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Hosting refugees: Visiting professor gives talk on how universities can help families resettle

With President Donald Trump's recent executive order, the words "immigration" and "refugees" have been thrown around a lot. On Tuesday, Diya Abdo, chair of the creative writing program at Guilford College in Greensboro shared her perspective on how private universities can help refugees.

Abdo founded Every Campus a Refuge, a program that aims for each college campus to host a single refugee family and assist them in resettling. The talk—attended by about 30 people—was the first in the "Finding Sanctuary" speaker series hosted by the Duke Chapel this Spring.

“The refugee crisis is a perpetual crisis,” Abdo said. “As long as there is a conflict, there will be refugees. I myself am a child of Palestinian refugees. We were lucky. My family escaped the drudgery of a refugee camp, and lived a life of tenuous citizenry in the alternate homeland. Others around the world are not so lucky.”

Christy Lohr Sapp, associate dean for religious life, introduced Abdo, praising the work that her organization has done.

“Welcoming the stranger is a key tenet of many of our faith traditions and that is what 'Every Campus a Refuge' is about," Sapp said.

The daughter of Palestinian refugees who escaped to Jordan, Abdo said she was inspired by Pope Francis’s 2015 call for every parish in Europe to host a refugee family.

“I was getting tired of vigils. Of panels and teach-ins, of clicking the button and signing my name on an online petition," Abdo said. "That fall of 2015, I just wanted to be someone living in Europe who owned a car, to be part of that not-long-enough convoy of vehicles making its way south to carry back up the thousands-too-long convoy of humans making their way north. But I was in Greensboro."

However, she said she realized that although she was not in Europe, her current location—a college campus—could be a place to house refugees. 

Guilford College began by hosting one Ugandan refugee in January 2016. Abdo said the cost to operate the program was $300—the rest was raised by the community or other parts of the university.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for everybody involved," Abdo said. "The community comes together, drawing as many resources and skills—to give a family that desperately needs a home a safe refuge. However, this has to be done very carefully without exploiting or taking advantage of the people we give refuge to.”

To avoid potential exploitation, refugees are not asked to do interviews or participate in the university during their stay. So far, Guilford has hosted three groups in apartments and houses owned by the University, and is currently hosting one 11-person family.

“At Guilford College where I teach, we may righteously view our efforts as an extension of the institution’s core values and its history as part of the underground railroad, but we must also rightly see the other legacy of empire-building, colonialism and global politics," Abdo said.

She noted that hosting refugees requires a college to think of itself in a new way.

“What if we saw the university or college campus not as a disembodied group of learners but as a place?” Abdo asked.

There are now four other campuses hosting refugee families, including one community college in Pennsylvania, she said. The program at Guilford is working to create a manual of best practices for other universities interested in hosting a refugee family.



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