Higher education can transform the landscape of refugee resettlement. Refugees face many barriers as they navigate complex health and social services, often without adequate finances and social support, and all while coping with resettlement stress and trauma. For example in the United States, refugees also lack the credit background and social security numbers necessary to secure safe and affordable housing upon arrival. Dr. Diya Abdo, Founder of Every Campus A Refuge (ECAR), discusses in this article how institutions of higher education can support the successful integration of refugees.
Universities have the necessary physical facilities and human resources to provide much needed temporary housing and community support for refugees.
Founded at Guilford College in North Carolina, the United States in 2015, Every Campus A Refuge (ECAR) revolutionizes refugee resettlement and enhances the educational, research, and service missions of colleges and universities. ECAR was inspired by Pope Francis who called on every European parish to host a refugee family. Just like parishes, college and university campuses are small cities with everything necessary (housing, cafeterias, clinics, and myriad human resources and expertise) to be able to do the same. This higher education initiative partners colleges and universities with local resettlement agencies to leverage campuses’ underutilized resources and provide newcomers with much needed support. (This map allows any US college or university to find its nearest refugee resettlement agency.)
Under the ECAR model, a local refugee resettlement agency assigns refugee cases (singles, couples, or families) to a college or university and supervises their experiences. Refugees then avail of free temporary housing and utilities and access to campus facilities and amenities. As ECAR was built around community-identified priorities as well as agency and dignity of new arrivals, the program creates sustainable partnerships between universities and local organizations and communities to facilitate refugee access to education, health, social, and cultural services beyond the usual resettlement process in the US. Students, faculty, staff, and community members are vetted and trained as culturally-responsive volunteers to provide case management support. They provide airport welcome, prepare campus housing, raise and collect funds and in-kind donations, share meals, act as cultural brokers, provide interpretation, assist with childcare and job-hunting, make important resettlement appointments, and assist with shopping, transportation, filling out government forms, finding off -campus housing, and moving off campus. At Guilford College, students can minor in Forced Migration and Resettlement Studies and earn credit for hosting refugees on Guilford's campus and supporting them in their resettlement.
Once refugees are financially ready (usually after 5-8 months), they transition to safe off-campus housing of their choice but continue to access ECAR support. The result is a softer landing and more dignified beginning for newcomers.
The flagship campus at Guilford College has hosted 66 refugees thus far; 18 Afghan evacuees will be hosted on Guilford’s campus in January of 2022. ECAR has been adopted by ten colleges and universities of varied sizes, like Wake Forest University (North Carolina), Lafayette College (Pennsylvania), and Northampton Community College (Pennsylvania); other institutions (like Russell Sage College in New York and Old Dominion University, a public institution in Virginia) have recently joined, responding to the urgent need for immediate housing and community support for Afghan evacuees. ECAR hopes to have at least ten percent of colleges and universities in the US be engaged in its effort over the next three years.
Research conducted by Guilford College shows a powerful impact: more than a dozen of hosted refugees reported a greater sense of financial stability and belonging while many student volunteers reported increased knowledge and understanding of refugee and immigrant issues. This is because such a model broadens the tent to mobilize higher education resources to support the professional development and wellbeing of hosted refugees.
In a striking example, an ECAR campus’s art department provided one of their hosted refugee guests, Ali Al-Khasrachi, an Iraqi artist and calligraphist who came to the US on a Special Immigrant Visa with his wife and three children, with free access to private studio space and art supplies. He was able to produce new artwork that was then exhibited in the campus gallery and, as a result, picked up by a large art gallery in the city. These opportunities allowed him to market his work which he now produces by commission. This experience, Ali has told us, has made him feel hopeful about his quality of life in the US.
What we learn from this story is that campus resources and community support can provide important opportunities for refugees; the ECAR model attends to the “whole person,” ensuring meaningful resettlement where refugees thrive rather than simply survive, and increasing their mental and physical health. Like Ali, other ECAR hosted guests have enjoyed access to resources (such as athletic clubs, musical ensembles, campus farms) in ways that feed their passions, gifts, and talents. Ali’s story also shows us how these resources and opportunities break the barriers to economic success and mobility. Ali’s commissioned artwork has provided additional income allowing his family to purchase a home and welcome another child into their lives. Those who enjoy Ali’s artwork and who are now his neighbors benefit in deeply important ways from successful refugee resettlement.
Refugees enrich our communities and lives. The ECAR model can lead to a meaningful infrastructure for refugee resettlement and support. Even if only ten percent of colleges and universities in the U.S. hosted just one family of five each, thousands of refugees would access immediate and dignified resettlement services and support. Several ECAR chapters (like Guilford College, Wake Forest University, and Lafayette College) continue to host refugee families for years, representing the capacity for a sustainable ecosystem of housing and community support beyond the current crisis and one grounded in dignity and agency for newcomers.
Guided by best practices and community-identified priorities, campus-based refugee support could significantly increase America’s resettlement capacity and engage its students in meaningful credit-bearing and service learning opportunities. It is our ideal that the “small communities” of colleges and universities should heed the call of Pope Francis everywhere in the world. Will your campus be the next refuge?
For more information on how your institution can collaborate with ECAR, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org