The worldwide refugee crisis has turned into the largest displacement of persecuted and threatened people since World War II, and Vassar has stepped up to play its own part in the initiative to alleviate it. As part of a larger movement, Vassar students and professors have formed VC Refugee Solidarity in order to educate students on this humanitarian crisis.
At the helm of the VC Refugee Solidarity initiative is a board of students working on various projects that may offer refugees current and future support. Reflecting on the effort, board member Anish Kanoria ’18 wrote in an emailed statement, “As we have mentioned before, we are not out to solve the crisis or end the various wars that have created it. Our goal is to help in the best way we can.” One such project is creating an app that will help refugees locate family members while on the move. They are also building a student-led website of information on refugee crises internationally.
Most recently, board members Ashley LaMere ’18 and Lily Berman ’19 have focused their activist efforts on community outreach. They have been working with the refugee resettlement agency Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) based out of New Haven, Conn. to co-sponsor a refugee family at Vassar as soon as this coming fall of 2016.
The board is working with IRIS Director Chris George to understand the process and the responsibilities —largely financial— of the Vassar community in supporting this refugee family after they have been cleared by the United States.
As a co-sponsor, Vassar will be responsible for supporting the basic needs and rent of the refugee family for the first six months of their resettlement in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Vassar will need to raise and contribute approximately $6,000 to co-sponsor the family. Through the co-sponsorship with IRIS, the refugee family will have the tools and support network to acclimate and succeed in their new environment in America. Following these first few months of support, the refugees are expected to be fairly independent and self-sufficient.
In response to Vassar’s decision to bring a refugee family to the surrounding community, Claire DiLeo ’19 said, “I believe it is my responsibility to share the opportunity I have been afforded to live in a space in which I feel safe and believe I can actualize my ambitions. I would love for Vassar to sponsor and host a family and offer them the opportunity to continue to live their lives in a stable environment until they feel they can return to their home country.”
To act as global citizens through refugee co-sponsorship, VC Refugee Solidarity will begin its fundraising efforts with an a cappella concert in the coming weeks. LaMere explained, “I think it brings the community together by using the resources we already have. We have so many talented, artistic people on campus so bringing together a cappella groups to fundraise to bring the refugee family to campus utilizes both our talent and community-organizing spirit to help someone else and to make tangible an international crisis that people don’t necessarily relate to.”
LaMere went on, “They think that the refugee crisis is just an international issue. But by bringing a refugee family here through our fundraising efforts, giving them food and a place to live because of our community, I think that will help bring people into the issue more tangibly and actively.” Having a refugee family co-sponsored by Vassar and the surrounding community will benefit not only the refugee family but also the Vassar community.
Kanoria said, “For one, it humanizes the rhetoric. It becomes difficult for us to say that we can’t do anything about the problem being this far away from it when we have a refugee family in our own community.” Too often, people label the crisis an international issue apart from America. Kanoria continued, “Further, we want to emphasize that we are not far away from the ‘problem.’ There is a migrant crisis unfolding on the Southern border of the United States. In our own community, we have various undocumented migrants and such and need our support.”
VC Refugee Solidarity motivates Vassar students to be involved in the crisis inside, near and outside of U.S. borders. DiLeo said, “I believe hosting a family would demonstrate Vassar’s commitment to considering issues in the global sphere, beyond the scope of what attending students experience.” Assistance for the refugee family may extend beyond financial support, as Vassar students may help the refugee family to adapt to American culture through educational support.
LaMere said, “Refugees and refugee children especially have educational needs, and they will need a lot of support to fulfill those. It would be ideal for members of the Vassar community like education majors to help with tutoring or spending time with the children.” Such student-driven support would help to integrate this family into American life.
The VC Refugee Solidarity board has created their plan of action to fundraise and then co-sponsor a refugee family in the surrounding community. Following the demanding refugee vetting process, IRIS will receive a refugee family from Syria, as their refugee efforts have centered upon Syria, after which Vassar will then step up to provide support for this family through co-sponsorship.
Kanoria said, “It is a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship. The refugee family will, first and foremost, have a home in a community that is willing and able to support them. I think this also sends a larger message about the width and depth of engagement institutions of higher education can have in this crisis.” Vassar’s decisive initiative to support a refugee family through this method of co-sponsorship with IRIS should introduce increased activism in higher learning and set a precedent for academic institutions to actively engage this global refugee issue directly.