Welcoming the Stranger: Catholic Colleges Respond to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Twelve million.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, that is the estimated number of people currently affected by the conflict in Syria. As Professor Neha Agarwal of La Roche College commented during a campus activity focused on the refugee crisis, “It’s easy for us to picture 100 of something, but wrapping our heads around a number as staggering as 12 million is very difficult.”

Helping people in the United States imagine the sheer magnitude of the problem is only the beginning of what Catholic colleges and universities such as La Roche are doing in response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

During the 2015–16 academic year, ACCU member institutions have demonstrated their deep commitment to welcoming the stranger and educating their students, faculty, and staff on the importance of doing so. One manifestation of this commitment can be found at Niagara University. In conjunction with Catholic Charities of Buffalo and New York’s Immigration and Refugee Assistance Services, the university’s College of Hospitality and Tourism Management recently graduated its third cohort of 15 students from a program specifically for refugees. The eight-week Hospitality and Tourism Training Institute trains participants in skills that help them “pave a sustainable career path,” says Niagara University president Rev. James J. Maher.

Deborah T. Curtis, CMP, director of Niagara’s Edward A. Brennan Center for Language, Culture and Leadership, has been the energy behind the program since its inception. Under her direction, the program has graduated 37 refugees—women and men from around the world, ranging in age from 19 to 60. The program consists of morning lessons in hospitality and afternoon English language courses, as well as excursions to local hotels and tourist attractions. The students also engage in a two-week internship at a partnering hotel, after which they are offered positions either at the internship site or another local hotel. The Institute helps the students combine their new skills in hospitality and in the English language to create “an opportunity to move up,” Curtis says. Because the students all come to the United States as refugees, she adds, “by definition . . . they’ve had some serious hardships.”

Niagara University’s Deborah Curtis poses with a cohort of refugee students at Niagara Falls. Photo courtesy of Niagara University.
Niagara University’s Deborah Curtis poses with a cohort of refugee students at Niagara Falls. Photo courtesy of Niagara University.

Picture This

Other Catholic colleges are doing what Catholic colleges do: educating students about issues and grounding them in faith-based values. Last November, the La Roche College Office of Global Engagement collaborated with the college’s Design Division to focus part of International Education Week on the Syrian refugee crisis. The Refugee Experience event also was incorporated into the La Roche Experience (LRX), a required course sequence that introduces students to Catholic principles of peace and justice, diversity, and conflict prevention.

Asking students to imagine an equivalent to 12 million was one activity during the week. After design students drew selected visual representations of 12 million on a large poster, participants engaged in small-group discussion on the refugee crisis. Finally, all participants strung together a chain of 12 million pre-counted beads, each representing one person affected by the Syrian conflict.

Agarwal, chair of the La Roche graphic design department, explains that the goal of the program was to “come up with several equivalents to 12 million and visualize them in order to help viewers really understand the enormity of the situation.”

In addition to helping La Roche students grasp the magnitude of the refugee crisis, the program allowed participants to process the situation, as the students “opened up and felt confident enough to share their thoughts” in the discussion groups, she says. “In line with the college’s mission to promote peace, justice, and global citizenry,” Agarwal adds, the Refugee Experience program at La Roche has grown out of a commitment to preparing the college community to more actively and knowledgeably welcome the stranger and serve its neighbors.

Change of Plans

After a month of what should have been a two-month backpacking trip in the Mediterranean, Colleen Sinsky, a recent graduate of Santa Clara University, did something unexpected.

Her trek had taken her to Lesvos, a small Greek island where Syrian refugees had been stopping on their perilous journey to Europe. Sinsky decided to leave her traveling companion and travel to Lesvos after noticing Syrian refugees sleeping under a bridge, according to a university news article.

For the remainder of her time in Europe, Sinsky volunteered with A Drop in the Ocean, a rescue group from Norway. According to the article, Sinsky spent her days “helping refugees off boats… manning a lookout tower for boats in distress; providing tea, warm clothing, and a compassionate ear to refugees in the camp; cleaning beaches of castoff belongings,” and more.

After returning home, her experience in Lesvos inspired Sinsky to write about the experiences of the refugees on a blog titled, “I’d Rather Be Here Now.” Her goal is to “advocate for a more compassionate refugee resettlement program in the [United States] by humanizing the victims” of the Syrian conflict, Sinsky writes. She credits her education at Santa Clara with helping her “better understand the problem of labeling, scapegoating, and demonizing Muslims” and allowing her writing to “come to life with details and drama.”

Looking forward, she says, “I would like to incorporate storytelling for social justice into whatever it is that I do.”

Her time at Santa Clara University clearly shaped Sinsky’s ability to share her experiences living with refugees. And, as all these examples show, Catholic higher education is uniquely positioned not only to change students’ thinking about humanitarian crises, but also to help improve the lives of individuals around the globe.

Justine Worden is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University and the Peace and Justice Intern at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

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