Campus Highlight: Every Campus a Refuge: Guilford College's Engagement with the Refugee Crisis

By Diya Abdo, Associate Professor of English, Guilford College

The refugee crisis is a perpetual crisis. While my own refugee parents were lucky—they escaped the drudgeries of the refugee camps to live a life of tenuous citizenry in the “alternate homeland”—many refugees around the world are not so fortunate. They settle where they initially arrive, their tents simply morphing into the sturdier, stiflingly close, zinc-roofed rooms of the shantytowns. Many others never complete their perilous journeys. 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.

So what do academic institutions do with the endless convoy of humanity trying to make its way from misery to the unknown? With the dead and dying bodies? 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?

The Every Campus A Refuge (ECAR) program, run out of Guilford College, a small liberal arts campus in North Carolina, was established in fall 2015 as one answer to this question, and 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.

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 (religious geographic areas) and university and college campuses, whose material and human resources make them very much like small cities with 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 College’s close proximity to an old-growth forest instrumental in the route of the Underground Railroad, as well as the college’s Quaker testimonies of just and community-driven stewardship—ECAR was founded as a Center for Principled Problem Solving program. Its aims are 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 we can increase the global number of resettled refugees; support underfunded refugee resettlement agencies; create a softer landing for refugees by providing additional financial, cultural, and social support; and respond to the xenophobia that has accompanied the refugee crisis by committing institutional resources to welcoming and supporting refugees. 

Through ECAR, Guilford partnered with the refugee resettlement agency Church World Service (CWS) to develop an initiative that best supported the agency’s needs and standards in serving their refugee clients. Housing emerged as a key need. Affordable housing is sparse in Greensboro, especially for single refugees (whose one-time government-allotted stipend of approximately $925 is insufficient) and large families or families with particular needs; additionally, leasing companies are often hard-pressed to rent to refugees who arrive without employment, social security numbers, or credit history.

Since the beginning of our partnership in 2015, Guilford has hosted thirty-two refugee clients of CWS (eighteen of them children) from the Middle East and Africa. Each family stayed on our campus in a furnished house or apartment (rent and utilities free) for an average of five months, at which point (employed and with a social security number) they were able to successfully resettle in their chosen Greensboro community.

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 (and take case notes), which include ESL instruction, house set up, translation, transportation, childcare, acquiring driver’s licenses, and assistance with resettlement appointments and government forms (Department of Social Services, medical, etc.).

Background-checked and trained by CWS, these volunteers are Guilford students, alumni, faculty, administrators, staff, and friends and neighbors. As an asset-based community of practice, ECAR engages other community partners: our local co-ops, schools, and faith communities who provide human, financial, and in-kind support.

By utilizing their personal skills towards the common goal of supporting the hosted refugees, the campus volunteers receive a powerful place-based and 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 solicits feedback from the hosted refugees and volunteers, communicating with the CWS director and case managers about the progress of our collaboration and the experiences of all involved so as to refine and improve the initiative’s best practices.

Engaged Academia

Students are also using their (multi)disciplinary skills to support the program in other ways—through producing material for the ECAR website, creating artwork for ECAR’s public material, taking on the roles of program coordinators, publicly representing ECAR at various venues, and researching the effect of ECAR through data collected in an ongoing mixed-methods study.

The sixteen-credit ECAR Principled Problem Solving Experience Minor, which piloted at Guilford this past fall, curricularizes the educational components of the initiative and engages students in disciplinary, inter/multidisciplinary, and experiential learning. They take courses that teach them about forced displacement; that centralize the voices, agency, and perspectives of displaced individuals; that emphasize the nature and significance of organizing and advocacy; and that require participation in the place-based educational processes of resettlement and community building. Courses involve collaboration among a team of several faculty members from various departments and disciplines who require assignments that engage students in making and reflecting on connections between their learning in the course and their work in hosting/resettling refugees.

ECAR is growing. Campuses large and small (e.g., Wake Forest University and Lafayette College, among others) have adopted this easily replicable and affordable program. To learn more about how your campus can become a refuge, please check out our website at http://everycampusarefuge.net/ or contact me at abdod@guilford.edu.

Parts of this essay have previously appeared in Jadaliyya and on the Global SL Blog.