In 2015, the United Nations recorded an unprecedented influx of forcibly displaced individuals into Europe. On April 20, a boat of 700 capsized in Libyan waters, some 180 km south of Italy’s Lampedusa Island. Only 50 were saved. On Aug. 28, Austrian officials uncovered 71 refugee carcasses in a refrigeration truck on the Hungarian-Austrian border. On Sept. 5, a protest march of more than 1,000 refugees erupted after the Hungarian government refused to provide trains to Austria and Germany. On Sept. 15, Hungary, alongside other European countries temporarily restating border controls, erected a fence along its Serbian border, terminating two decades of open borders in the EU. Inconsistent border controls across nations highlighted the need to establish a uniform European response. In October and November, two asylum-seeking groups of 19 and 30 individuals were relocated to Sweden and Luxembourg, respectively, in a joint effort by national authorities. By December, more than 911,000 individuals had arrived in Europe within the year. Roughly 3,550 lives had been lost on the journey there (UNHCR, “2015: The year of Europe’s refugee crisis,” 08.12.2015).
With administrative responses being somewhat inadequate, and humanitarian responses somewhat victimizing, Elise Shea ’19 confronted this climate with one question: “How can Vassar students engage meaningfully with forcibly displaced communities?” This thought inspired her to join staff with the co-founders of Vassar Refugee Solidarity, Professor of History Maria Höhn and Anish Kanoria ’18 to establish the non-profit Conversations Unbound (CU).
CU is a language-learning program that enables students to practice their conversational Arabic or Spanish skills online with tutors who have a forced displacement background. All tutors are paid hourly. These sessions aspire to both assist students in their academic endeavors and formulate transnational relationships that deconstruct barriers across distance, borders and languages.
Shea was connected with Jim Leu ’94, the General Manager at the Taiwan Office for italki.com, a language learning platform, to develop the idea of a pen-pal digital project wherein forcibly displaced individuals and students could connect with one another. This connection is where she first nurtured the initiative to connect Vassar’s Arabic language learners with forcibly displaced native speakers. The project’s partnership with Small Projects Istanbul and Jamie Stevenson ‘10, a Vassar alum living in Paris, enabled CU to connect with their first team of Arabic language tutors. In 2017, the project grew to a six-person team and won the $5,000 OZY Genius Award. It officially adopted the name “Conversations Unbound” and entered the non-profit sector.
Recounting her early connections with native speakers, Shea said: “We were often cold-calling organizations trying to connect with relevant populations, and many times interested individuals lacked reliable internet access. Ultimately, it was through connecting with organizations and people who were already doing important work to support these populations that allowed us to succeed.”
Shea also explained that tutor safety is of utmost importance to CU. The project has worked in close cooperation with italki to ensure that the tutors remain protected on their online platform and to build trust. “All students and tutors who participate in CU programming are provided with a cultural sensitivity training before their conversation sessions begin to ensure that both parties know how to thoughtfully engage with each other,” she explained. “One of our original tutors is now on our Board of Directors to ensure that our tutors’ voices are represented within our organization’s structure.”
When asked about potential difficulties that CU may encounter, Shea remained transparent. She explained the challenge of maintaining balance between fulfilling Vassar professors’ goals in the project and providing tutors with a sustainable source of income: “This led us to develop a model where CU is incorporated into classes as a required component of students’ coursework in the effort to ensure lessons are completed and tutors start earning money.”
Beyond the online platform, CU also brought its founders into direct contact with the individuals they pledge to support. In her study-abroad semester in Paris, Shea met with one of the founding CU Arabic tutors. During her Ford Scholar research project in Berlin with Professor of History Maria Höhn, Shea and CU Assistant Director Jessica Schwed met with future CU tutors, the conversations with whom have inspired her future work with CU.
Professor of Hispanic Studies Eva Woods Peiró, a key faculty advisor to CU, further commented on how the project turned students’ academic need to transcend linguistic barriers into an opportunity to foster social connection and understanding. “This kind of a project empowers both students and community participants,” she explained. “Within this framework of CU, the latter, positioned as experts in the target language, become knowledge producers and horizontalize the hierarchies of learning and knowledge production. The former gain invaluable experience in the organization, maintenance and sustenance of non-profit organizing.”
Peiró also praised CU’s providing student volunteers with both a dynamic working entity and a spiritual haven where they can engage in community service, without disrupting academic endeavors. One student volunteer, Spanish Program Assistant Paola Castaneda ’22, shared that the organization brought her and her colleagues not only invaluable experience working in a startup environment, but also a cause to serve. “I believe CU is a small grain of sand in the huge effort being made by many to unite humanity. The conversations…allow for a unique bond between two individuals that would have never met each other otherwise,” she illuminated. “Not only does CU make an effort to change the rhetoric of first-world heroism, it does so through genuine human connection.”
Currently, the project has expanded to Michigan State University and University of Richmond, encompassing 344 students, facilitating 1255 lessons that equate to 629 lesson hours and offering tutors earnings of over $7,000. It has collaborated with tutors from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Mexico and Venezuela who now reside in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Germany, Mexico and the U.S. At Vassar, CU is an integral part of language classes that count toward students’ final grades. According to Shea, “Student participation is high regardless of the requirements, and we think this is because students value this opportunity to learn one-on-one from their tutor and share in these cross-cultural experiences.” Peiró also shared that participating feedbacks to their lessons have been overwhelmingly positive on the grounds of intellectual, academic and personal development.
In the future, CU promises to expand to universities and colleges across the nation and to encompass programs for other languages. There is a common agreement among the CU team, tutors and participating students that what lies at the marrow of the project is for tutors and students to learn from each other, forging mutually respectful and long-lasting partnerships.