College Joins Consortium Supporting Syrian Refugees

By Elizabeth Sawyer

The College joined the Institute for International Education’s (IIE) Syria Consortium last week.  The College and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey will be two of the 50 schools in the consortium committed to admitting refugees from the Syrian civil war and providing them with scholarships.

The IIE is one of the world’s largest international education and training organizations. The independent nonprofit aims to improve and increase access to education worldwide by organizing scholarship, training and exchange programs.

President of the College Laurie L. Patton told The Campus that she believes “we need to do everything we can to make higher education accessible across the globe, especially at an institution like Middlebury.”

Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of the College Katy Smith Abbott views the decision as “consistent with our institutional mission, both at the undergraduate college and at Monterey.”

Patton is “thrilled that Midd students took the initiative for Syrian students in need,” referring to the Go/Refuge movement started by Jeff Holland ’19 and Travis Sanderson ’19 in Dec. 2015. The two began their call for the College to increase its involvement in the Syrian refugee crisis with opinion pieces in The Campus.

According to Holland, he and Sanderson, “Realized that we are members of a financially well-endowed, privileged community, and we thought we should use our resources for something important. Something like the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of our time.”

Last summer, when Sanderson lived in Vienna, Austria, he witnessed the local community unite to donate resources to the refugees in the area — he participated by donating food.  Holland said Sanderson’s experience moved him to join Sanderson in his efforts to compel the College to do more to support refugees. “We’re not truly an international institution if we don’t partake in major world issues in whatever way we can,” Holland said in a an email to The Campus.

Holland and Sanderson’s initial petition at Go/Refuge has collected around 100 signatures to date. The pair expanded their base of active supporters by urging those students who signed the petition to write opinion pieces of their own, and by reaching out to professors and student organizations. This proved successful; according to Sanderson, “all of the supporters who wrote articles have taken on larger roles” in the movement, and Go/Refuge has been endorsed by the College’s International Student Organization, Amnesty International, Middlebury Students for Bernie Sanders and Professor of German Roman Graf.

The College’s decision to join the IIE’s Syria Consortium comes as a long-awaited victory for all of the active participants in the Go/Refuge movement. Sophie Hudson, an exchange student from the University of Nottingham and author of the op-ed “A Call for Empathy,” felt an impetus to get involved with the movement because of her unique perspective as an exchange student. She questions the injustice in the drastic difference between her educational experience and the current state of education for Syrian refugees.

“Why am I welcomed here with open arms but people whose whole education had stopped and been put on hold aren’t?” she asked. Hudson said that her main motivation for participating in Go/Refuge was her belief that “no one should have to halt their education.”

Both Hudson and Rebecca Duras ’19, the social media coordinator for Go/Refuge, acknowledge that while the College’s membership in the Consortium is not a complete solution to the current state of education for Syrian refugees, according to Duras it is “a big step towards making at least one refugee’s dreams come true.”

After solidifying support from members of the community like Duras and Hudson, Sanderson and Holland met with Patton during her office hours. Holland reports that Patton “was extremely open-minded and receptive to our ideas,” and that he and Sanderson “can’t thank her enough for hearing out what we had to say and for acting on it.”

Members of the Go/Refuge movement have been vocal in their belief that Middlebury is in a unique position to make an impact. Shaheen Bharwani ’19, author of the op-ed “Go/refuge: The Syrian Academic Emergency,” wrote in an email to The Campus that he “can think of few institutions that are as well equipped to act on this issue as Middlebury College,” citing the school’s large endowment as “helpful in the case of refugees who require financial support,” and the school’s renowned Arabic program as “hardly inconsequential when considering native Arabic-speaking refugees potentially facing language barriers in any host country.”

The group also argues that the existence of the Middlebury C.V. Starr School Abroad in Amman, Jordan, at the University of Jordan, should make the College’s involvement in the crisis fairly easy to initiate.“[The program in Jordan] gives us an additional advantage,” Smith Abbott said. “Not only is our staff there able to work directly with any promising candidates, but they are also able to help guide the fundraising efforts of students here in Vermont.”

Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Schools Jeffrey Cason, views the School in Jordan as integral to the partnership.

“We have staff in Jordan who are willing and able to interview potential applicants to Middlebury as undergrads or to the Middlebury Institute as graduate students,” Cason said.

Director of the School in Jordan Kerstin Wilsch will be at the College for two days this upcoming weekend, and is planning to meet with Sanderson and Holland on March 20 to discuss the College’s role in providing financial support for Syrian refugees in Jordan. Wilsch echoed the sentiments of the Go/Refuge movement. “We can’t stop the conflict in Syria, but we can render help to those suffering from it,” she said.

Sanderson praised Patton and Abbott for going “beyond our expectations in putting Middlebury on the moral road in the Syrian refugee crisis.” However, he said that more could be done, such as raising awareness of the Syria Consortium in order to motivate students at other schools to begin similar movements. “With millions of refugees who need safety, many of whom need education, there is always work to be done,” Holland said.