Syrian Task Force Established on Campus

At the height of the crisis this year, as many as 10,000 migrants a day sought entry to Europe. Causalities of failed states, these 60 million displaced families and refugees have fled their home countries in numbers unseen since World War II. Syrians account for 34% of migrants destined for Europe. Iraq, Gaza, and Afghanistan follow in contributing to the massive diaspora. Unlike past migrant crisis, the one now besetting Europe features a large scale of arrivals over a short time frame. The movement shows no signs of abating any time soon. In a recent Gallup poll, nearly a quarter of Afghan respondents voiced their desire to leave their country, and more than 100,000 are predicted to flee to Europe by year’s end.

While the desire to escape political conflict ranks as a leading factor for migration, the sharp fall in humanitarian funding has escalated the crisis. The United Nations Syria Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan, an umbrella organization for a number of humanitarian agencies, had received just 37% of the $4.5 billion needed to sustain its operations for this year as of August. The World Food Program, another United Nations agency, is more than 63% underfunded for 2015. As a result, the agency recently cut its monthly stipend to 211,0000 Syrians in its regional refugee camps in half.

Analysts say that families unable to receive assistance at home are more willing to take on the risk of migration. According to Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman for the United Nations Refugee Agency, “The conditions are now so bad or overstretched in neighboring countries that the people fleeing Syria are choosing, or have no other choice, but to go straight to Europe.” About 70% of registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, for example, are living below the poverty line; these Syrians, who now make up a quarter of Lebanon’s population, must now compete with native inhabitants for jobs and health services.

The Obama administration, on Sept. 20, unveiled plans seeking to ease the toll of mass migration in Europe. Agreeing to open U.S. borders, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the annual cap on refugees will be raised from 70,000 to 100,000 by 2017. This step, Secretary Kerry declared, “will be accompanied by additional financial contributions.”

Colleges in the U.S. have followed suit by organizing their own relief efforts. At Wesleyan University, for example, President Michael Roth has called upon the community to deliver recommendations on “what we Wesleyans could do.” Prior to the announcement, Colfaz Phillips ’16 and Casey Smith ’17 took matter into their own hands and formed a student-run Wesleyan Refugee Project (WRP). The WRP has worked to coordinate weekly volunteer efforts at the Integrated Refugees and Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Heaven, which helps refugees access social services. In mounting a three part on-campus series of lectures, which will outline both the refugee experience and international responses to mass migration, Wesleyan hopes to present students with a more contextualized understanding of the crisis.

Earlier this year, at Conn, President Bergeron established a Syrian Refugee Task Force to explore the ways in which the College may aid migrants. The four-member force includes Professor Tristan Borer of the Government Department, visiting Economics Professor Ahmad Alachkar, Mary Devins of CISLA, Kiesha Henry of the College’s Holleran Center and Conn student Ramzi Kaiss ’17. In the coming weeks, the Force will offer its recommendations to President Bergeron, who will decide which suggestions should be implemented. Once an agenda is finalized, a budget will be set-up to direct aid efforts.

Faculty members of the Task Force have backgrounds essential to meting out a plan that reflects the values of Conn College. Kaiss emphasizes that, with her knowledge of human rights, Professor Borer “understands the laws of the refugee system.” Professor Alachkar, himself a Syrian native, intimately grasps the plight of refugees. Ms. Devins and Ms. Henry, for their part, have experience connecting students to community outreach programs.

The Task Force meets on a weekly basis during which members share research on how to forge ideas and connect with different organizations. The Task Force has already attended a talk sponsored by IRIS to explore the role the Conn community can play.

Still in the beginning stages of its formation, the Task Force is in the process of evaluating specific policy proposals, such as whether to aid migrants at home or aboard. Kaiss indicates that the Force “hasn’t decided yet because there are different needs for different communities. The people in Syria have different needs than those in refugee camps or who have already resettled.” The work of resettlement agencies in the U.S., for instance, is largely focused on helping refugees navigate the transition to a new country.

As a student, Kaiss emphasizes his role on the Task Force as “a learner, trying to apply what [he] learns in this real life setting.” For Kaiss and the rest of the Force, student input is essential. On Nov. 11, for example, a discussion will be held to generate feedback on how the college can best address the migrant crisis. The event will take place at 4:30 in Blaustein’s Faculty Lounge and is open to the entire campus community.

President Bergeron feels that, as institutions of higher learning, colleges have a stake in mitigating the crisis. “Connecticut College,” she says, “has a longstanding history of social justice and responsiveness to issues of global concern. We are trying to react in a way that is consistent with our mission as an educational institution. I have just touched base with Professor Borer, and expect the Task Force will be discussing the near, medium, and long-term goals. They should have some proposals ready to share by the semester’s end.”

Professor Borer believes that grassroots efforts on college campuses to ameliorate the migrant crisis strengthen democratic institutions. Colleges may have the potential to aid refugees, but their efforts cannot address the root issues propelling mass migration. “To end the crisis,” Professor Borer says, “superpowers must bring their resources to bear. In our democracy, we believe that the government is responsible to the people. By forming a task force, we are putting pressure on elected officials to bring about long-term change.”

Editor’s Note: We wish to apologize for the article that appeared in print in our Nov. 9 issue. It included a series of misspellings and mistakes that slipped through our process. This is the actual article that should have been featured.