As educators, we have been watching with dismay the refugee crisis and mass migration of people across the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Hundreds of thousands of families and individuals are currently fleeing civil war in Syria, the brutality of ISIS in Afghanistan and Iraq and air strikes by European and Arab countries.
Thousands are also fleeing from conflict, political repression and economic impoverishment in Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and Libya, trekking across inhospitable terrain and turbulent seas, to reach the shores of Europe.
Thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar and Bangladesh, crammed in rickety boats, searching for refuge in Malaysia, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries.
According to UNHCR estimates, there are now well over 50 million refugees worldwide. This refugee crisis, which gathered pace in the 1990s, is the largest movement of people since the displacement, deportation and forced resettlement of millions of people during and after the Second World War. Millions of new refugees are currently looking for safety by trying to make their way to Europe.
The refugees coming from the Middle East and Africa undertake perilous journeys in overcrowded boats and rubber floats across the Mediterranean, aiming to reach Italy’s southernmost island Lampedusa, or one of the islands of Greece.
Thousands have died at sea. Once they make it to European shores their journey often continues on foot. We all have seen in our own media the images of their struggles, and the horrific stories of so many lives lost.
The global response to the suffering and needs of this wave of refugees, especially those generated by the conflicts in the Middle East, has been mixed.
In the region closest to the intertwined conflicts in Syria and Iraq, they have been the recipients of the hospitality of neighboring countries, some of which are under direct threat from the belligerents in these conflicts.
Jordan, a country of just 6 million people, has taken in more than 800,000 refugees since 2011. Turkey, which has 78 million people, hosts some two million, and Lebanon with a population of less than five million people, took in more than one million refugees.
European countries, which have been deeply involved in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, have taken in less, though the numbers are increasing. Germany has been the most receptive European country, accepting some 500,000 refugees already and promising to take in up to 800,000 this year (and 500,000 each year over the next few years). Sweden, a tiny country of just nine million people, has taken more than 80,000.
Under the agreed-upon EU quota system, Great Britain (a country of some 64 million people) disappointingly pledged to take in a mere 20,000 refugees over the next five years.
France, with its 66 million people, accepted a quota of just 24,000 over the next two years. In our part of the world, the United States has taken in a mere 1,500 refugees from Syria so far, promising to raise quotas for refugees worldwide from 70,000 to 100,000 by 2017.
More so than the number of refugees that have been given shelter in some European countries, what has been a cause for optimism is the popular response to the crisis.
Ordinary citizens, local communities, and non-government organizations, through personal contacts, social media and extraordinary acts of kindness, forced equivocating governments to ease travel restrictions and to open their doors to the refugees.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, responding to popular pressure, allowed the easing of Schengen rules, so that hundreds of thousands of refugees could make their way to Germany and other European countries.
German people and communities came out in droves with welcoming signs, food, clothing and toys for the children. Young Hungarians also provided food and water for the refugees, diapers and strollers for babies, and most importantly, words of encouragement and support for the refugees as they made their way from Greece to Germany.
We are also aware the plight of refugees has been exploited by unscrupulous middlemen, who have extorted large amounts of money to cram them in unsafe vessels and vehicles, and have left them in desperate straits in transit countries.
The refugees have also faced hostility, cold-hearted treatment and the ugly jeers of the anti-immigration mobs. For now, the joyous welcome of the refugees by many host communities have drowned out their jeers.
Muslim refugees were stunned also to see that young Israelis, among them doctors and nurses, had made their way to Lesbos, Greece to assist them en route to Northern Europe.
Because large numbers of refugees are now arriving in Europe, the U.S. media has finally been paying more attention to the magnitude of the crisis.
Again and again during this summer, when reporting on the flood of refugees, U.S. commentators have evoked memories of Europe’s darkest hour, the Holocaust.
The images of exhausted and traumatized people herded behind barbed-wire fences in Hungary, clinging desperately to trains leaving for Germany, or having their “registration number” imprinted on their arms by the police in the Czech Republic have shocked us.
The haggling over refugee quotas among members of the EU evoke the debates after Hitlers’ Anschluss of Austria and the pogrom of Crystal Night (Kristallnacht) in 1938, and the unwillingness of the world’s democracies to aid Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.
In the U.S. at that time, even the minimalist Wagner-Rogers Refugee Aid Bill, which would have allowed the eventual admission of 20,000 German Jewish children under the age of 14, never made it out of committee. The consequences of that historic failure are painful to recall, even seventy years after the end of WWII.
In a recent essay in the New Statesman, Laurie Penny called the refugee crisis a “battle for the soul of Europe,” stating, “In the 1930s, the question that preoccupied the democratic West was surely ‘how many should we let in?’ In hindsight, we ask the same question that will be asked of notionally democratic governments in another seventy years – ‘how many did you let die?’” (“The refugee crisis is a battle for the soul of Europe, New Statesman, 9.23.15).
Indeed, deep divisions emerged in the EU over the values that bind the union, and on how to handle this unprecedented influx of refugees.
But is this refugee crisis really only a “battle for the soul of Europe”? Or, is it not a clarion call for all of us to think seriously about how to end deadly conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and elsewhere?
Is it not a challenge to all of us to find concrete ways to alleviate the suffering of our fellow humans from conflicts in which the policies and actions of our government are also implicated?
Is it not a moment to rise above the limits of our own broken immigration system, recognizing, as Pope Francis reminded us last week that most of us in the U.S. “were once foreigners”?
After the Holocaust, we said never again. After the 1975-79 genocide in Cambodia, we said never again. After the 1994 Rwandan genocide, we said never again. When we say “Never Again” we must mean it.
Given the deep political divisions on immigration, and immigration reform in the United States right now, we understand the difficulty of raising dramatically the currently proposed refugee quotas.
We must work tirelessly nonetheless to convince our government that the refugee crisis unfolding in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe is not merely a challenge to be handled by European and Middle Eastern countries.
We live in a global world and the challenge of millions of people in refugee camps across Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, Congo, Mali, Sudan and Kenya as well as those who made their way to Europe must also be our concern.
We urge our government to change course and begin to think of ways to admit some of these desperate refugees streaming into Europe now, or those trapped in refugee camps in the Middle East, Asia or Africa.
We believe that institutions of higher learning in the U.S., as well as American students at the grass roots level can play a crucial role.
We as a college community must also stand up for our liberal arts roots and values—as we have already done in our decision to give undocumented students the same consideration as any other student applicants.
Today’s refugees are our sisters and brothers; this is a humanitarian crisis that concerns us all.
We want to be cognizant of the fact that many members of the Vassar community are first- or second-generation arrivals themselves.
Many among us are also children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren of refugees of earlier periods; fleeing famine, war or political or religious persecution: 19th Century Pogroms in Russia; Nazi persecution of Jews, socialists and alleged “social outsiders” in the 1930s and 40s; refugees that arrived in the U.S. as a result of the Soviet crackdown after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and the 1956 Cuban Revolution; the 1970s arrival from Vietnam; the 1980s influx of Russian Jews from the former Soviet Union; the refugees arriving in the 1990s from Rwanda and then later Sudan; and the many who have come and are still coming to the U.S. to escape poverty and violence in Central America and Mexico.
So, what can we do, here at Vassar? We can offer immediate and practical support to the refugees, particularly in the area of education.
For example, some universities in Germany and Great Britain have made it possible for refugees to matriculate to complete their degrees even before they have completed the asylum process.
In Germany, university education is free, but in Great Britain, where university and college tuition is substantial, the University of Warwick has pledged 10 full scholarships for refugees for the next academic year, and 10 more for the year after.
Others, such as the University of Leipzig in Germany, are developing online platforms to connect refugee scholars with colleagues in their fields in Europe and the U.S.
The University of Basel in Switzerland, together with the International Red Cross in Geneva, is developing an online educational platform to allow students trapped in camps in the Middle East or Africa to complete their education via the digital classroom.
Students at these universities are also joining forces; offering language classes, care for unaccompanied minors, assistance in the asylum process, and developing all sorts of grass roots networks of volunteer work.
We have reached out to President Cappy Hill and Jon Chenette, the Dean of the Faculty, to develop plans of how Vassar can be counted among those in higher education willing to help.
We are now reaching out to our students, and student groups to start a campus-wide conversation. We would like to hear from you how Vassar students and existing student organizations could be part of a larger international effort to alleviate this incredible suffering.
As a starting point for our conversation, we have organized a panel for Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015 in Rocky 300 at 5:30 PM on the refugee crisis and invited Mariya Nikolova, International Studies major of the Vassar class of 2007.
Mariya (Mimi) is the editor of the International Review of the Red Cross, working at the International Red Cross in Geneva. She has traveled widely to refugee camps and will be able to educate us about the scope of the crisis and explore with us what we as citizens of the world can do.
If you want to contribute to this conversation or get involved, please visit our Facebook page: Vassar College: Solidarity with Refugees (www. facebook.com/VCSolidarity).
Never Again! We cannot fail these migrants and refugees.