Re-imagining the University in a Time of Crisis —
Every Campus a Refuge Campaign
By Diya Abdo
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 five 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 the Pope 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? Our go-to is to “objectively” educate, raise-consciousness, lift awareness. Surely, these are more than admirable goals, for what is nobler than the desire to impart knowledge, broaden horizons, and engender meaningful, productive and useful conversation – to challenge and engage? Fundamentally, however, these are endeavors firmly grounded in, and ones which facilitate, the detachment and de-politicization of academic institutions. They are ensconced in the life of the (innocent) mind. And if we are lucky, they might extend to the belief that the mind will influence the soul, which will influence the body which will then do.
Please do not misunderstand me. I love teaching. I am the kind of teacher who all but bounces off the classroom walls. Recently, however, my annual post-summer return to the daily routine of college life has been steeped in a malaise that drains, that leadens the legs and keeps them off the walls and on the ground. This deepening sorrow has much to do with how little I am able to do outside my metaphoric institutional walls, for I am getting tired of vigils, of panels and teach-ins, of clicking the button or signing my name (don’t forget your institution!) on an online petition or letter.
Last week, I just wanted to be an Austrian who owned a car, to be part of that not-long-enough convoy of vehicles making its way south to carry back up the thousands-too-long convoy of humans making their way north.
But I was in Greensboro, “The Gate City.”
And then a simple thought circled around. I might not be in Austria with a car, but I am in another popular refugee destination with something even better, a college campus.
And the thought circled in. What if we saw the university or college campus not as a disembodied beehive of thinkers and learners but as a place, as much a body as it is a mind? And of course a campus is a body. It is a body politic, a self-sufficient, self-governing, self-regulating city. The word for a university or college “campus” in Arabic is haram; it means a physical space that is both “sacred” and “inviolable,” a sanctuary, a refuge.
And then the thought settled. If we saw the college and university campus in this other embodied way, could we not then expand our response to the refugee crisis beyond the panels, the food and clothes drives, the vigils? If the EU and the UN have called on European and Arab nations to take in their “quota” of refugees, and if the Pope called on every parish to take in a refugee family, could we not then see the college or university campus as similarly responsible as a “country” or as a “parish” and capable of hosting refugees?
What I am suggesting here is not your average college or university move. I am not suggesting that universities should simply sponsor refugee students to obtain higher education, a limited action, which benefits far fewer individuals, generally those with the least physical and emotional needs. What I am suggesting entails a radical reimagining of what a college or university campus can and should be – a physical place of refuge in times of crisis. If a campus hosts a refugee family, with small children and elders especially, then that homes much larger numbers and ones with greater physical needs. Campuses are organically well-suited for this. They have housing, cafeterias, clinics and plenty of human resources, expertise and connections to provide financial, material, legal, social and political assistance. In fact, a college or university has more human and material resources than most other organizations. And even though this move is not a traditionally educational gesture, it is educational to the core. What better education for the university and college students than direct engagement in caring for their fellow humans rather than simply learning about the crisis or raising funds for it? What better skills than humaneness and principled problem solving? What better values than justice and community? Students can engage this effort in countless ways including helping the family with language acquisition, or the children with homework, or acting as much needed “cultural brokers” as the family navigates its way through the resettlement process. And, very traditionally, refugee family members could also be welcome to attend college classes.
It is an incredible opportunity for everybody involved. Imagine it: a community comes together, drawing on its many skills, resources and expertise (in law, in medicine, in language, in advocacy, in planning.) to give a family that desperately needs a safe home, a safe refuge. However, this has to be done without exploiting or taking advantage of the refugee family. It must be done with intentionally crafted attention to their humanity, needs and integrity. At Guilford College where I teach, for example, where we might righteously see these efforts as an extension of our institution’s core values and our historical legacy as part of the Underground Railroad, we must also rightly see them as necessitated by another legacy we have inherited – that of empire-building, colonialism and global politics which have displaced and dispossessed the indigenous peoples of this land (on which Guilford is built) and others around the globe. As an institution, we must engage in these meaningful acts of solidarity while simultaneously subjecting them to rigorous self-awareness and criticism.
And at Guilford, the Every Campus A Refuge Campaign is indeed under way. Our President has pledged to identify and provide appropriate on-campus housing for a refugee family. In the meantime, a vacant apartment in one of our residence halls has been designated as available space for a refugee family in need of it when they arrive in Greensboro. The College’s Center for Principled Problem Solving has reached out to local organizations whose efforts focus specifically on resettling and assisting refugees in our area to find out what else they will need, and we are mobilizing through “A Call to Action” meeting of students, faculty, staff and administration to sponsor and support (materially and otherwise) refugees coming in to the area. Again, as we do this, we must be ever-vigilant of the potential ethical pitfalls.
The United States is accepting a relatively very low number of refugees who will be entering the country in the next year. All of them will be heading to a place where there are college and university campuses. If every campus in the United States hosted one refugee family, this could mean the relatively quick, easy and inexpensive temporary resettlement of thousands of refugees, and it will give local resettlement organization the needed space and time to do their jobs well. Indeed, such an effort might encourage the United States to increase its quota since concentrated pressures on particular areas and regions would be eased. Imagine if Canada and South America did the same. And then imagine if European and Arab university campuses followed suit.
In the face of this multifaceted disaster, one with deep and far reaching political, social, economic, and psychological damages, the cost of hosting one refugee family on campus grounds is truly minimal, its reward astronomical. Refugees would find a small country whose citizens share the burden, responsibility and joy of giving them a campus – a refuge.
This piece originally appeared on Jadaliyya