In mid-September, two months before the Paris terror attacks, an English professor at a North Carolina college proposed that campuses nationwide could be sanctuaries for Syrian refugees.
Diya Abdo is the daughter of Palestinian refugees who escaped to Jordan in the 1967 exodus. She came to America just before the Sept. 11 terror attacks as a graduate student. As a Muslim Arab from a displaced family, she understands being stereotyped in a new country, and she knows the internal struggle between fitting in and retaining cultural identity.
As an academic, she’s committed to educating and raising awareness about Muslims. She feels that responsibility ever more acutely at moments like these, as an impassioned political debate threatens to derail her hopes of hosting a Syrian family at Guilford College in Greensboro.
The North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has listed the state among those refusing to accept new Syrian refugees. A state representative, John Blust, has publicly called on Guilford to rescind its offer, calling it a “security matter.”
Then the U.S. House voted Thursday to cease Syrian refugee resettlement though President Obama has vowed to still allow in the promised 10,000 Syrian refugees next year, up from around 1,500 this year.
Abdo, 39, understands people are afraid. Even before the Paris attacks, she said some would say, “”Diya, yes, I love what you’re doing. But make sure they’re not ISIS.'”
“What happened in Paris and in Lebanon is heinous, it’s terrible, and it creates fear. You can transform your fear into hatred or transform it into empathy, kindness and compassion,” she said. “See what happened there and transform it into a fear for Syrians, for which (terrorism) happens all the time.”
Word of Abdo’s “Every Campus a Refuge” campaign has spread slowly, but faculty and students from about a dozen schools, including, Yale, Amherst and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have expressed interest. Just this week Abdo received an e-mail from a communications director at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa. saying the school wants to get involved.
Abdo felt moved to do something tangible after the now-iconic image of a drowned Syrian child – washed ashore and face down in the shallow water – awoke the general public to the refugee crisis. Then, days later, Pope Francis called on every Catholic parish in Europe to take in a Syrian family.
Abdo had been feeling powerless and heard the pope’s call as a personal challenge. What if her small liberal arts school used the resources unique to higher education communities to house, mentor and support a Syrian family in transition? And what if every college in America did the same?
“It came from a deep desperation to do something material and immediate,” she said. “How can I use where I am, what I am, more deeply?”
Abdo reasoned that college campuses, with their housing, cafeterias, health clinics, and plethora of other social, academic and human resources, were natural conduits for refugees into their new life.
Permission from the Guilford administration came easily. It’s a Quaker-founded institution rooted in a deep tradition of inclusion. An Underground Railroad ran through its campus during the Civil War. It welcomed Japanese-American students during World War II.
“We’re trying to do the right thing during this humanitarian crisis within our powers to do so,” Guilford College President Jane Fernandes said. “It just seems like it’s our moral responsibility to do something if we can.”
Fanta Aw, assistant vice president of campus life at American University, and president of NAFSA: Association of International Educators (formerly the National Association for Foreign Student Advisers), said it’s an intriguing idea, but may be challenging to implement widely. Even so, she imagined a scaled down version could be valuable.
“Where I do see the role of universities is the opportunity for when (refugees) do come in, they can be collaborators for some of the adjustment and cross-cultural engagement that is needed,” she said. “That is where I see real potential for universities.”
When refugees first arrive, a resettlement agency provides many of these services, but they do depend on volunteers and the broader community to welcome and engage them. The refugees receive a one-time stipend through the federal government for housing and other basic needs intended to help them through their first 90 days. In North Carolina, each refugee gets an average of $1,100 while they acclimate and look for employment, according to Latosha Walker, of the state’s African Services Coalition, a nonprofit resettlement agency.
Finding affordable housing often means they’re placed in rough neighborhoods. They need medical services and food and transportation. Their children need school or babysitters. And then, there’s the mental barriers. Ripped from their homes and having survived an unimaginable pilgrimage, the realities of living in America may clash with idealized expectations.
Guilford College has already identified several on-campus housing options. Deep Roots, a local grocery cooperative, plans to create a credit line for the family, with donations from the community, so they can shop for free at the market. The local newspaper’s editorial board called Abdo’s initiative “inspired.”
Walker has assured Abdo that the next Syrian refugees sent to North Carolina will be placed at Guilford. The agency anticipated knowing who was coming early next year. Additional processing can take up to another six months before the refugees actually arrive, though this timeframe may be further complicated by recent politics.
“You don’t get to get on a signup sheet and you’re here,” Walker said. “It’s very intense, we get all of their background information and understand why they are seeking refuge.” She then added, “They’re not here to destroy someone else’s life — they are here to save their own.”
Ellen Beattie, who runs programs for the International Rescue Committee, said she was touched by Abdo’s campaign. The money the refugees would save on rent, and the support system from the students and faculty could accelerate their adjustment, she said.
Her only reservation is that agencies strive to use the first 90 days to help refugees find a sense of normalcy, so putting them in a temporary living situation might ultimately be disruptive. Also, the agencies aim to foster independence so refugees don’t become dependent on the services and volunteers.
Still, Beattie, who has been resettling refugees for 13 years, commended Abdo’s effort.
“That is who we are as a nation, and that is a great expression of that,” Beattie said. “We don’t turn our back on those in need.”
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