Could U.S. colleges provide homes for refugees? This movement thinks so

By Mariah Alanskas/Kent State NewsLab

In 2015, Pope Francis called upon all European parishes to take in one refugee family each, while he himself vowed to take in two families within the walls of the Vatican City.

Diya Abdo, an English and creative writing professor at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., found this news while flipping through a local newspaper. She felt inspired to “heed” the Pope’s call due to her position as an educator and her family’s history of displacement.

“I think I really deeply, deeply connected with them because not only were they refugees and I sort of understood what that meant, but that there were also Arab refugees,” Abdo said. She was born and raised in Jordan after her parents left Palestine in 1967.

A few months later, Abdo helped create Every Campus a Refuge (ECAR). Students and volunteers at Guildford College connected with their local resettlement agency and other groups to begin  “hosting” their first refugee family. Since 2016, other universities and colleges have joined the movement.

Abdo’s parents lived in their new country displaced with refugee status until they could eventually become citizens.

“The important part of my story is that I was raised by my grandmother,” Abdo said. “I grew up on her stories of Palestine and what it was like to be Palestinian and also away from your home.” 

Abdo came to the U.S. as an international student to study literature. Shortly thereafter were the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The subsequent backlash against Muslim communities inspired Abdo to focus her research on Arab woman writers and Arab and Islamic feminism.

She completed her degree, returned to Jordan to teach, then came back to the U.S. in 2008.

After the pope’s message, Abdo was reminded of her “imbibed” experience of growing up in a refugee family and becoming a first-time American herself as a student years later. She began to consider the ways in which her own college campus could provide aid in the refugee crisis in America— specifically, Syrian refugees.

From the outside looking in, most colleges and university housing contain what you would imagine — students, most between the ages of 18 and 24, are living among a stereotypical collection of mismatched furniture, scattered school supplies and packs of ninety-nine cent ramen.

But Abdo sees those apartments and rental houses as homes surrounded by all the necessary services and amenities that refugees need when they arrive in the U.S.

“I was really inspired by that call on small communities to do the work of welcome and hospitality,” Abdo said. “I felt that a university, which is like a parish or a small city, has all the things like housing and cafeterias, clinics and career services, gyms and libraries, galleries and all the things that you would need to support people.

Today, there are 18 ECAR chapters currently hosting refugee families; 25 chapters working to be ECAR campuses; seven “resettlement” chapters, where campuses house refugees but do not have a contract with ECAR; and three inactive chapters, where campuses have hosted families before, but aren’t currently. The only Ohio school on this list is Denison University, whose chapter is currently inactive.

Even though Kent State University is not included in the 25 listed chapters, some hope it one day achieves ECAR status.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, 25,519 persons were admitted to the United States as refugees during 2022. Most of which were placed in apartments across the country that may be close to a grocery store, but not a bus station, school or the many other resources needed to create a new life.

“[Through a university], you can make those resources available, and make the transition not just to have a self-sustaining life, but also a fulfilling life,” said Julie Mazzei, the director of the School of Multidisciplinary Social Sciences and Humanities at Kent State University, who hopes to make both the university and city of Kent more open to refugees.

“The idea is that the university would provide housing in some sort of transitional, temporary housing, and then whatever other resources we could provide,” Mazzei said. “We’re pretty excited that it seems like we might be able to provide access to the meal plans. We’re also hoping to provide access to English as a second language classes and access to the rec center.”

For the university, Mazzei explains that this program wouldn’t just benefit refugees, but also the students and community.

Mazzei said hosting refugees on campus could open locals and students up to new people and experiences, especially since many students at ECAR campuses become heavily involved in providing refugee support.

ECAR at Guilford College. Photo: Used with permission from Diya Abdo)

Abdo also agrees this is a major plus to the program, as many students and younger refugees can relate and connect with each other. 

“The students who are volunteering or doing this for credit or doing this sort of a student club, they’re learning a lot about a global issue at the local level, and they’re also learning compassion,” Abdo said. “I like to think of it as studying abroad at home.

Although Kent isn’t considered an ECAR campus yet, Mazzei and others are in discussion with local landlords and apartment complexes close to the university in hopes of finding pro bono spaces to be used on a rotating basis for refugee families.

One of the biggest issues resettlement agencies face is limited housing for refugees. That’s a challenge for ECAR campuses, too. 

“Our residential facilities are completely full, like brimming at the seams, and we don’t really have don’t have extensive facilities that would work apartment style for a refugee or a refugee family,” Mazzei said. “So our next step is to try and work with local apartment complexes or landlords to see if someone is willing to donate that space.”

Despite there being obstacles to overcome for both current and future ECAR campuses, the access to education, mental health services, grocery stores and other services and amenities around college campuses has been invaluable for giving refugees solid ground to stand on.

“What surprised me was the day I came to America, I came frightened, like a foot backwards and a foot forward. I was scared, but when I came and was surprised at the airport with the welcome, [ECAR volunteers] welcomed us , the students and the organization,” said an ECAR refugee participant in a published study by ECAR. “Believe me, I felt like I was with my family. I was relieved, I was relaxed . . . I started crying. I felt that I wasn’t a stranger [in a] strange country.”

This story was originally published by Kent State NewsLab, a collaborative news outlet publishing journalism by Kent State students.

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