Oral Histories Project archives voices of refugee crisis

VC Solidarity is teaming up with the Oral Histories Project to combat the travel ban enforced by the Trump Administration and protect displaced peoples in the Hudson Valley. / Courtesy of Vassar Refugee Solidarity

At the heart of any statistic is a unique experience or history that can’t be generalized to further a political agenda. When the White House makes claims regarding refugees, it is essential to acknowledge that people’s lives are at stake. At Vassar, students have been organizing to aid refugees in resettling and getting their voices heard.

Vassar Refugee Solidarity is organizing an Oral Histories Archive. Joe DeGrand ’17, Jakob Strobel Eckstein ’19 and Zoe Wulff ’19 are documenting the stories of refugees that are living in the Hudson Valley community. In addition to working closely with the History Department, The Oral Histories Archive has reached out to other organizations, striving to give this message the platform it deserves.

The initial intentions of the Oral Histories Archive differed drastically from the project’s current trajectory, though the general concept of the Archive has remained intact. DeGrand spoke of this evolution: “It’s gone through a lot of different phases for what we thought the best use of it would be. In the beginning, before the travel ban, it served a very different purpose. Now we’re working with the History Department and preparing for an exhibition. Our focus has changed a lot, regarding the people we were going to interview.”

In October, the co-chairs of the Oral Histories Archive began planning this project through Vassar Refugee Solidarity. One of the group’s original goals was to contact incoming refugee families and, with their consent, share their stories, but recent government policies have hindered those plans. Because of the travel ban, refugee programs have halted indefinitely. As a result, the Oral Histories Archive is working with the refugees that are in the Hudson Valley area already.

DeGrand elaborated on the process members of the Oral Histories Archive undertake: “A lot of the work that is going to come with this is transcription. It takes a lot of time and it’s a pretty tedious task. But we mostly want to keep it to a smallish number of people because these are very sensitive documents and we want to make sure that we can rely on the people who work with us. Because these people we’re interviewing are being very open with us, it’s important. There’s also tons of opportunities to get involved with Vassar Refugee Solidarity.”

Vassar Refugee Solidarity began in October 2015 when students collaborated with Professor and Chair of the History Department Maria Höhn, and originally culminated in a six-week course about the refugee crisis which ended last Spring. Now, in addition to the Oral Histories Archive, Vassar Refugee Solidarity has three other projects it’s working on: resettlement, a digital initiative and a consortium with Bard, Bennington and Sarah Lawrence. The organization has also designed workshops, classes and other events to increase awareness and provide ways for everybody in the community to get involved. The organization is also aiming to integrate advocacy in an academic setting. One potential plan is to have students taking Arabic conduct Skype sessions with refugees who get paid for their work.

Reflecting on the ever-changing political climate, both Vassar Refugee Solidarity and the Oral History Archive have had to alter their projects. Church World Service, the main resettlement agency, has been restricted by recent policies from bringing refugee families into the United States. Despite these obstructions, Vassar Refugee Solidarity and the Oral Histories Archive are continuing to fight for this cause and provide a platform for refugee voices.

Student Leader and Coordinator Anish Kanoria ’18 has been involved with VC Solidarity from the beginning. “If you think about all the initiatives together that we have as Vassar Refugee Solidarity, we have the digital part of it, so anything we can’t do physically we can do digitally. We have the academic intellectual part of it, which is coming up with a radical pedagogy, which is more long-term. And then you have the Mid-Hudson Alliance, which is the local and immediate part of it. I think in totality, if you look at the initiative, [the refugee ban] makes our commitment stronger.”

The new direction will address local needs of refugees resettling in the Hudson Valley and help connect them with other refugees in the area. Most importantly, the projects aim to remind American audiences of the refugees’ humanity.

“The refugee crisis was very powerful and it started to lose some traction. I think a way for things to continue to gain traction in the quickpaced media world that we’re in is to be able to share personal stories.” Wulff said of the motive behind the Oral Histories Archive.

She continued, “We believe in the power of a person’s story, no matter where it’s coming from and we don’t want to be in control of their story. We just want to be able to give them a place where these stories can be heard so they don’t get lost.”

The Oral Histories Archive will be collaborating with the History Department for an exhibit in May on the history of refugees for Vassar and the Hudson Valley community. With no refugees arriving in the near future, Vassar Solidarity will focus on local needs in the area, helping undocumented migrants and other displaced people settle in the Hudson Valley. For more ways to get involved with solving the refugee crisis, Vassar Refugee Solidarity’s website provides numerous opportunities.

At a crucial moment in our nation’s history, activism becomes an imperative for change. There are countless immediate opportunities for students to get involved, such as attending protests, writing to local legislators and generally staying informed.

Strobel Eckstein, who became personally invested after living with a refugee in Berlin, described the fundamental tenet to his project: “We want to humanize this issue, because so often immigration and the refugee crisis is written in numbers. But these are people who have gone through a lot and have individual stories. If we can tell those stories and give these people a platform to tell these stories, we can create empathy for them. And I think that is our political goal, to create empathy for displaced people so we can garner political will and improve their lives.”

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