Over the last few months Vassar College Refugee Solidarity has been formulating a response to the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. From April 10 to 21, VC Solidarity will be organizing a series of events to raise awareness about challenges faced by refugees in the past and present.
VC Solidarity is composed of a 10-person Student Leadership Council and a three-person faculty advising group led by Chair of the History Department Maria Höhn. According to their mission statement, this student-led organization hopes to be a useful part of the solution to the global refugee crisis. Their statement reads, “We cannot solve this crisis, but can be part of the solution by doing what we do best, namely gathering, analyzing, disseminating knowledge, and innovating new models for global and transnational educational solidarity” (Vassar College Refugee Solidarity).
Co-Founder and Student Leader of VC Solidarity Anish Kanoria ’18 explained that he wanted to mobilize others to act after realizing the lack of an organized initiative on campus. He wrote in an emailed statement, “[Höhn and I] met over October break and decided that Vassar had to do something. Everything just took off from there. Dorm panels, countless emails and an encouraging response from the administration and students gave us the impetus we needed. Needless to say, it’s been a demanding journey and there’s much more to do, but it is profoundly rewarding to see so much happen within a semester.”
Höhn, one of the faculty advisors of the organization, agreed that this initiative begun by a group of passionate students has come to fruition in this demonstration of solidarity. “Refugee Week came together rather organically,” she attested. “VC Refugee Solidarity has been working since last fall to mobilize students, and the history majors’ committee wanted to contribute to that effort.” Since the fall, the organization has spearheaded several campus initiatives, including creating the Refugee Solidarity Leadership Team, joining the Scholars at Risk network and offering an International Studies six-week course on the refugee crisis called “The 21st Century Worldwide Refugee Crisis,” organized by Höhn and featuring a rotation of lecturers.
VC Solidarity and the History Majors Committee are now cooperating to bring a variety of engaging programming to campus, including lectures, workshops and exhibitions, over the course of this week. Several guest speakers will lend their expertise as writers and activists working with refugees. Vassar’s own History Majors Committee will present an interactive workshop titled “Displaced Moments: Snapshots of Refugee History,” which will cover activism and refugee movements in the past century. A poster exhibition featuring student research from the IS class will be on view in the Old Bookstore.
Website editor Sophie Slater ’18 explained that she hopes this programming will help stimulate conversation among students. She wrote in an emailed statement, “Through Refugee Week, we hope to spark an informed discussion about today’s unprecedented refugee crisis, the role that colleges such as Vassar can play in this crisis, as well as the role of media in the framing of historical events.” The group also realizes the limitations of their work. Slater stated, “We would also like to acknowledge that the research presented here is extremely Eurocentric and is by no means a holistic representation of worldwide population movements and displacements since the beginning of the 20th century, and this is important to keep in mind when viewing the images featured in our exhibition.”
History Department Intern and head of the History Majors Committee Hannah Reynolds ’16 spoke about her role in planning the upcoming events. “The History Majors Committee always puts on events, often just for majors but sometimes all-school movie screenings, etc., but this year we really wanted to do something that we felt was really meaningful,” she noted. “We are all total history nerds and believe in the value of knowing and reflecting upon the past in order to understand current events and make meaningful change, and hoped that by partnering with VC Refugee Solidarity we could do that.”
Some Vassar students have also taken the initiative to lead projects related to these topics outside of the classroom. Student Leader of VC Solidarity Elise Shea ’19 has been working with Vassar graduate Jim Leu ’94 on creating a partnership with italki, an online program that Leu founded which connects native speakers and language learners via Skype. Shea explained her inspiration for the project and goals for its implementation. She wrote in an emailed statement, “My interest in the refugee crisis started about a year ago as I began to follow the New York Times’s reports on the crises in Southeast Asia and in Syria.”
After conversing with Shea, Leu agreed to create a platform on his network specifically for Vassar students to connect with refugees at no cost to the refugee students. Shea clarified, “ANY Vassar student could schedule a session with a refugee via italki with the idea of learning more about each other and having an informal dialogue. It is my hope that this would develop into a ‘Skype pen-pal program’ in which the student and the refugee regularly connect.”
Shea continued,“I strongly believe that it is crucial to form transnational relationships in order to break down unconscious or conscious hostilities between peoples. By forming these connections, I hope that people will recognize our shared humanity.”
According to Kanoria, Refugee Week is a manifestation of Vassar’s responsibility to act. He added, “It is also important to note that we are not trying to be ‘knights in shining armor’ and ‘come to the rescue’ of those who are displaced. This initiative is meant to use our comparative advantage as an institution of higher learning to count Vassar among those willing to help.”
VC Solidarity members hope that this week will not be the end of the discussion about displacement, but will encourage further exploration of global issues. “We cannot and must not choose to turn a blind eye,” asserted Kanoria. “By immersing ourselves in these global phenomenons, we emerge stronger and hopefully after having made a small difference.”