Diya Abdo presents dialogue on refugee crisis

On Monday, Sept. 24, Associate Professor of English Dr. Diya Abdo hosted a talk in Dana Auditorium where she discussed refugee settlement and the refugee communities at Guilford. She spoke about her work with Every Campus a Refuge, explaining the process of taking in refugees from across the globe and providing them a sanctuary on campus.

With over 25.4 million refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Guilford constantly seeks out opportunities to help the cause.

“The refugee crisis is a perpetual crisis,” said Abdo. “As long as there has been conflict, there have been refugees.”

Today, media coverage of refugees is often flooded with statistics that speak to the millions of individuals forced to flee due to persecution, war or violence at home. Although these numbers speak to the size of this issue, such statistics often overwhelm the individuality of the stories of each refugee. With this in mind, ECAR seeks to create genuine connections with people in need, bringing about change one family at a time.

Abdo, a child of Palestinian refugees, was inspired to actively help the crisis after seeing Austrian activists assist Syrian refugees cross the border from Hungary to Germany. Around the same time, Pope Francis declared parishes a place of refuge, and Abdo realized that campuses were not so different.

“A parish is exactly what we are,” said Abdo. “A parish is a small community bound by shared values, shared ethos, shared faith. But it’s a kind of place that has all of the necessary resources, the necessary housing, the skills, to support an incoming family. And that’s exactly what Guilford is, what every campus is.”

From the Underground Railroad to Jewish refugees brought in during World War II, Guilford has had a history of the dispossessed finding refuge at its campus, and Abdo sees no reason to stop now.

“We have been a place of welcome,” said Abdo. “We have been a place of refuge. It’s in our DNA.”

Throughout her talk, Abdo emphasized that as an academic institution, Guilford has the responsibility to not only “objectively educate” students about refugees but to also create real connections with them instead. Abdo defined this as “place-based” learning.

ECAR volunteers are directly responsible for helping the refugees resettle. They welcome them at the airport, get them situated in their new home, share meals with them and help out with anything else to make the transition as smooth as possible.

In terms of making Guilford suitable for refugees, Abdo described ECAR as a “radical reimagining” of how campus space and resources should be stewarded.

According to Abdo, when refugees come into the United States, each individual is given $925 for their future. With refugee resettlement agencies having their funds cut drastically in recent years, Abdo was determined to meet challenging needs and use every inch of the campus to resettle refugees.

“What ECAR does is remove all of that financial stress from the first five or six months,” said Abdo. “ECAR covers everything. We cover housing, utilities, food, anything else that’s needed. And then when families move off, we support them as well. What that does is, it gives people time to adjust.”

One of the families ECAR assisted included Ali, his wife and three children. Ali’s family came all the way from Iraq and Guilford took them in.

“Ali is an artist. He’s a calligraphist,” said Abdo. “And so obviously, one of the things a campus also has is an art studio and art supplies. And so he was able to produce some work, and we were able to exhibit that in the art gallery, another thing a campus has. Where else is there housing, a cafeteria and an art gallery?”

As for the future of ECAR, Amelia Wellman, senior and ECAR volunteer, believes the program will continue to grow exponentially with Guilford being one of the leaders of this growth. In January, the United Nations asked Guilford’s ECAR program to join their Together Campaign and speak at the United Nations Together Campaign Summit. For many, including Wellman, this event was a huge indicator of the program’s growth.

“While there are colleges that are hesitant to do an ECAR program, the interest nationwide is just skyrocketing,” said Wellman.

Attendees took note of the success of the program and found new opportunities to help. First-year Abdullah Ali connected with ECAR after the presentation.

“I would consider volunteering because I relate to the topic,” Ali said. “My family is also Palestinian, and I’m from Jordan. I feel like I have to give back to the community.”

As Every Campus a Refuge continues to grow on campus, Abdo reminded attendees of Guilford’s responsibility as an academic institution.

“We need to do this, not because we’re great,” said Abdo. “We need to do this because we’ve inherited this country’s legacy of empire building, colonialism and global politics, which have displaced the dispossessed and indigenous people of this land and of others around the world.

“We’re part of this country that’s creating a great deal of conflict around the world. It’s our responsibility. We’re accountable.”