“Reimagining the University in a Time of Crisis – Every Campus a Refuge Campaign”

The “Every Campus a Refuge” campaign is calling on each university campus to host one Syrian refugee family as they arrive and transition into life in the U.S. A truly wonderful idea and effort that SRGSTEL sincerely hopes gains much steam.

“…[W]hat do academic institutions do with broken hearts? With the dead and dying bodies? With the endless convoy of humanity trying to make its way from misery to the unknown? What is our responsibility as teachers, students, and administrators of higher learning? What is our complicity as institutions built on the lands of the dispossessed and displaced? Our go-to is to “objectively” educate, raise-consciousness, lift awareness.  Surely, these are more than admirable goals, for what is nobler than the desire to impart knowledge, broaden horizons, and engender meaningful, productive and useful conversation – to challenge and engage? Fundamentally, however, these are endeavors firmly grounded in, and ones which facilitate, the detachment and de-politicization of academic institutions. They are ensconced in the life of the (innocent) mind. And if we are lucky, they might extend to the belief that the mind will influence the soul, which will influence the body which will then do.

What if we saw the university or college campus not as a disembodied beehive of thinkers and learners but as a place, as much a body as it is a mind? And of course a campus is a body. It is a body politic, a self-sufficient, self-governing, self-regulating city. The word for a university or college “campus” in Arabic is haram; it means a physical space that is both “sacred” and “inviolable,” a sanctuary, a refuge…[C]ould we not then see the college or university campus as similarly responsible as a “country” or as a “parish” and capable of hosting refugees?

What I am suggesting here is not your average college or university move. I am not suggesting that universities should simply sponsor refugee students to obtain higher education, a limited action, which benefits far fewer individuals, generally those with the least physical and emotional needs.  What I am suggesting entails a radical reimagining of what a college or university campus can and should be – a physical place of refuge in times of crisis. If a campus hosts a refugee family, with small children and elders especially, then that homes much larger numbers and ones with greater physical needs. Campuses are organically well-suited for this. They have housing, cafeterias, clinics and plenty of human resources, expertise and connections to provide financial, material, legal, social and political assistance. In fact, a college or university has more human and material resources than most other organizations. And even though this move is not a traditionally educational gesture, it is educational to the core. What better education for the university and college students than direct engagement in caring for their fellow humans rather than simply learning about the crisis or raising funds for it? What better skills than humaneness and principled problem solving? What better values than justice and community? Students can engage this effort in countless ways including helping the family with language acquisition, or the children with homework, or acting as much needed “cultural brokers” as the family navigates its way through the resettlement process. And, very traditionally, refugee family members could also be welcome to attend college classes.

It is an incredible opportunity for everybody involved. Imagine it: a community comes together, drawing on its many skills, resources and expertise (in law, in medicine, in language, in advocacy, in planning.) to give a family that desperately needs a safe home, a safe refuge. However, this has to be done without exploiting or taking advantage of the refugee family. It must be done with intentionally crafted attention to their humanity, needs and integrity. At Guilford College where I teach, for example, where we might righteously see these efforts as an extension of our institution’s core values and our historical legacy as part of the Underground Railroad, we must also rightly see them as necessitated by another legacy we have inherited – that of empire-building, colonialism and global politics which have displaced and dispossessed the indigenous peoples of this land (on which Guilford is built) and others around the globe. As an institution, we must engage in these meaningful acts of solidarity while simultaneously subjecting them to rigorous self-awareness and criticism.”

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