Displaced youth find place on Vassar campus

A cohort of 18 high school students—all former refugees—painted this colorful mural over the summer as the culmination of the New Americans Program. With the aim of acclimating to college life, they also took classes and interacted with student counselors. Courtesy of Qiwen Tan

In fall of 2015, Professor of German History and American Studies Maria Höhn, like the rest of the world, was struck by the unfolding humanitarian rights disaster in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad was using chemical weapons to crush protests against his regime. Many refugees fleeing Syria found footing in Germany, where Höhn was living that summer.

“Every day there were pictures,” said Höhn. “Another 10,000 arrived in Munich today, another 10,000 the day after.” The refugees badly needed shelter, medication and food. The state government was ill-prepared, so underequipped volunteers stepped in. Höhn recalled, “They phoned pharmacists in the middle of the night, asking for baby powder, diapers.”

On the Miscellany News database, Höhn performed a keyword search for “refugee.” The professor found articles describing how Vassar students raised money for Greeks displaced by bombing from the Turks, and how Vassar students sent aid to their peers organizing aid for refugees of the Spanish Civil War. “We were inspired by thinking about the past,” reflected Höhn.

That fall, at Vassar, the need for action was simple and urgent: “If we were able to do it then, we should be able to do it now … right away we had students jump in and we started organizing,” Höhn said. The first teach-in on the crisis was held Oct. 8, 2015. By fall break, Vassar Refugee Solidarity (VRS) was formed.

Although he wasn’t around for the inception of VRS, Matthew Brill-Carlat ’19 became the student liaison between the organization and Höhn. Four years after the refugee crisis first demanded the action of Vassar students, Brill-Carlat sat with Höhn and I in her Swift Hall office. We discussed the fruits of the consortium so far and the work yet to come.

Höhn and Brill-Carlat agreed that Vassar has an institutional obligation to respond to mass displacement. “I think we have not plumbed the bottom of that yet,” Brill-Carlat said emphatically when I ask what that responsibility looks like. “To stay true to the educational mission of the school—prepare students to respond to displacement…to engage with local and global communities, provide the sort of educational opportunities in order to fulfill that mission.”

In 2016, Vassar came together with Bard, Bennington, Sarah Lawrence College and the New School to form the Consortium on Forced Migration Displacement and Education (CFMDE). Höhn was tasked with applying for grant money, and Brill-Carlat again served as the student liaison for VRS. Höhn admits it was an arduous process: “It’s a big undertaking to write a grant application, to get everyone on board, to figure out a budget. We did workshops, six or seven with the Consortium to think about what a curriculum would look like, and how we would we share the resources between our colleges.”

In 2018, the Consortium was awarded a $2.5 million dollar grant from the Mellon Fund, which broadly aims to strengthen the humanities, arts, higher education and cultural heritage, to continue their work.

One investment from the grant will come to fruition soon. The Consortium worked with the Scholar Rescue Fund to bring a microbiologist from Nigeria, whose name Höhn could not disclose due to privacy concerns. Vassar will provide the scientist with resources to conduct her research and teach, but the visiting scholar piece of the Consortium will allow her to travel between the Consortium schools.

Another function of the grant is to address the confluence of displacement and mental health, which Brill-Carlat describes as “an issue that does not scale up.” He emphasizes that the nature of displaced communities changes how therapy is traditionally delivered: “[I]t cannot be a prototypical one patient, one doctor situation.” Rather, psychologists going to work with displaced communities need to have an anthropological and historical understanding of with whom they are working.

“If you want to go out into the world you have to be culturally sensitive and trained and understand that other cultures function differently…that learning can happen in graduate school…it has to happen earlier,” explained Höhn.

Höhn and Brill-Carlat are currently organizing the Global Displacement and Mental Health Conference, which Vassar will host from Nov. 8 to Nov. 9. “We’re bringing together some of the leading academics in mental health and humanities and social sciences, practitioners, activists and funders,” Brill-Carlat said about the conference’s significance. Some of the most important organizations working with displaced peoples will be there, including the International Rescue Committee and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The latest Vassar program to come out of the Mellon Fund money is the New Americans program. Just after campus emptied out and the class of 2019 graduated, 18 high school students, all former refugees living in Albany, NY, came to Vassar. The program was headed by Höhn and Brill-Carlat, alongside a team of Vassar faculty and student-counselors. For two weeks in the summer student participants lived, worked, created and studied on campus. They received tutoring and took classes taught by Vassar professors.

Erin Clark ’20 gushed about her experience as a student counselor in the program over email: “I had so many incredible conversations with the students. We talked about hopes and dreams for our futures…we talked about high school … and what we would do to change the world.” The diversity in the program garnered rich experiences for the students and counselors. “[They] talked to us and to each other about language, about what they missed home, friends, fresh fruit, kind neighbors, and how they spent their time,” said Clark.

The capstone of the New Americans Program was to paint a bright new mural on the deep red broadside of the barn at the Vassar Farm and Ecological preserve. Joe Wiswell ’20, also a student counselor, reflected on the poignant moment of painting the barn with the students. “It was a lot of work in the hot sun…but we came out with a product that I think everybody kind of felt like they contributed to. They were able to share something about themselves through that. I think it was meaningful to them to be able to express themselves in that way.”

The ultimate goal of the New Americans Program is to prepare displaced students to attend college, maybe one like Vassar, as Höhn wishes. But that it is a lofty goal, not only considering the beyond difficult circumstances of the students, but also of the U.S. government’s position on admitting refugees into the country. In 2016, VRS had worked for months to bring Syrian, Iraqi and Congolese refugees to Poughkeepsie. They raised money, collected furniture and finally got notice that 80 families were coming, and imminently.

Then came Donald Trump’s halt on immigration from Muslim majority countries. Ultimately, only two of the families made it to Poughkeepsie. As the world chills to the needs of displaced people, it is heartwarming that people like Höhn and Brill-Carlat and the institutions in the Consortium are taking action, one conference, refugee scholar and mural at a time.

[Correction (Nov. 6, 2019): An earlier version of this article misnamed the organization that gave the consor- tium the grant. The organization’s correct name is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, not the “Mellon Fund.” Additionally, one counselor’s name was misspelled. His last name is “Wiswell,” not “Winswell.”]

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