The Poughkeepsie and Greater Hudson Valley Area is known for its sweeping bluffs, the shimmering Hudson, fall foliage and, of course, Vassar College. But what many do not know is that the vicinity is also home to many refugees and forcibly displaced persons coming from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan.
Creating awareness of the presence of these refugees among the Vassar community is a major goal of the organization Vassar Refugee Solidarity (VRS). Director of Communications and Operations Sophia Slater ’18 remarked in an emailed statement, “VRS was conceptualized as a way to explore how we could take action regarding the rapidly growing number of refugees, forcibly displaced persons, and asylum-seekers within our role as part of an educational institution. The organization seeks to combine student, faculty, administrator, and alumnae efforts to create a holistic response to worldwide displacement and forced migration.”
According to Assistant Director of Communications (and one of next year’s co-presidents) Zoe Zahariadis ’21, the organization includes a plethora of different roles and branches in which students can become involved. She explained, “The [Digital Initiatives Team] runs an English Language Exchange program with Vassar Students at the ReDi school in Berlin. We do hour-long conversation sessions weekly or twice weekly, just to practice English.”
The ReDi School of Digital Integration is a nonprofit digital school founded in 2016 that provides education and job opportunities for people applying for asylum in Germany. Connections with the ReDi school have expanded beyond VRS, and the school has teamed up with the Writing Center via VRS for a resume program, allowing ReDi students to Skype with tutors and work on crafting an effective resumé in English.
Zahariadis expressed that the exchange program puts a personal touch on the issue of refugees and resettlement, allowing refugees to be seen as real people instead of only statistics in the news. She said, “My partner and I talked about how much homework we have and how we hate Mondays, and it really makes it so personal. They’re not just numbers or pictures of people who had to flee these countries, they’re people just like me and you.”
The organization boasts many other sub-branches, including the Resettlement Team, the Consortium Group, the Oral Histories Program and the newly founded Rohingya Project. Slater noted, “VRS’s resettlement team has managed to work with local partners and faith organizations to help resettle two families and work with pre-existing communities of displaced people in our area and as far north as Albany.”
The Consortium of Forced Displacement Migration links Vassar with Bard College, Bennington College and Sarah Lawrence College, these being four institutions working together to bring the issue of forced displacement into academia. The Rohingya Project branch of the VRS tree was just created this year. It focuses specifically on the Rohingya diaspora, which affects people in Bangladesh, Myanmar and all over the world.
Slater stated, “[It is] our newest initiative that is run by a group of extremely motivated first- year students who were looking to develop their idea and working together has been incredibly rewarding. I am really looking forward to seeing how the initiative grows in the coming years.” She stressed that the organization intends to continue diversifying their projects, but also to deepen their current connections in order to plan the most helpful response to the issues at hand.
VRS has teamed up with a number of independent groups, both local and global, to help bring to light the issue of forcibly displaced persons. According to the VRS website, they partner with groups such as The Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, The Global Citizens Initiative, the International Institute for Education and Catholic Charities of Poughkeepsie.
VRS has also held and participated in many on- and off-campus events, ranging from the Mid-Hudson Solidarity March (a rally at the Poughkeepsie Post Office to support refugees and Muslims on Feb. 1, 2017) to lectures from professors and activists. Each of these groups and events helps the org reach its many goals in different ways, from supporting the physically and emotionally challenged, to supporting Syrian students and scholars to simply creating awareness of the crises on which they focus their efforts.
Zahariadis believes that such awareness is vital, and that many Vassar students do not realize how close to the Vassar community the refugee crisis really is: “You read about this stuff on the news and you see it online and you feel so geographically separated, but you don’t realize that this is also happening in your backyard. Often we don’t realize that [refugees] are everywhere and that it’s an issue that affects us all, no matter how far you think you are from the situation.”
Working with Vassar Refugee Solidarity can help students who have friends or family that are refugees connect with themselves and their histories more deeply. Zahariadis commented, “This is an issue that’s really important to me. My family were Greek refugees from Turkey. Because of that, my family has really instilled in me the desire and need to be aware and help those around you.”
Vassar students who would like to become involved with Vassar Refugee Solidarity should visit the organization’s website, refugeesolidarity.vassar.edu. On the website, students can find information and statistics about the refugee crisis and learn about different events the org is hosting. According to Zahariadis, VRS will also be accepting applications for more students to join the student and leadership teams. The group also has a Facebook page, which posts announcements for events.