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What more could colleges be doing for refugees?

Photo courtesy of Ra Dragon

To educate refugees, colleges could become their sponsors, a new campaign advocates. Plus, an update on refugee stories from earlier this year.


A Sponsorship Plan

This summer when the Taliban swept into control of Afghanistan, American colleges rallied to the aid of displaced students and scholars, offering them places and scholarships.

The emergency response has been praised, but a coalition of higher-education and humanitarian-assistance groups hopes to create a more durable solution for aiding refugee students: A new college-sponsorship program would help refugee students resettle in the U.S., earn a degree, and ultimately obtain permanent residency.

“If the first time we try to deal with something is in crisis, it’s too late,” said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, an organizer of the RESPONSE Campaign: College and University Sponsorship of Refugee Students. “We must have a policy infrastructure in place.”

Afghanistan — where the Taliban has threatened to close schools and universities and block women from their studies — focused attention on refugee issues. But in truth, the emergency is ongoing: Forced displacement has doubled over the past decade, yet just five percent of young refugees worldwide are able to access postsecondary education.

The RESPONSE campaign — supported by more than 60 partners, including the University Alliance for Refugees and At-Risk Migrants, Every Campus a Refuge, and the United Nations Refugee Agency — seeks to make colleges refugee students’ official sponsors, responsible not just for their educational needs but their financial, logistical, and social ones, too.

Feldblum said the partners’ efforts to increase the number of refugee students on American campuses were given a shot in the arm when the Biden administration in February called for a private sponsorship program that would allow businesses, community groups, religious organizations, and others to support immigrants in resettlement programs. Other countries, such as Canada, already have similar sponsorship programs.

A new report from the coalition details recommendations for creating the college-sponsorship program, addressing academic eligibility, partnerships with humanitarian organizations, and responsibilities of sponsoring institutions. 

Feldblum told me the group’s work was guided by a few core principles: 

  • Student voices should be key in creation of the program. 
  • College sponsorships must be in addition and complementary to existing resettlement efforts.
  • And colleges have what Feldblum called a “moral and talent imperative” to aid refugee students. “When they can’t access college and university, it’s not only a loss for them, it’s a loss for all of us,” she said. “It’s part of the core mission of higher education, and we have an obligation as higher-ed leaders.”

It’s also important that the sponsorship program be accessible to and serve all refugees, she said. It’s a crisis unfolding on many fronts — even as the Afghanistan evacuations were happening, Haitian migrants were at American borders.

The Biden administration plans to pilot a private-sponsorhip program in 2022, and Feldblum is hopeful that the coalition’s work could position colleges as early participants. 

During a briefing on college sponsorships last week, Sarah Cross, deputy assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, was enthusiastic about the idea: “We strongly believe that a university-sponsorhip program has great potential to expand refugee access to higher education in the U.S. and to meaningfully leverage the involvement of U.S. college and university communities in the welcome and integration of refugee students.”

The White House will hold a roundtable with college presidents this week about Afghan refugee students.

Still, challenges remain: The program’s costs will be substantial, and it will need funding to sustain it. The report also calls for an “implementing organziation” to provide support and technical assistance to colleges and their partners. 

At the same time, higher-ed groups are calling on the U.S. government to make changes to the student-visa program for those refugees who come here as international students. Recently, a number of displaced Afghan students have been denied visas because they could not prove “non-immigrant intent,” that is, that they have significant ties to their home country that would compel them to leave the U.S. after graduation.

Here’s how your college can become part of the RESPONSE campaign: Sign up to receive more information and download a special toolkit for education and awareness of college sponsorship of refugees.

Action on Afghan Refugee Students

Even as higher ed seeks to create a permanent path for refugee students, colleges have been aiding Afghan students and scholars. I checked in with several people I first spoke to in late summer, as the crisis rapidly unfolded. Here are some updates:

For Jonathan Becker, the work has been happening on multiple fronts. The American University of Central Asia, in Kyrgyzstan, where Becker is acting president, is now host to 300 Afghan students. A third of the students are from the American University of Afghanistan, which was taken over by the Taliban.

Although the students have settled into classes, Becker said their needs, material and emotional,  are significant. Many left Afghanistan with only the clothes they were wearing, unsure of when they would reunite with their families. “They’re anxious about their families, they’re anxious about their loved ones, they’re anxious for what’s next,” he said.

A group of students after arriving at the AUCA campus, courtesy of AUCA

Bard College, where Becker is vice president for academic affairs, is one of many American colleges to take in students. Five have already arrived on campus and an additional 60 are expected to start in January.

Still, Becker said without a lasting policy solution, he worries what will happen when attention fades from Afghan refugees. “When we’re on to the next story,” he said, “what will happen to these people?”

I also shared with you how 148 Afghan students from the Asian University for Women were airlifted to the U.S. after a harrowing escape from Kabul. When I checked in with Kamal Ahmad, the founder of the women’s college, he told me that all AUW students had been accepted on full scholarships to American colleges, including Brown, Cornell, and Arizona State. He estimated that more than $32 million had been committed in the form of scholarships and other support.

“The U.S. higher education community’s commitment to our students has been extraordinary and really uplifting,” Ahmad said.

Sepehra Azami was a leader of the students. When we first connected, Azami was at a base in Spain, waiting for transit to the U.S. Last week when we messaged, she had just arrived at Cornell after spending three months at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin.

“I will start my new journey here very soon,” she said. “I am feeling overwhelmed and at the same time hoping for better things.”

AUW enrolls students from throughout Asia, many with limited English skills. English-language programs around the U.S. have organized to take in the 56 AUW students who need an English foundation year.

Scott Stevens, who directs the English Language Institute at the University of Delaware, spearheaded the effort; Delaware will enroll 15 of the students. It has taken time as students go through the resettlement process — getting medical exams and IDs, applying for Social Security numbers — but Stevens is excited to welcome his new students. By Christmas, he hopes.

Even as they wait to restart their studies, several of the students have offered English lessons to other refugees, Stevens said. “They’re living up to their reputation as leaders.”

I previously shared some resources for how you can take action to aid refugee students and scholars, from Afghanistan and elsewhere. Please check out groups like the Scholar Rescue Fund, Scholars at Risk, and organizations mentioned earlier in this newsletter — your help continues to be needed.

Know someone with an interest in international ed? Please forward this newsletter, and encourage them to subscribe.

Around the Globe

Russia has deported a U.S. college professor with ties to Bard, months after the government labeled the liberal-arts college an “undesirable” organization and blocked it from all activity in the country. Bard officials say that Michael Freese is no longer an employee and had resigned from Bard before the college was blacklisted.

International education groups have written to the Spanish ambassador to share concerns about delays in getting Spanish visas.

More than 9,000 people and groups have commented on a proposed DACA rule

The Department of Homeland Security has approved special student relief employment benefits for students from Hong Kong who are experiencing severe economic hardship. 

Some 430 faculty members at the University of Michigan sent a letter to the attorney general calling for the end of the U.S. Department of Justice’s China Initiative. 

Faculty at Southern Illinois are calling on the university to drop a disciplinary investigation against a professor charged under the China Initiative. 

The Middle East Studies Association will vote on a resolution about whether to support the boycott of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.

Africa receives the largest share of World Bank investment in higher education of any region of the world, officials report.

European research ministers approved a pact guiding research and innovation, although it is nonbinding.

A higher-ed regulator in the UK has said universities should consider partial tuition refunds to students if their studies are disrupted by campus strikes.

Young Chinese are becoming more westernized and socially liberal but not more pro-democracy.

A high jobless rate is leading record numbers of recent college grads in China to take the civil-service exam

ProPublica looks at how China cracks down on students who speak out while studying in the U.S. 

A professor at the University of California at Davis who started Article 26 Backpack, a cloud-based tool that helps refugees safely store their educational credentials has won a human-rights award

The Ambassadors Fund for Summer Work Travel, administered by the Council of International Educational Exchange and Interexchange, will fund grants for students from nine European countries.

The Fulbright Program celebrated its 75th anniversary at the Kennedy Center. ICYMI, check out my interview with a professor who finally won an award to teach on the flagship exchange program — during a pandemic.

For news updates between editions, follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Got news of your own? Email me with tips and story ideas.

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And finally…

Last week, for the first time in nearly two years, I got on a plane and went to a conference, hosted by the Council of Graduate Schools, in person. It was a somewhat disconcerting experience — fist bump or handshake? how should I speak to real, live people rather than a Zoom screen? — but a rewarding one. I moderated an excellent, thought-provoking panel on anti-Asian racism with Russell Jeung, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, author Eric Nguyen, and Rice University dean Seiichi Matsuda. CGS tweeted out a great summary of our conversation:

In preparation for the session, I read Nguyen’s beautiful debut novel, Things We Lost to the Water, the story of Vietnamese refugees in Louisiana. I think many of you will love it. President Obama did.

’Til next week —Karin

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