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A Vision for Tomorrow: Refugee Support at Rice

Photo illustration by Charlene Pan

By Danna Ghafir , Ariana Engles , Jefferson Ren , Anumita Jain , Salonee Shah , Annum Sadana and Alexandra Boufarah     1/22/19 9:49pm

Jan. 3, 2019 was a historic moment for the United States.  The tired eyes of a frantic but hopeful nation were on the newly elected congressional representatives, one of whom was the first Muslim refugee ever elected to Congress: Ilhan Omar. The night before, Omar tweeted, “23 years ago, from a refugee camp in Kenya, my father and I arrived at an airport in Washington, D.C. Today, we return to that same airport on the eve of my swearing in as the first Somali-American in Congress.” 

Omar’s story underscores the myriad of ways refugees contribute to and uplift the core values of the United States: diversity, democracy and equality. The inherent power of representatives like Omar lies in their understanding of uniquely American experiences and the value of the freedoms that the U.S. provides for displaced populations. At Rice, our roles as students, administrators and leaders at all levels empower us to support refugees and asylum-seekers on an individual and structural level in our community, our host city of Houston (the number one city for refugee resettlement in the nation) and in our country.

Supporting refugee students is concurrent with the values and priorities of Rice University and its students.Rice’s peer institutions have demonstrated their support for refugee students in ways that can be used as a model for our university. For example, Columbia University has created a scholarship specifically for students who have been displaced by the conflict in Syria. Started in the fall of 2018, the Columbia Scholarship for Displaced Persons provides six students with full tuition, housing, travel costs and living assistance throughout their time at the university. Other peer institutions such as the University of Southern California have followed suit, providing scholarships specifically for Syrian refugee students. Both of these institutions are part of the Syria Consortium, a group of universities which provide scholarships in order for Syrian refugees to be able to pursue higher education. In line with its mission to expand access to education, Rice should also consider creating scholarship programs for refugee students and joining organizations dedicated to supporting students displaced by crises, like the Syria Consortium. 

However, administrative action must go hand in hand with student support. One of the defining qualities of students at Rice is their willingness to not only learn about social issues, but also take action. Given that there are 68.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide — the highest levels of displacement ever on record — we simply cannot afford to give in to complacency. In a time when refugee support is crucial in higher education and in the U.S. at large, we challenge you to think beyond the comfortable “Rice bubble” that often shelters us all, and look towards how you can play a part — however small or large it may be — in tackling the consequences of the global refugee crisis. Volunteer with Partnership for the Advancement and Immersion of Refugees (PAIR) or refugee resettlement agencies in Houston, like Amaanah, Alliance, and Interfaith Ministries. Attend city and county government meetings to advocate for increasing funding for local community organizations  or write a letter to your representative in Congress to make sure that the U.S. meets its refugee resettlement goal in 2019. Listen carefully when people who have been displaced, share their stories and help keep our community informed and inspired to take action. Let us expand upon the principles Rice University was founded on and use them to respond to the global refugee crisis.

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