“Every Campus a Refuge” Response Letter

Two students from the Kenan Refugee Project, Julie Williams and Sanjidah Ahmed, wrote a letter to the editor explaining the negative consequences of the Every Campus a Refuge movement. Read below to learn more about what effective community engagement looks like.

Last week, The Chronicle published an article on Diya Adbo’s program Every Campus a Refuge. Through the program, universities host refugee families on their campus to provide rent relief and assist in their resettlement.

At first glance, this project seems a simple, easy way for universities to support resettling refugees. Why wouldn’t Duke participate? Duke has millions of dollars to spend and the cost of sponsoring the family on already constructed university housing would be minimal. Refugees on Duke’s Central Campus…what’s the problem?

With a closer look, this idea raises more than a few concerns. First, between the mold, the parties and the safety concerns, Central Campus would be a wildly inappropriate environment for a family. Second, critical to a refugee’s ability to negotiate the trying and often traumatic transition to life in the United States is their ability to develop strong community networks. Refugees rely heavily on each other with questions about jobs, school, health care, etc. Severing them from such networks deprives them of what is potentially a critical source of support. Isolating a family from their community in suboptimal housing, far from amenities, and surrounded by often loud, frequently drunk and incessantly intense 18- to 21-year-olds, somehow seems less than ideal. Culture shock for refugees is more or less inevitable, but add the culture shock of American college campus life and the result may do more harm than good.

Abdo is right in that, as a university, we must go beyond panels, teach-ins and online petitions. We have the opportunity to reimagine the role of the university as a hub of intellectual creativity with resources that can be utilized to positively impact in the refugee community. Duke, could for example:  offer free recertification programs for professionals who can no longer practice in the U.S. (doctors, lawyers and nurses); foster strong community partnerships and create programs to assist refugees with everyday life, such as offering free health clinics through the medical school and legal assistance through the law school; offer employment for refugees and; create a scholarship program for refugee youth in Durham, who will grow up under the shadow of the university, yet will likely never be able to walks the grounds as one of its own.

In the wake of the Trump presidency, there is a growing collective conscious surrounding refugee issues. People at Duke and beyond are inspired to take action and demand action from the university—and this is absolutely essential. However, we should critically assess and reflect on how and why we act.

This reflection means being respectful of the communities we are working with, recognizing refugee community members as our equals, and thinking critically about both what we can offer and what refugees actually need. We must realize that we are not glorious saviors and people’s problems do not exist for our fixing. No one has more understanding or more stake than community-members themselves. If we have any interest in genuine engagement with the refugee community, then we need a long-term commitment from the university that centers on collaboration and prioritizes refugee voices.

With the resources available at universities like Duke, we have both the incredible potential and moral obligation to act. Let us not stand still.