“Currently, around 60 million people across the globe are displaced by war, violence, and environmental destruction; half of them are children.” This is the first sentence on the syllabus of a course in international studies that aims to bring the global migration crisis to Vassar’s doorstep.
When Professor of History Maria Höhn returned from Germany last summer, she couldn’t stop thinking about the refugees she’d encountered. Before long, she had made a resolution. She thought to herself, “We can’t just let this happen, we need teach-ins, we need to educate our students.”
Over the past six months, Höhn has worked to educate Vassar audiences to make a difference in the lives of displaced migrants. This upcoming week, Höhn will bring archaeologist and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Salam al Kuntar to speak about the destruction of cultural heritage sites in Syria and their effects on migration. The lecture will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 16 from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. in Rockefeller Hall, 200.
Salam al Kuntar has worked to preserve artifacts from bomb blasts in Syria by packing them down with sandbags and will speak on her research and work as an archaeologist. Höhn said she was excited for al Kuntar’s presentation especially because of the close links between migration patterns and the destruction of cultural artifacts.
Though we are often presented with the image of far-away barbarians dealing untold destruction on treasured artifacts, Höhn reminds us that much of the destruction is our fault. “It’s not all ISIS blowing things up in Syria. It’s also Russian bombs, NATO bombs, American bombs.” She went further to say that while environmental destruction and drought was a large part of what led to radicalization, for years our war in Iraq produced an exodus of migrants to Syria that put strains on the country’s infrastructure.
The destruction of cultural heritage sites will be the central feature of al Kuntar’s upcoming lecture, however she is not exactly interested in pointing fingers.
From a personal standpoint, al Kuntar believes that global public outrage actually provokes more destruction and serves as a way for ISIS to gain attention. To me she said, “People in the west cry over statues and they don’t even know about the shattered bodies.”
Höhn agrees that the media often overlooks the destruction of human life. Yet as an historian and German, Höhn is not at all blind to the impact that the destruction of cultural artifacts can have. “I know from my own country what it means when the Nazis destroyed a whole generation of scholarship by burning the books, and destroying the artwork of alleged degenerate artists,” she said.
Part of the story Höhn believes needs more attention is the survival of refugees after they have successfully immigrated. Or as Höhn puts it, “You can get fished out of the water, but that doesn’t mean you’re safe.”
Professor of Philosophy Sam Opondo puts it differently, “How do you survive the survival?” This question served as a central part of his lecture at the international studies course on Feb. 2.
“My question on whether those whose survival and arrival in Europe marks part of the ‘refugee crisis’ today will ‘survive their survival’ is an attempt to raise ethical and political questions about cohabitation with, rather than mere reception of refugees and other foreigners,” Opondo outlined. In many ways, it’s a question of the narratives we choose.
Opondo mentioned that refugees arriving to European countries like Turkey and Germany have to survive an almost insurmountable difference. “I was asking whether a salvific discourse that focuses on the dynamics of survival (at sea) and celebrates the reception of survivors but that does not ensure the thriving of those who survive/arrive reproduces habitual political categories and limited sympathies in the long run.”
This is not a problem limited to Syria or Europe. The production of political categories for migrants is a central issue at our southern border in the United States.
Part of what Höhn hopes her movement will do is educate students about the implications of the crisis abroad and at home. “We really want to see how much we can learn in this encounter, to hear their stories, perhaps because we are so privileged here we can give them access to resources they don’t have,” Höhn said.
The international studies course serves as the educational hub of Höhn’s plans for engaging the community. She has also worked with students and faculty to develop an online portal called the Refugee Solidarity Network and formed a student leadership council which is actively looking into opportunities for Vassar students to engage themselves.
In a packed room of over 150 students in the class last Monday, Professor of Environmental Science Stuart Belli and Professor of Geography Joseph Nevins gave presentations on the impact of climate change on displacement, power and inequity.
Next week, one day before al Kuntar gives her presentation, photographer Kristen Lander will discuss her current project to document resettled refugees. Also, Lander will comment on how photography can be used as a tool for activism.
The series of lectures serve as short introductions into the many routes students can be involved and educate them as to the best method of doing so. Höhn first began recruiting students at an interest meeting before October Break of last semester where about 80 students showed up.
“There were a couple students there like Anish Kanoria who were very outspoken,” Professor Höhn remembers. Anish Kanoria ’18 became a co-founder and student leader of the Refugee Solidarity Network.
“After the interest meeting, Professor Höhn and I had a meeting over October Break to brainstorm ideas,” Kanoria explains how he first got involved. “We then conducted panels in dorms throughout the week after October Break to spread awareness and garner volunteers,” he said.
After students started signing up in numbers, Höhn created a leadership council and Kanoria became a central member. Kanoria says that his interest was first piqued at the panel organized by Professor Höhn. “The fact that really stuck with me was that this is the largest displacement of people since World War II. The older generation did something then, we must do something now.”
Kanoria might have been referencing a Vassar program in the 1930’s called “Displaced Scholars.” The program brought scholars from Nazi Germany to Vassar. The program was introduced by the College’s president at the time, Henry Noble MacCracken, and served to provide scholars with a place of refuge while students and professors at Vassar alike gained from their novel approaches and insights.
A modern version of this program, called the Scholars at Risk Network, is much more expansive and is what Höhn used to get in touch with al Kuntar. Al Kuntar is Syrian and initially brought herself to the U.S. on an eight-month fellowship to NYU granted by the Institute of International Education (IIE). She received continued support from the Scholars at Risk Network, which connected her with institutions and helped with applications.
Beyond the scholarly world, the student leadership council put together an effort with a company in Shanghai called iTalki which is a language learning social network. An alumnus at iTalki served as the original lead. The company developed an application that connects language learners and instructors on the internet. However, the application requires a fee. Höhn and the council wrote to the alumni asking if he might help develop a free application to connect refugees and students. His team sent over the proposal and is currently working to develop the application.
Kanoria explains the idea in more detail, “iTalki would enable refugees at refugee camps with hot-spots (most of the camps have these) to teach Vassar students various languages and Vassar students could reciprocate by honing the refugee’s English or other language skills.” Additionally, the student leadership council has found opportunities for two students applying for a scholarship to work in a refugee camp. Höhn said that the student leadership council is working diligently to provide as many internship and fellowship opportunities as possible. “We are trying to raise interest among alumni who might produce fellowships for students who want to go abroad, or alumni on the southern border here to help with the asylum seekers on our own borders,” said Höhn. She highlighted the benefits these fellowships or internships might have for students studying education. People on the council have founded organizations like the Ford, the Red Cross and others for students to apply to. Notably, one organization they found allows students to read American story books to children.
So much of these efforts are about helping. However Höhn stresses, “The key for us, is that this isn’t really humanitarian work.” Much like the scholars brought to Vassar in the 1930’s, Höhn wants to highlight the rich educational opportunities for Vassar students willing to play an active role in the movement. “We really want to see how much we can learn in this encounter, to hear their stories,” said Höhn. Sophie Slater ’18 is the current web developer for the Refugee Solidarity Network’s site. She helps clarify what Höhn means when she says this is not humanitarian work. “As for Professor Höhn’s statement: I think people often imagine humanitarian aid as being a monetary issue, or that of physical intervention, but those are not the only ways to help in a situation, especially since we are so far away,” Slater said.
“It was important to take a look at our situation, and think about how we could be most effective in our capacity as students at Vassar. We are really trying to use our platform to focus on educational efforts, and supporting refugee scholars in the spirit of exchange of information and knowledge,” Slater said.
This isn’t Slater’s first rodeo. Slater has interned at three separate NGO’s. In the summer of 2014, she worked with Refugees International Japan (RIJ) in Tokyo.
There, she developed skills in WordPress that would help her to build the current Refugee Solidarity site. RIJ is a non-profit organization that helps displaced people around the world regain their health, education and financial support, but their mission is a bit unconventional. RIJ funds community-led projects supported by experienced organizations on the ground.
While her skills in WordPress were what got her the position as the site’s administrator, Slater’s vision about novel approaches to humanitarian work seals the deal. She outlined her approach saying, “We are really trying to use our platform to focus on educational efforts and supporting refugee scholars in the spirit of exchange of information and knowledge.” These new approaches are what the international studies course will focus on as the semester proceeds. The photographer, Rehder, will come to class next Monday to help students think about how they might use the arts to help improve the situation.
Photography is one pathway to activate people, and Höhn has hopes that Vassar students might travel to Jordan or Lebannon to do a photography project with refugees. Using Vassar cameras, both the refugees and students could take photos. This is a movement not limited to Vassar. People at Carlton College and American University have heard what is going on here and have started their own projects. As Höhn said, “We have such an emphasis on global citizens and global justice, but this woman at Carlton said that no one had done anything. What can we do? We have to build a coalition on these lines, even with all the problems in the United States.”
Kanoria echoed Höhn’s sentiments. “It is incumbent on our generation to act. It is something that, along with climate change, will define our generation. We can, should and must remind members of the Vassar community that there are some things that can unite us.”