . . . nondisintegrating countries, to have recourse to legal protections and to be free from persecution.”

While the IRAP’s primary function is to provide legal assistance to refugees in desperate need of resettlement, the organization also seeks to highlight injustices suffered by their clients. Due to its proximity to actual refugees and intimate knowledge of their needs, the IRAP is well-suited to addressing these issues; it assists refugees from 55 countries and has aided more than 150,000 people. Through lawsuits and advocacy, it can also make suggestions for improvements to U.S. and international refugee laws, and recently sued President Trump over his controversial executive order regarding immigration and refugees from Middle Eastern countries.

Shiban functions as the IRAP’s intake coordinator. He interviews potential clients, deriving mainly from Iraq and Syria, and completes follow-ups and conducts local casework. Often, refugees will require medical attention and legal protection.

His secondary role involves local casework in Lebanon, a job not without emotional impact. In one instance, Shiban was involved with a client whose lung had been removed during torture, and subsequently forced to watch his wife and children raped and killed before him—all because he had participated in a peaceful protest. The man was never resettled.

Other refugees flee not from oppressive governments, but from their own families. Many transgender individuals seek asylum after being raped, tortured, and harassed by their relatives as a result of cultural stigmas surrounding transgenderism. For these refugees, life is put on hold in their struggle to escape persecution. Educations remain incomplete. Jobs are abandoned, and homes lost.

“On a day-to-day basis, it’s difficult to accept that you don’t have the legal means to help everyone, even people who seem condemned to death or to live the rest of their lives in fear or pain," Shiban said. "Not being able to help desperate and vulnerable people where their human rights are being patently violated is difficult to swallow.”

Shiban took a decidedly unconventional route to the IRAP. He originally entered the University of Oregon not with the aim of helping refugees, but intending to pursue a career playing the euphonium. On a whim, he enrolled in Arabic language classes. As the study of music dominated his schedule, Arabic became his sole academic pursuit. In an experience he recalled as humbling, Shiban’s dreams of achieving fame and wealth through professional euphonium playing came to a crashing halt near the end of his college years, and he could not bring himself to play his instrument for a year afterwards.

Hassan Shiban and friend
Hassan Shiban, pictured here with a friend and holding a trombone, once dreamed of being a professional euphonium player. Instead of entertaining audiences, though, he now helps refugees fleeing violent situations.

Shiban instead chose to build a career from his only remaining career prospect: Arabic. After graduation, he accidentally applied to Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies—a political course—instead of the university's language program. Nonetheless, he was accepted. “I seized the opportunity and went off to do a master’s in Middle Eastern studies at CMES even though I had never heard of (former Egyptian president) Gamal Abdel Nasser,” he recalled.

Though he initially struggled with the material, he soon gained an interest and graduated in 2013. Shiban resumed his language studies at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad in Amman, Jordan. A few months after the program ended, he interned with the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which would later become the IRAP, and has dedicated himself to helping refugees ever since.

- UO student Abby Keep