Image by Ali Al-Khasrachi of housing floating on water, blue sky, and beautiful culturally diverse designs.
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Resettlement Campuses Are the Future of Higher Education

How colleges and universities can help rebuild America's refugee resettlement capacity

By Diya Abdo

February 9, 2022

Recent years have seen America’s refugee resettlement capacity decimated: dozens of refugee resettlement agency offices have closed or laid off staff, and lower refugee admissions have damaged community-based infrastructures. Our nation is now faced with the arduous task of not only rebuilding for a future surge in refugee admissions, but also finding an immediate solution to support the thousands of Afghan and other refugees already here in ways that are ethical, safe, and sustainable. Additionally, refugees face many barriers as they navigate complex health and social services, often without adequate finances and social support, all while coping with resettlement stress and trauma. They also lack the credit background, social security numbers, and financial means necessary to secure safe and affordable housing upon arrival. Large families and families with particular medical and mobility needs are at an increased disadvantage.

Founded at Guilford College in 2015, Every Campus A Refuge (ECAR) revolutionizes refugee resettlement and enhances the educational, research, and service missions of colleges and universities. ECAR was inspired by Pope Francis, who called on every European parish to host a refugee family. Just like parishes, college and university campuses are like small cities with everything necessary (housing, cafeterias, clinics, and myriad human resources and expertise) to be able to do the same. This higher education initiative partners colleges and universities with local resettlement agencies to leverage campuses’ underutilized resources and provide newcomers with much needed support. Colleges and universities can find their local refugee resettlement agency using ECAR's map tool.

Under the ECAR model, a local refugee resettlement agency assigns refugee cases (singles, couples, or families) to a college or university and supervises their experiences. Refugees then avail of free temporary housing and utilities and access to campus facilities and amenities. As ECAR was built around community-identified priorities as well as the agency and dignity of new arrivals, the program creates sustainable partnerships between universities and local organizations and communities to facilitate refugee access to education, health, social, and cultural services beyond the usual US resettlement process. Students, faculty, staff, and community members are vetted and trained as culturally responsive volunteers to provide case management support. They provide airport welcome, prepare campus housing, raise and collect funds and in-kind donations, share meals, act as cultural brokers, provide interpretation services, assist with childcare and job-hunting, make important resettlement appointments, and assist with shopping, transportation, filling out government forms, finding off-campus housing, and moving off campus.

Once refugees are financially ready (usually after 5–8 months), they transition to safe off-campus housing of their choice but continue to access ECAR support. The result is a softer landing and more dignified beginning for newcomers.

The flagship campus at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, has hosted eighty-four refugees thus far. The ECAR model has been adopted by several colleges and universities of varied sizes, like Wake Forest University (NC), Lafayette College (PA), and Northampton Community College (PA); other colleges and universities (like Russell Sage in New York and Old Dominion University, a public institution in Virginia) have recently joined, responding to the urgent need for immediate housing and community support for Afghan refugees.

Research conducted by Guilford College shows a powerful impact: hosted refugees reported a greater sense of financial stability and belonging, while student volunteers reported increased knowledge and understanding of refugee and immigrant issues. This is because such a model broadens the tent to mobilize higher education resources to support the professional development and wellbeing of hosted refugees. In a striking example, an ECAR campus’s art department provided one of their hosted refugee guests, Ali Al-Khasrachi (an Iraqi artist and calligraphist who came to the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa with his wife and three children) with free access to private studio space and art supplies. He was able to produce new artwork that was then exhibited in the campus gallery and, as a result, picked up by a large art gallery in the city. These opportunities allowed him to market his work, which he now produces by commission. This experience, Ali has told us, has made him feel hopeful about his quality of life in the United States.

We learn from this story that campus resources and community support can provide important opportunities for refugees; the ECAR model attends to the “whole person,” ensuring meaningful resettlement where refugees thrive rather than simply survive, and increasing their mental and physical health. Like Ali, other ECAR hosted guests have enjoyed access to resources (such as athletic clubs, musical ensembles, campus farms) in ways that feed their passions, gifts, and talents. Ali’s story also shows us how these resources and opportunities break the barriers to economic success and mobility. Ali’s commissioned artwork has provided additional income, allowing his family to purchase a home and welcome another child into their lives. Those who enjoy Ali’s artwork and who are now his neighbors benefit in deeply important ways from successful refugee resettlement.

Refugees enrich our communities and our lives.

The ECAR model can lead to a meaningful infrastructure for refugee resettlement and support. Even if only 10 percent of colleges and universities in the United States hosted just one family of five each, thousands of refugees would access immediate and dignified resettlement services and support. Several ECAR chapters (like those at Guilford College, Wake Forest University, and Lafayette College) continue to host refugee families for years, representing the capacity for a sustainable ecosystem of housing and community support beyond the current crisis and one grounded in dignity and agency for newcomers.

Guided by best practices and community-identified priorities, campus-based refugee support could significantly increase America’s resettlement capacity and engage its students in meaningful credit-bearing and service-learning opportunities. Will your campus be the next refuge?


  • Diya Abdo

    Diya Abdo is professor of English at Guilford College and the author of American Refuge: True Stories of the Refugee Experience, which will be released by Penguin Random House in September 2022.