A first-generation Palestinian born and raised in Jordan, and the child of Palestinian refugees, Diya Abdo is associate professor of English and Chair of the Department of English and Creative Writing at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Less than two years ago, she was so moved by the terrible images from Syria, and inspired by Pope Francis’ call on every parish to take in refugees, that she founded Every Campus A Refuge in September of 2015.
In Diya’s native Arabic language, the word for university or college “campus” means “refuge,” and she recognized that university and college campuses have everything necessary to live – housing, food, care, skills – to take in refugees and support them as they begin their lives in their new homes. Like the Pope’s request to every parish, Diya’s initiative calls on every college and university in the world to partner with their local refugee resettlement agencies to house refugees on campus grounds and assist them in resettlement.
Within 18 months of its inception, Guilford College, a very small liberal arts college in the South, partnered with one of Greensboro’s local refugee resettlement agencies, CWS Greensboro, to host a total of 27 refugees, 17 of which were children between the ages of 10 months and 17 years old, in Guilford College campus houses and apartments. Two of the Syrian families hosted by Guilford have successfully settled in Greensboro. Currently, the campus is hosting an 11-member family and a 5-member family.
Under this program, each refugee family is temporarily housed until they are able to resettle successfully in Greensboro. They are provided with free rent, utilities, Wi-Fi, use of college facilities and resources, as well as a large community of support in the form of the college campus and its friends. The daily work of hosting and assisting in resettlement is done by trained Guilford community volunteers: Guilford students, alumni, faculty, administrators and staff; their spouses; faculty, students, and staff from nearby Bennett College; local faith communities; and Guilford friends.
All of the volunteers utilize their personal skills towards the common goal of hosting and assisting refugees. Students are also able to contribute to the effort by drawing on their disciplinary training to research, write, create artwork, and produce podcasts for the initiative’s public forum, as well as design and implement assessment instruments to evaluate the project’s work. Participating individuals receive a powerful experiential education on pressing global issues (refugee crisis and forced displacement), while addressing domestic concerns, including immigrant and refugee life in Greensboro. They do this all while actively engaging in real-world principled problem-solving. This place-based educational experience, connected as it is to real, rather than theoretical people, has transformed volunteers’ lives and, through their efforts, positively impacted the refugees’ lives in Greensboro.
By hosting refugees and teaching students about the challenges that many people face across the globe, students feel like part of a movement that really makes a difference in the world. Most importantly, this “radical hospitality” makes a clear statement about the institution’s commitment to compassion, empathy, and awareness, while helping to shape more positive public narratives and community discourses surrounding refugees and immigrants – something which is especially pertinent and necessary more than ever.
Most recently, Diya created the Every Campus A Refuge 16 credit minor, which pilots at Guilford College in the Fall of 2107. In this Principled Problem Solving Experience, minor students will learn about what creates refugees, centralize refugee voices and experiences, train in how to organize around and advocate for refugee issues, create and implement projects that assist refugees, and work with refugees hosted by Every Campus a Refuge.
Every Campus A Refuge is now spreading, with campuses large and small, heeding the call and actively hosting refugees. Other participating universities include Wake Forest University, Agnes Scott College, and Rollins College, among others. Other universities, such as Princeton, Brandeis, and Georgetown are mobilizing to make their university a refuge.
The initiative has been recognized at the White House and the Sixth Annual President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge Gathering. It has been featured on NPR’sAll Things Considered with Ari Shapiro and WUNC’s The State of Things with Frank Stasio, and inThe Washington Post and the State Department Toolkit on how universities can help refugees.
Diya and Every Campus A Refuge recently won the Gulf South Summit’s 2017 Outstanding Service-Learning Collaboration in Higher Education Award. Diya’s teaching, research, and scholarship focus on Arab women writers and Arab and Islamic feminisms. She has also published poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. Her public essays focus on the intersection of gender, political identity, and vocation. Recently, she has been speaking widely at conferences and college and university campuses about Every Campus A Refuge. Diya lives in Greensboro with her husband and two daughters, ages 3 and 7.
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