At the end of 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees counted a total of approximately 70 million forcibly displaced people all around the world, a combination of internally displaced people, refugees and asylum seekers. Refugees alone comprise 28 percent of that figure, over half of whom are under the age of 18 (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “UNHCR Statistics,” 2018).
Though such a global crisis demands global solutions, members of our own campus community have taken an active role in aiding those included in such overwhelming statistics. Vassar Refugee Solidarity (VRS), a campus organization that works to innovate solutions to alleviate some aspects of the global refugee crisis, aims to incorporate student, faculty and administrative voices in ad- dressing these circumstances.
Professor of History on the Marion Musser Lloyd ’32 Chair and Co-Founder of VRS Maria Höhn, along with VRS student leaders, founded the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement and Education after reaching out to other colleges to explore how liberal arts schools could educate their students on the challenges of forced migration. The Consortium is comprised of professors from Vassar, Bard College Annandale, Bard College Berlin, Bennington and Sarah Lawrence Colleges. On Sept. 6, the Consortium received an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Implementation Grant of $2.5 million to be shared among the four schools over four years. The Consortium has also partnered with the Council for European Studies, whose digital platform EuropeNow will disseminate the Consortium’s research and pedagogical innovations.
The Consortium will use the grant to create a shared curriculum between the affiliated schools and to develop a correlate sequence in Forced Migration. The grant will allow students to create their own initiatives to participate in community-engaged learning.
This new method of hands-on education about forced migration will greatly expand the work in which Consortium participants and VRS members have engaged. As President of the College Elizabeth Bradley expressed in an email, “More than 1 billion people—fifteen per- cent of the global population—are migrant, with 30 percent of them relocating internationally and 70 percent moving within countries.”
Bradley continued, “Developing models to address the educational needs of this population can improve their futures and allow them to engage meaningfully in their new homes. At the same time, the region benefits because displaced people bring with them enormous gifts and experiences from which we can all learn and benefit.”
The idea of applying to the Mellon Foundation for a grant developed in Spring 2016, when Professor Höhn, VRS students and faculty members from the Consortium schools met to discuss how they could address the issue. Höhn elaborated, “We spoke about what our responsibilities as educators are to prepare our students for the challenges of the 21st century.”
Höhn, in close collaboration with the other schools and student leaders in VRS, wrote and submitted a Planning Grant in Fall 2016, which would allow them to plan a larger project; they received that grant of $137,000 in December of that year and spent the next year developing new classes and initiatives, essentially planning the creation of a correlate sequence across the Consortium schools. This curriculum will prepare students not only for graduate and law schools, but also for fields that deal with issues of migration and immigration. As Höhn explained, “[We] discussed what kind of projects can we do, what kinds of things we can do to help…the refugees themselves, refugee students but also refugee scholars.”
Vassar students and faculty even incorporated the idea of using technology to connect refugee students in other countries with Vassar. Höhn explained, “[We discussed how we can] use digital humanities to explore whether we can teach classes between Vassar and, say, students in a refugee camp in Africa or Jordan or in Lebanon.” In the Spring 2018 semester, Höhn taught a class involving a group of Vassar students along with six refugee high school students in Berlin, facilitated by a student organization in Berlin.
Initiatives such as these will support the study of the complex and expanding issue of displacement as a way to contribute positively to those affected by it. Since funds from the Mellon Foundation cannot go directly to refugees, the colleges will use the grant to create a curriculum that helps students understand how people become forced migrants or refugees—one of the greatest challenges facing today’s generation.
Höhn began working on the Implementation Grant in Spring 2018 and submitted it to the Mellon Foundation in July. VRS students played an important role in formulating ideas throughout the process: “I really tried to build this with students to get the student perspective,” Höhn stated. The students attended all of the Consortium meetings, presenting their own initiatives and ideas. The Student Coordinator of the Consortium for Vassar Matthew Brill-Carlat ’19, who took over for Co-Founder of VRS Anish Kanoria ’18, worked closely with Professor Höhn.
Brill-Carlat explained that the grant is split up into multiple parts for every affiliated school, which includes a pool of money to which new projects can apply, a developed curriculum of courses and an overarching signature project. Vassar’s signature project, run by Director of the Urban Education Initiative John Bradley, is a three-week residential pre-college program for Hudson Valley high school students who have been forcibly displaced. The students will take classes with Vassar professors, attend financial aid and application workshops and contribute to a final project. Positions will be available for Vassar students to work on this three-week program.
The grant will also allow students to work locally and overseas on research projects related to forced migration, partnering Vassar students with displaced students across the globe. These opportunities include, but are not limited to, potential study abroad programs.
However, there is also a need for local work with displaced families in Dutchess County. “Forced migration is a part of our culture,” stated Höhn. “[We want to] devise ways to engage with displaced individuals in our own community.” Some of the local work in which VRS already engages is supplying local displaced families with clothing and household items, sometimes traveling to other cities to do so. Höhn explained, “Vassar Refugee Solidarity also frequently goes to Albany and Schenectady to meet with refugee families who arrived from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. VRS also laid the foundation of the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance (MHRSA). Most recently, VRS and MHRSA donated $10,000 to buy a used van for the refugee families in Albany.” Although it has been challenging to support refugee families with the current political climate, Vassar Refugee Solidarity is working diligently to help in any way it can.
There are myriad avenues for interested students to get involved with the initiatives led by VRS. VRS subsections include Mid-Hudson Community Engagement, Digital Initiatives, the Rohingya Project, Resettlement and the Oral Histories project. Leader of Resettlement and VRS Treasurer Sabrina Surgil ’21 highlighted the Resettlement portion, explaining that it works with other organizations separate from the school in the region, such as New York for Syrian Refugees and the Islamic Center in Schenectady. In regard to the grant received by the Consortium, Surgil added, “The grant is definitely going to help students at Vassar and students at the other Consortium schools with educational opportunities and ways for the students to start their own initiatives.”
The grant received by the Consortium will significantly impact Vassar’s academic teaching on forced migration, with the goal of students eventually continuing on to work as policy makers, as legal specialists or in humanitarian fields. “I think it’s really wonderful that we have this chance… how many [student] organizations can actually say they’ve played [a role in changing] Vassar’s curriculum?” said Co-President and Head of Communications and Digital Initiatives of VRS Zoë Zahariadis ’21.
According to Brill-Carlat, the first introductory class of the new correlate, entitled “Lexicon of Forced Migration,” will be available starting in Spring 2019. More immediately, the Consortium will hold a workshop on Oct. 26 and 27 in the College Center, which will gather students, faculty and some administrative offices to finalize the syllabus for the introductory class and discuss the way forward now that the Consortium has received the grant. Participants will also focus on student engagement across the Consortium schools, and local high school teachers will be attending to see how they can incorporate education on forced migration into their school curricula.
Considering the enthusiasm for the creation of these new academic pathways, and members of the Consortium still recognize the need to center the viewpoints of those whom they will be studying. As Brill-Carlat stated, “We want to prioritize the writings and voices and research and theories of people who have experience in forced displacement, because if we’re going to be learning about something we should be learning from people who have first-hand knowledge of it.”
For students seeking more information on how to get involved with Vassar Refugee Solidarity, contact Matthew Brill-Carlat at mabrillcarlat[at] vassar.edu or Zoë Zahariadis at zzahariadis[at]vassar.edu. For students interested in the Correlate Sequence in Forced Migration, please contact Professor Maria Höhn at mahoehn[at]vassar.edu.