Every Campus A Refuge: A Small College’s Response to the Refugee Crisis

By Dr. Diya Abdo

Dr. Diya Abdo is associate professor of English at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Her scholarship focuses on Arab women writers and Arab and Islamic Feminisms. She has published poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction. Her public essays speak to the intersections of gender, political identity and vocation. She is founder and director of Every Campus A Refuge.

Artwork by Guilford alumna Laura Todd

The refugee crisis is a perpetual crisis. As long as there has been conflict, there have been refugees.

I myself am the child of refugees, their first, born in a country right across the river from the one they fled. We were lucky; my family escaped the drudgeries of the refugee camps to live a life of tenuous citizenry in the “alternate homeland.”  Others around the world are not so lucky.  Many are settled where they initially arrive, their tents simply morphing into the sturdier, stiflingly close, zinc-roofed rooms of the shantytowns. Still many others never complete the perilous journey. Countless refugees have drowned at sea in capsized boats and rafts, asphyxiated in the cargo holds of otherwise seaworthy and roadworthy vessels, succumbed to the limitations of their bodies, the elements, and the relentless indifference, if not cruelty, of the watching and waiting human race. Indeed, in the past seven years, the human race has been doing much watching and waiting as hundreds of thousands of displaced and dispossessed human beings, the highest numbers since World War II, make their way out of the conflict zones of the Middle East and Africa up and across the Arab world and Europe.

And then there was Aylan Kurdi. His little body, very seriously dressed for a dark and serious passage, moored by death on the shores of a resort town in Turkey, broke our hearts. It was visual proof of a horror we knew existed (for the news told us every day) but rarely saw in the media (for when is a violent death so delicate, so gentle, so unassuming, so non-threatening as to be so easily shareable). Europe’s conscience quickened for a brief moment. Hungary, gatekeeping for itself and Western Europe, temporarily eased its chokehold on thousands of refugees trying to make their way north. Germany temporarily accepted with open arms the streaming multitudes. England anemically grumbled about quotas. And Pope Francis called on every parish in Europe to host one refugee family.

But what do academic institutions do with broken hearts? With the dead and dying bodies? With the endless convoy of humanity trying to make its way from misery to the unknown? What is our responsibility as teachers, students, and administrators of higher learning? What is our complicity as institutions built on the lands of the dispossessed and displaced?

Every Campus A Refuge:

Every Campus A Refuge (ECAR) was born out of a double impulse – a deep despair for the plight of the millions of refugees daily risking their lives and their children’s lives to escape violence and a deep dedication to the possibilities of higher education in the world.

When, in September 2015, Pope Francis called on every parish in Europe to host a refugee family, I was immediately struck by the similarity between parishes (small cities or towns) and university and college campuses which, given the nature of their material and human resources, are very much like small cities and have everything necessary – housing, food, care, skills – to host refugees and support them as they begin their lives in their new homes.

Inspired by the Pope’s call and my native Arabic’s word for university campus (“haram” which means “sanctuary”), and animated by Guilford’s history as part of the Underground Railroad and its Quaker testimonies of just and community-driven stewardship, ECAR was founded as a Guilford College Center for Principled Problem Solving (CPPS) program. Its aim is to mobilize resources (within and without the institution’s physical borders) to provide housing and other forms of assistance to refugees seeking resettlement in our local area and to call on other campuses to do the same so that, globally, we can increase numbers of resettled refugees; support underfunded refugee resettlement agencies; create a softer landing for refugees by providing additional financial, cultural, and social support; and positively shape public discourse around “others” by committing institutional resources to welcoming and supporting refugees.

This last point is especially important, now more than ever, given the Supreme Court’s recent approval of parts of the travel ban, including those which affect refugees. Refugees admitted to the U.S. have, of course, legal status in this country. By welcoming them onto campus grounds, institutions, which generally possess powerful and respected voices in their communities, are announcing in public and powerful ways that there is indeed nothing to fear from refugees. By taking on this initiative, and encouraging other campuses to do so, institutions can address the problems of xenophobia that have accompanied the refugee crisis.

Photo credit: Kat Miller

Collaborating with Community Partners:

Through ECAR, Guilford partnered with the Greensboro office of the refugee resettlement agency CWS to develop a refugee hosting initiative that best served CWS’s stated needs and expectations and supported their goals in serving their clients. Affordable housing is sparse in Greensboro, especially for single individuals (whose one-time stipend is insufficient) and large families or families with particular needs. Finding appropriate housing is also difficult as the refugee communities here are becoming increasingly ghettoized or filled to capacity; rental companies in other neighborhoods are often refusing to rent to refugees who are initially unemployed and with no SSN or credit history.

Since the beginning of our partnership (2015), Guilford has hosted 27 refugees (clients of CWS) in campus houses and apartments. 16 of the hosted refugees have been children aged 10 months to 17 years. The already-hosted refugees include two Syrian families that have successfully settled in Greensboro. The campus just completed hosting an 11-member family from the DRC and is currently hosting a 5-member family from the Middle East.

Under ECAR, each family is housed for 3-5 months at which point (employed and with SSN) they are able to resettle more successfully in their chosen communities. At Guilford, they receive free housing (furnished according to CWS standards), utilities, Wi-Fi, use of college facilities and resources (classes, gym, library, cafeteria etc.). For example, the father of the family currently on our campus is an artist who has use of a private studio and supplies provided by Guilford’s art department. Support for each hosted family continues after they transition off-campus; we also pay their security deposits and first month’s rent.

Resettlement tasks are assigned by CWS, while various cultural, social and arising needs are assigned by ECAR. The CWS case manager and the ECAR program coordinator oversee the 100+ volunteers who carry out these tasks. Background checked and trained by CWS, these volunteers are Guilford students, alumni, faculty, administrators and staff; their spouses; faculty, students, and staff from nearby Bennett College; local high schools; local faith communities; and Guilford friends.

Volunteers usually provide airport welcome, prepare campus housing, raise and collect funds and in-kind donations, share meals and act as cultural brokers, provide interpretation, assist with childcare and job-hunting, meet important resettlement appointments (DSS, medical, etc.), assist with shopping, transportation, filling out government forms, finding off-campus housing, and moving. They continue to assist with goals set during the hosting period such as GED or driving license acquisition. Volunteers also take case notes for CWS’s files.

By utilizing their personal skills towards the common goal of supporting the hosted refugees, the volunteers receive a powerful experiential education on pressing global issues (the refugee crisis and forced displacement) and local concerns (immigrant and refugee life in Greensboro). ECAR’s program coordinator and I solicit feedback from the hosted refugees and volunteers. We communicate with the CWS director and case managers about the progress of our collaboration and the experiences of all involved and discuss the design, implementation, and efficacy of the program, reflecting on and improving its best practices.

Another community partner, New Arrivals Institute (NAI), trains the volunteers to provide ESL instruction to the hosted refugees. Reciprocally, our trained volunteers also provide ESL instruction to NAI’s (non-ECAR) clients.  As an asset-based community of practice, ECAR engages other community partners: our local co-ops (e.g. Deep Roots Market), local schools (e.g. Early College at Guilford, whose students receive service learning credit for volunteering); faith communities (e.g. Quaker meetinghouses). They provide human, financial, and in-kind support.

Together with our community partners, we educate our various communities on issues related to refugees and resettlement through training, panels, information sessions, film screenings, and consciousness-raising dinners and recitals. Additionally, I and ECAR’s program coordinators have been invited by CWS and NAI to speak at their panels, events, press conferences, and service provider meetings/consultation calls.

Deeply engaged academia:

In all of the above described work, our campus and local communities are learning a great deal about refugee and forced displacement issues, and our volunteers are engaging in a place-based experiential education about the resettlement process and the joys and challenges of the latter as it pertains to their own city, state, and country in ways that are connected to real rather than hypothetical individuals. The program also prepares our students for engaging diverse populations in their lives and future careers.

Students are also using their disciplinary skills to support the program through producing material for the ECAR website — utilizing and honing their skills in researching and writing consumable and effective material for public audiences; creating artwork for ECAR’s public material; crafting podcasts for the initiative’s public fora; taking on the roles of program coordinators — organizing volunteer tasks and donation drives, carrying out hosting and resettlement tasks, and honing their organizational, fundraising, and non-profit skills; representing ECAR at various venues such as Jewish Voice for Peace and the UN among others — honing their public speaking and networking skills; researching the effect of ECAR through data collected in an ongoing mixed-methods study.

Curricularizing ECAR:

Working within the CPPS framework and with support from a CPPS faculty fellowship, I was able to design the ECAR Principled Problem Solving Experience Minor which pilots at Guilford in fall 2017.

The ECAR minor curricularizes the previously described educational components of the initiative and engages students in disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and place-based experiences that facilitate:

1)      Learning about forced displacement and (im)migration.

2)      Centralizing the voices, agency and perspectives of refugees and (im)migrants.

3)      Emphasizing the nature and significance of organizing and advocacy.

4)      Participation in the place-based educational processes of resettlement and community building.

Thus, the various elements of the minor are designed to engage the students in learning about what forced displacement is and why it happens; who are the individuals who experience it and what are their perspectives; how we can collectively address the problems of forced displacement and resettlement; doing the work of principled problem-solving in refugee resettlement.

The minor calls for a minimum of 16 credit hours of required and elective courses and involves collaboration among a team of several faculty members – including an adjunct instructor – from various departments and disciplines. Each faculty member requires a course assignment (designed by the instructor in discussion with the team) that engages students in making and reflecting on connections between their learning in the course and their work in hosting/resettling ECAR hosted refugees.

Making an impact:

ECAR promotes and enacts meaningful engagement on Guilford’s campus by fostering a common vision and collaboration across all College units. The common goal of hosting and supporting refugees brings together faculty, staff, and students from many departments, clubs, student government bodies as well as various offices: Career Services, Housing and Facilities, and Public Safety to name a very few.

Over the last year, I have also had the privilege of being able to speak about ECAR to other campuses, giving workshops and talks all over the country which outline the project’s work – including challenges and lessons learned – and allow audience members to think about how to adapt this flexible initiative to their campus.

Thanks to this outreach and positive media coverage such as NPR’s All Things Considered with Ari Shapiro, WUNC’s The State of Things with Frank Stasio, The Washington Post, the 2016 State Department Toolkit on how universities can help refugees, Inside Higher Ed and NC Policy Watch among others, ECAR is now spreading to campuses large and small that are similarly partnering with their local refugee resettlement agencies to host refugees: Wake Forest University, Agnes Scott College, Rollins College, and Lafayette College among others. More are mobilizing to do so: Princeton and Georgetown, for example. ECAR has also received the Gulf South Summit’s 2017 Outstanding Service-Learning Collaboration in Higher Education Award and The Washington Center’s 2017 Civic Engagement in Higher Education Award.

Every Campus A Refuge is an easily replicable program for any type of campus. And as a campus program, it is covered by the college’s general liability insurance. It’s also extremely affordable. When campuses provide housing, use of facilities and any available and unused materials, then raising donations in-kind and financial to cover the rest is easy. We only used $300 of our funds to purchase whatever else was needed for the 11 member DRC family, for example.

If you’d like to know more about the program and learn how your campus can become a refuge, please check out our website or contact me at abdod {at} guilford(.)edu for more information.

Parts of this blog have previously appeared in Jadaliyya

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