HAMPTON ROADS — Dr. Jennifer Fish of Old Dominion University (ODU) is someone who has witnessed first-hand the intense impact that humanitarian crises have on families and individuals.
In 2011, she found herself in Sub-Saharan Africa traveling with a graduate student to a refugee camp situated near the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The ODU professor has done work within the spectrum of international development since 1995. However, for both Dr. Fish and the graduate student, it was a life-changing moment. The trip to that refugee camp presented many of the challenges that refugees face on a day-to-day basis.
“It was one of those life-turning moments,” said Dr. Fish in an interview with WYDaily. “I’ve been doing a lot with education, and health, and migrant labor rights. Then I went to this refugee camp and I really saw the international structure. Like, how the U.N. deemed refugees have been living in this camp for 20 years, and the solution just wasn’t at all easy or accessible. It really got me to think more deeply about this human crisis of refugees and displacement.”
Dr. Fish would continue to go back and forth to Southern Africa; bringing with her more students. Together, the student groups would study these complex humanitarian issues while also encountering new international perspectives on their travels.
“I really really love that work and I still believe in it. At the same time, not every undergraduate and graduate student can pick up and go study in another country for a month,” said Dr. Fish. “So I thought I can teach international affairs and humanitarian support right here in Hampton Roads because we receive about 300 refugees on average per year.”
Dr. Fish started a university course that was based in the Hampton Roads community. Her students would have the opportunity to go out within local areas where they would work in collaboration with local refugee resettlement agencies such as Commonwealth Catholic Charities (CCC); a non-profit organization that has been involved with refugee resettlement for over 40 years.
“Students would get a sense of the international communities right here in Virginia, and they still got cross-cultural immersion, language, a lot of the same aspects that I would set as a goal in my teaching in another country,” Dr. Fish said.
All of this work as well as recognizing and studying these international humanitarian issues, and then developing a strong relationship between ODU and CCC helped pave the way for a new program at the university.
ODU Joins ‘Every Campus a Refuge’
Every Campus a Refuge (ECAR) is an organization that helps bring colleges and universities together with refugee resettlement agencies. The organization was founded by Dr. Diya Abdo of Guilford College.
The spark behind ECAR was that colleges and universities are very well-equipped to assist incoming refugees because of the resources at their disposal.
The practical idea is that campuses are in a fortunate position to assist in providing housing, food, language training, care and wellness to those who are escaping the darkness of war, displacement, and trauma.
“Every Campus a Refuge is a program that has a philosophy and a practice,” said Dr. Fish. “The Philosophy is to ask every college campus around the country to take one refugee family, or ‘newcomer family,’ as we might say. The idea there is that, if we could resettle families to college campuses, they would get a much stronger start, and we would allow our students to engage in international issues in a very direct and meaningful way, and college campuses around the country would become spaces of safe refuge.”
ODU was the first campus in Virginia to join the program, and recently, the program welcomed its first refugee family to its campus. The family was awaiting relocation from Syria for more than two years.
The family was selected for ODU’s ECAR program by CCC, and that partnership was a crucial and impactful bridge for the refugee family arriving in the United States.
“It feels like I can check something off in my life career goals. It’s wonderful. It really was kind of a serendipitous collision of forces,” said Dr. Fish. “All of this came to be envisioned under covid. We really finalized the details before the crisis we’re seeing now with the Ukraine invasion. Now as we’re launching this program we have this whole other refugee crisis. I think a lot of people just really want to help people who are just forced to flee in many different contexts. So now there’s a great deal of empathy. Even though the family we’re hosting is from a different world conflict. There’s just been this kind of connection to a larger global issue.”
The family will live on campus for about six to eight months. The goal is for the program to grow and develop so that ODU may help other families in the future.
“Part of this philosophy is to journey with the family long term. So after they leave our campus, there’s a need to get set up in a new apartment and to build independence, and to pay the first deposit rent,” said Dr. Fish. “We don’t just say goodbye after six months. We really help them move into that next stage of independence which requires support.”
All of the students that go through the program have to go through training. According to Dr. Fish, it’s a leadership position, and the school is very intentional on how it prepares students to work for families that arrive on the campus.
Two of ODU’s students will also be very involved in this program. Jennifer Ditona, a Ph.D. student, is helping with the program by assisting with the day-to-day aspects as the campus hosts its first family. Mahfoudha Sidelemine, a Fulbright Scholar from Mauritania, has been working with refugee resettlement by leading an English language class for women. Sidelemine’s research will be the basis for her dissertation in international studies.
“In the standard refugee resettlement program in the U.S. newcomers get 90 days of support, so just three months, and every person gets 1,025 dollars,” said Dr. Fish. “With those resources, they’re supposed to learn the language, get a job, earn transportation, learn culture. It’s very very under resourced. So the idea is that this program gives newcomers a boost, but it also allows students to get involved and to really learn international humanitarian support in a very direct way.”
The program is still looking for additional supplies and donations. The kinds of supplies they’re looking for are housewares, books, nonperishable food items, cleaning supplies amongst other items.
Locals who wish to get more involved can reach out to the program coordinator Jenny Ditona at: email@example.com.
Dr. Diya Abdo, the founder of the ECAR program, will visit Norfolk to launch ODU’s new initiative. There will be a campus and community talk on March 30 at Yetiv Auditorium in the Batten Arts and Letters building at 6:30 p.m.