While concerned citizens across the world are working out ways to assist in aiding the current refugee crisis in Syria and the Middle East, students and faculty at universities are also forming their own institutional responses.
Community members gathered on Thursday, Oct. 8 to discuss Vassar’s own obligation to act in a time of great need for many. The panel, entitled “Vassar College: Solidarity with Refugees,” featured Mariya Nikolova ’07, who participated via Skype from Geneva, where she serves as Editor of the International Review of the Red Cross. She was joined by Professor of History Ismail Rashid, Professor of Sociology Diane Harriford and Professor of History and International Studies Maria Höhn.
Director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life Samuel Speers, who moderated the event, introduced the panel by urging attendees to contemplate the severity of the issue and each individual’s ability to make a difference. He began, “[T]onight we will reflect on our own connectedness to this crisis and perhaps our complicity in it as well, as we consider together how we can respond compassionately and constructively as best we can.”
Before the panel delved into Vassar’s connection to the crisis, Nikolova reminded the audience of the global nature of the crisis, citing places like Chechnya, Afghanistan and Rwanda as sites of major refugee crises in the past several decades. She noted, “Syria, by far within the four years of conflict [that] have taken place, outnumbers the amount of refugees in any of those previous crises. But of course, we ask ourselves, what is so significant about this, and why has this been labeled a European issue?”
Not all of the refugees are from Syria, however, and the crisis is by no means isolated to Europe. Nikolova pointed out, “Europe certainly is not the biggest burden-sharer of this crisis. In fact, the biggest burden-sharers of the crisis are Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, which is a country also currently experiencing high levels of violence and its own refugee flow outwards.”
Höhn later remarked in an emailed statement, “I was also shocked that the White House made the statement that the refugees were a European problem to solve, and that the US initially was not going to take in any. Even now, the US has only agreed to take very few refugees, they raised the quota worldwide by 20,000. That is totally inadequate given the numbers of people displaced by war or other violence.”
The panelists did not merely report the facts, however. Some brought personal experiences to the discussion to illustrate what is being done in the world. Harriford described her recent stay in Lesbos, where she helped refugees arriving on the shore, setting up welcome areas to supply them with necessities, cheer them up and encourage them. She admitted, “In the first couple days, I decided I was just going to go home and pretend that this wasn’t happening, because it seemed that there was nothing to be done.”
However, she changed her mind. “And of course, because they were like [Vassar students] to me, and because everybody’s a person, and because they had gotten out of the water with nothing but their bare life, it became important to do something, to have to be in the present moment with them,” Harriford revealed.
Harriford and the rest of the panel strongly urged students to go out to do their part themselves, and have their own experiences assisting the cause. Rashid echoed the call to action, “Please, don’t sit back, and don’t pull back, and think that the world can fix itself…I want you to really have the energy to think of very creative ways, very imaginative ways of living in a world where we don’t have more people treated like this.”
One of the main concerns among students in the audience, however, was about what could be done on campus so far from the focal areas of the crisis. In response, Höhn stressed the importance of continuing events and discussion like this in the future. She reminded students, “You have incredibly smart professors here at Vassar. They teach empire, they teach migration, they teach war, they teach conflict. Go to them, talk to them, organize student-organized panels with them. It’s really, really important that these initiatives also come from our students.”
Taking her own advice, Höhn, in cooperation with Cushing House President Anish Kanoria ’18, organized the first of a series of small group discussions to garner support for institutional action in support of refugees. Students from Cushing House, Noyes House and the Terrace Apartments were invited to attend and participate in the first. Kanoria’s plan is to host a panel for every two dorms on campus in the hopes of producing a community-led effort that will allow students, staff and administration to work towards a common purpose, something he believes is unprecedented in higher educational institutions.
In a meeting of the VSA Council on Oct. 18, the College’s possible response to the refugee crisis was a topic of great concern. Kanoria stressed to his fellow representatives the importance of the issue, and the VSA’s potential to help out. “It’s the biggest crisis since World War II in terms of the movement of people, and it’s the biggest crisis of our generation,” he asserted.
Many expressed their desire to provide assistance to refugees, as Vassar had done in previous times of crisis, and several offered their ideas. There was discussion of using the annual student gift as a means of donation to refugees. Others spoke about alternative spring breaks for Vassar students to go to host countries to assist in refugee camps.
Not everyone, however, shared the VSA Council’s idealism on the issue. Vassar Christian Fellowship member Gloria Park ’18 remarked that many such solutions are not realistic enough to properly address the issue. She commented, “The measures [Höhn] suggested in connecting Vassar students to the refugees, particularly youth, by either teaching them English online or spending time with them in-person as part of the JYA program, I found somewhat impractical.”
Abby Johnson ’17, who was present at the VSA meeting, also stated, “Going forward in this, it would be great to think about what is the thing that these people actually need the most, because I don’t know if 10 Vassar students going to an NGO over spring break is going to be the best response. We’re prepared to do something, [whatever] would be most helpful, as opposed to the thing that would make us feel the best about ourselves.”
In spite of disagreements as to how Vassar should approach the issue, the consensus both at the panel and in the meeting was that in order to make a helpful difference, volunteers must remain active and steadfast in their efforts. As Höhn put it, “We can’t solve this crisis on our own, and we cannot save everybody, but we can help some people…We have tremendous resources in our country, and at our institution, as well as a lot of creative and innovative people to make a huge difference in the lives of many others.”