Tool Kit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Every Campus a Refuge: Guilford College's Powerful Effort to Help Refugees Resettle

Every Campus a Refuge: Guilford College's Powerful Effort to Help Refugees Resettle


The woods west of Greensboro, North Carolina, have been a place of refuge for nearly two hundred years. Nearby Quaker communities would help slaves hiding there and smuggle them out to continue their journey north on the Underground Railroad.

After those same Quakers founded Guilford College in 1837, it became “literally a place of refuge, where folks were supporting dispossessed, displaced human beings on a journey from one place to another—from a miserable, horrible situation on to hopefully a more optimistic future,” said Diya Abdo, associate professor of English at Guilford.

In September 2015, Abdo saw a photo of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned (along with his mother and brother) off the coast of Turkey.

“Lots of people were moved by that image,” Abdo said. “I remember feeling particularly helpless, not knowing what to do, and wanting to do something really physical, material.”

A few days later, Abdo heard Pope Francis’s call for every parish in Europe to host a refugee family, and she knew that Guilford could once again become a safe haven for refugees.

“What is a parish? It's a small community bound by shared values, a shared ethos,” Abdo said. “It's a small city with everything that a family would need to start its new life. And most importantly, it's got a community that comes together to support that family. And all of those things sounded exactly like what a campus is.”

That fall, Abdo asked Jane Fernandes, Guilford’s president, for an on-campus house to use as a sanctuary for refugees.

“It seemed like a natural extension of who we were as an institution,” Abdo said. “I never imagined that it would be a chore or a hardship or that somebody would say no to me. I really didn't. I thought I would ask and somebody would say yes. And they did.”

From its inception in 2015, Guilford’s Every Campus a Refuge (ECAR) program has had the full support of the college’s administration, faculty, staff, and students.

“Even a small school can be divided by priorities, funding issues, and strains on enrollment. But there are some things that draw us together, and this is one at Guilford,” said Mark Justad, director of Guilford’s Center for Principled Problem Solving (CPPS).

With funding and administrative support from the CPPS, Guilford’s ECAR program has hosted six refugee families and two individuals (a total of forty-two people) from a variety of countries including Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Iraq, and Syria.

Before coming to Guilford, refugees are heavily vetted by several branches of the federal government. They enter the United States legally and arrive at Guilford via a resettlement agency, Church World Service (CWS). Through federal and private funding, CWS provides every refugee with a one-time stipend of $925.

In Greensboro, $925 is not enough for safe housing. In May 2018, one “affordable” apartment complex that housed refugees in Greensboro caught fire, killing five children from the DRC and leading to several other units being condemned as unsafe.

“That was sort of a shocking moment for many of us [to realize] the kind of housing that was available and the conditions that refugees were forced to live in,” Abdo said.

Guilford provides refugees with an on-campus faculty house, furniture from the college’s warehouse, and utilities including water, electricity, and internet. They also give families food from the campus’s farm on weekly basis, and in some cases they provided a semester of cafeteria meals. ECAR organizes donation drives for other items like clothes, food, and toys, and refugees can use bikes that had been abandoned or confiscated on campus.

Ali Al-Khasrachi used Guilford's
colors to spell "Guilford College" in Arabic. 

ECAR also takes the time to learn about the unique interests and needs of the families. One refugee, Ali Al-Khasrachi, had been a calligraphist in Iraq before bringing his family to Guilford. The college provided him with private studio space and art supplies, and the campus gallery exhibited his work.

“Where else would you have housing, an art studio, and a gallery, except on a college campus?” Abdo said. “The exhibit was beautiful. A gallery in Greensboro picked up his artwork and exhibited it. And so that was a way in which we could use college resources not only to help someone survive but to help them thrive and achieve a more meaningful resettlement.”

More than 150 students, faculty, staff, and community members have volunteered to welcome refugees at the airport, set up the house, provide English instruction, organize pick-up soccer games, or help with homework, childcare, grocery shopping, filling out forms, or using the bus.

All volunteers undergo background checks, sign confidentiality agreements, and receive training in guidelines (including ethical ways to engage refugees) identified by Church World Service.

“Those are CWS standards, but I think they're excellent standards to abide by in any situation to maintain the privacy, the confidentiality, and the agency and integrity of the folks that we're working with on our campus,” Abdo said. “It's always a question of balance. The richer we are in diversity, the richer we are in our knowledge, the better off we are. How do we balance that without exploiting folks, without making them a tool for our education?”

Bringing ECAR into the Curriculum

Through the CPPS, Guilford offers a two-year, cohort-based Principled Problem Solving Experience (PPSE) Minor. The topic of the minor rotates and changes after two years, allowing the curriculum to respond to contemporary topics by connecting new seminars with courses and service-learning opportunities that already exist.

“Guilford College has never understood education as separate from engaging the world,” Justad said. “Guilford students and faculty can use their desire to learn and their desire to make a difference in the world in a way that is effective for our local and our broader communities.

Starting in fall 2017, Abdo has directed a sixteen-credit PPSE Minor in Every Campus a Refuge focused on three topic areas:

  1. What causes refugeeism? Through content-based courses, students examine the historical context of forced displacement, including wars, genocide, and disease.
  2. Who are the refugees? These literature-based courses “humanize them so we aren't simply studying about them as refugees, but also as people who write and create narratives,” Abdo said.
  3. “Now that I have a sense of what creates refugeeism and who refugees are,” Abdo said, “how can I engage in ways that are principled? How can I advocate? How can I organize?” Students take courses rooted in community-based learning such as Community Problem Solving or Principled Problem Solving.

A two-semester seminar (ECAR I and ECAR II) ties the three pieces together. Students read history books (such as Peter Gatrell's The Making of the Modern Refugee), engage with refugees online to hear personal narratives, and volunteer with ECAR refugees on campus.

When completing their volunteer hours with ECAR refugees, “students are not to use this as an opportunity to interview, to explore, or to examine the folks that we host on our campus. They're not specimens for us to exploit and use in that way,” Abdo said.

Still, she said, volunteering provides an education on refugee experiences:

I just tell my students very simply, “The work that you do with the folks that we host on our campus is about them. It's not about you. Whatever you learn in the process you learn organically. . . . You're a cultural broker, mediating between this individual and their new home. You're learning about what it's like to have nine children and what that means for childcare. You're learning that the French you're learning at Guilford might not be the kind of French that this family from the DRC speaks. You're learning how incredibly arduous it is to get on a phone and get to a human being when you don't speak the language, or even when you do speak the language, to ask about why your food stamps are not working, why your Medicaid was cut off and you can't get your diabetes medicine, or why it takes two months to get your glasses through Medicaid when you are basically without vision.”

To speak with refugees in an ethical way, students use NaTakallam (Arabic for “we speak”), a Skype-based video platform. On NaTakallam, refugee participants “know what they're getting into, they're consenting to it, and they're getting paid for it,” Abdo said.

One hour a week, ECAR students speak with a refugee partner living in Lebanon, Italy, Brazil, or Canada.

Guilco Farm1.jpg
                                              ECAR summer campers
                                              go to the Guilford farm.

“The idea is basically to dispel the narratives that the media likes to put out about refugees and humanize them through their own personal narrative stories,” said Amelia Wellman, a student in the ECAR minor. “Just kind of get to know them as people and not just refugees.”

Wellman spoke with a Syrian refugee in Italy, and they kept in touch after the course finished. “We just talked about everything, like food or cultural stuff. And if she wanted to talk about her experience, we could do that, too. She became almost like an older sister to me, which I didn't even know I was going to get out of this program.”

To bring the pieces of their ECAR education together, students design and implement a project that contributes to refugee resettlement in Greensboro. These projects can take many forms, including advocacy, community organizing, artwork, technology, or law.

For her project, Kathleen Herbst got a grant from ECAR and the CPPS to create a week-long summer camp for ten refugee children. Some of the kids had just arrived from the DRC and spoke only Swahili and French, while others had lived in Greensboro for a couple of years and spoke both Arabic and English. The campers couldn’t speak to each other, but they played soccer, made artwork, and visited the campus farm.

“Giving kids an opportunity to just have fun is really important,” Herbst said. “Even if the verbal communication wasn’t there, there was a lot of friendship being built, which was really spectacular to see.”

Through guest lectures and field trips, students also speak with authors of books they’re reading in class and community representatives from organizations like Elon University's Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic, Church World Service, or Islamic Relief.

“It's a truly place-based educational experience, so that we understand what it's like to be a refugee and to resettle in Greensboro,” Abdo said.

The ECAR minor has also provided career opportunities for students. Wellman got an internship with Church World Service, allowing her to see behind-the-scenes in their work to support refugees. Herbst’s experience organizing the camp helped her secure an AmeriCorps volunteer coordinator position at a community center that serves refugee populations.

Both students were also invited (along with two other ECAR student volunteers) to a United Nations summit in New York as part of the Together Campaign. The students met with UN officials and hundreds of students from colleges and universities around the world working on issues related to refugees, forced migration, and resettlement on their campuses. In addition to speaking about Guilford’s program, “we were also able to ask questions and have open floor discussions,” Wellman said. “I couldn't ask for a better experience. Definitely the highlight of my summer.”

Assessing ECAR’s Impact on Refugees

To examine “how well Every Campus a Refuge is achieving its goal of promoting a softer landing,” Krista Craven, assistant professor of community and justice studies, is leading a three-part research project to study the experiences of ECAR refugees fourteen-years-old and over.

Once refugees leave campus for permanent housing, a research team of faculty and students interview them about their hopes for life in America and their experiences resettling in the United States, living on Guilford’s campus, and navigating their new life in Greensboro.

Next, refugees complete a social network map to identify important people in their lives (e.g., family members, ECAR volunteers, resettlement agency workers, neighbors) and the forms of emotional or material support they receive from or provide to those individuals.

Finally, refugees over the age of eighteen complete a survey about demographic information, socioeconomic status, housing stability, employment, feelings of inclusion in the United States, and activities they participate in.

The research team interviews refugees four times: right after moving off campus, followed by three sessions after intervals of four to eight months.

The researchers wait until refugees move off Guilford’s campus to ensure they feel that they are able to choose if they would like to participate in the study, and each study participant receives a $50 Visa gift card. So far, eleven people have been interviewed.

“Something we have heard the most from ECAR participants is the importance of the relationships they built with ECAR volunteers,” Craven said. “People really felt that ECAR was beneficial in helping them adjust to the United States, even though a lot of folks say, ‘I'd like to go back,’ because they found that it was a safe, supportive, and respectful place.”

Importantly, all refugees felt that students, staff, and volunteers were respectful of their privacy.

“While they were at Guilford College they felt that no one pried into asking them about their life histories or their experiences prior to moving to the United States, but were really just invested in their well-being at that moment in time and trying to build relationships with them,” Craven said.

How Every Campus Can Be a Refuge

ECAR has expanded since 2015, becoming a 501C nonprofit with chapters at other campuses that have hosted refugees, including Agnes Scott College, Lafayette College, and Wake Forest University.

Abdo visits campuses interested in hosting refugees to conduct workshops and discuss best practices, and campus programs have required formal processes involving proposals, discussions, or faculty votes. 

Abdo emphasizes that it is not a risky program, as all refugees are heavily vetted before entering the United States and, like all college programs, ECAR is covered by insurance.

It’s also cost-effective. Except for the house and utilities, “we end up spending very little out of our budgets. It's not an expensive program. It’s incredibly doable and it's so rewarding,” Abdo said.

If a campus only has a house available for a few months, it could be a short-term program. Other campuses have found ways to participate besides housing families. “This is not something that you have to do the way Guilford College does it or Agnes Scott does it. You can do your version of Every Campus a Refuge.”

Students, faculty, and staff from Bennett College, a women’s college in Greensboro, volunteer with Guilford’s ECAR chapter. Colleges can have ECAR clubs that raise money to support refugees in their local communities or conduct events to raise awareness. And at Guilford, ECAR has hosted art exhibits, concerts, film screenings, and panel discussions that are open to the public, and students have organized movie nights and soccer games to entertain refugee children and give their parents a night off.

“That's something every campus can do, every club can do,” Abdo said. “Connect with your refugee communities. Find out what services they need, what might be useful for them, for the families, for the kids.”

Even if a campus never hosts a refugee, programs like these “send a really powerful message to your communities about welcoming, hospitality, empathy, kindness, and antixenophobia and antiracism,” Abdo said. “Civic engagement means also learning about how we exist in Greensboro, how we exist in the United States, and—on a very civic level—what this country is: the good, the bad, the ugly, the fabulous, the amazing.”