On October 8, 2015, three members of Vassar College’s faculty and alumna Mariya Nikolova were part of a "Solidarity with Refugees" forum in which they discussed the implications of the current refugee crisis in Syria and the role the Vassar community can take to help on an institutional and individual level. Joining the discussion were Professor of History Ismail Rashid, Professor of Sociology Diane Harriford, and Chair of the History Department Maria Höhn. Mariya Nikolova ’07, editor of the International Review of the Red Cross in Switzerland, participated in the panel via Skype.
Samuel Speers, director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, introduced the panel, drawing attention to the illusory “distance” of the crisis occurring thousands of miles away. He drew on Zen master Yasutani Roshi, who mused, “The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.” He called for solidarity with the refugees, urging the community to heed the advice of Pope Francis not to consider migrants “numbers to be overwhelmed by, but … fellow human beings whose stories we are called to hear.”
Nikolova, who holds degrees in international studies and law, provided context for the crisis, citing the unprecedented influx of migrants in the modern era in comparison to previous crises, such as Afghanistan and Kosovo. The situation has had a significant impact on southern Europe, she said, but the notion that the migrant crisis is purely a European matter is a fallacy. “In trying to depict the issue as a European problem, we might also be missing the broader picture,” she noted, explaining that countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq bear a larger refugee burden than Europe. Using numerous graphs and statistics, Nikolova demonstrated the major ripple effects the crisis is having on Syria’s neighbors.
Professor Höhn recounted her own experiences in Germany, a country that has maintained an “open border” policy. There, she noticed a contradictory mix of support for migrants as well as a degree of xenophobia. Höhn elaborated on various initiatives being taken across the world to provide refugees with educational and employment opportunities—such as online programs that give displaced academics resources to continue research. She highlighted the obligation of student involvement, urging students, while on October Break, to “go home to your families … read a local newspaper. What are people doing in your home community? … Because we all are just starting to look for answers and I think if we all pool our answers, we’ll come up with something good.”
Professor Harriford spoke about her own firsthand experience while on sabbatical at a yoga retreat in Greece. Her trip took an unexpected turn when she encountered a group of refugees who had just arrived from Turkey. Over time, there was such an influx of refugees that the group of yogis knew they couldn’t ignore them. They took shifts helping refugees, aiding about 500 people a day—from providing water and food to allocating clothing, socks, and shoes. “They had gotten out of the water with nothing but their bare life; it became important to do something, to be in the present moment with them,” Harriford said.
Professor Rashid highlighted the necessity for individual action in activating positive change and encouraged students to be creative in reacting to the crisis, saying, “I want you to really have the energy to think of very creative ways, very imaginative ways of living in a world where we don’t have more people treated like this.”
Since the panel, Vassar’s efforts to help refugees have broadened. Professor Höhn has met with various residence halls, campus groups, and two outside charities (Catholic Charities and Farm Worker Ministry) to foster community outreach and active discussion. Students have engaged in small, residence hall-based initiatives and there has been active discussion by members of the Vassar Student Association on the college’s role in the ongoing crisis.
—Nicholas Barone ’19