Vassar Today

Vassar Mobilizes for the Refugee Effort

By Larry Hertz

Every morning as the sun rises over the tiny Greek island of Lesbos, small boats begin arriving from Turkey, carrying refugees fleeing from Syria and other war-torn regions of the Middle East. For several days during Vassar’s winter break, sociology professor Diane Harriford was on the beach, welcoming hundreds of them with a smile and handing them dry shoes and socks.

Harriford first encountered Syrian refugees in Lesbos last spring when she traveled there for a yoga retreat. She returned in December, bringing clothing collected by the Athletics Department and by students from the Vassar Christian Fellowship, and she signed on as a volunteer for a Norwegian nongovernmental organization called A Drop in the Ocean.

She set up her welcome station on the beach at 6 am and stayed until early afternoon. “About 500 refugees came every day, and it was my job to greet them, give them clothing, and take the young mothers into a tent where they could change their babies’ diapers,” Harriford says.

“I’m not so arrogant as to believe I changed their lives,” she adds, “but it was a transformative experience for me to be receiving them and making them feel welcome. As they come out of the water, they’re so happy to be free and safe. They all know they have many difficulties ahead, but at that moment they aren’t thinking about any of that.”

Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, disparate factions opposing President Bashar al-Assad—brigades of Syrian army deserters, the military wing of the Kurdish political party, and several jihadist groups, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS—have engaged in the conflict, forcing millions of Syrians to leave their homes. Over the past five years, an estimated four million men, women, and children have fled the country, and many of them have been traveling through Turkey and into Greece on their way to Germany and other European countries that are granting them asylum. The United States has pledged to receive at least 10,000 refugees.

Back on the Vassar campus, students, faculty, and staff have been working for the past several months on ways to help address what has become the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The college’s initiatives began in September 2015 after history professor Maria Höhn returned from her summer in Germany.

Höhn had met Syrian and Somali refugees during that visit, but her first direct encounter was during a Vassar Travel trip in October 2014. “We were visiting the Marienfelde Refugee Center in Berlin where some of the four million Germans living in East Germany had been processed after they had fled the Soviet-occupied part of Germany,” Höhn recalls. “As we were leaving, I noticed a large group of people outside the building. I was puzzled and was surprised to learn the refugee center has been reactivated to house refugees from Syria, Somalia, Iraq, and other countries.”

Those experiences spurred Höhn to think about Vassar’s role in addressing a refugee crisis that goes far beyond the situation in Syria—worldwide, more than 50 million people are displaced. Some 150 students as well as members from the larger community joined the effort, and, during the fall semester, the groundwork was laid for a number of initiatives.

Together with Anish Kanoria ’18, Höhn organized Refugee Solidarity. Participants aim to create an institutional framework to address a crisis that will most likely last many years. One committee is conducting historical research into how Vassar responded to previous refugee crises. Another is researching possible collaboration with international organizations, local churches, and other groups that provide assistance to migrants and refugees once they arrive in the United States. Some students are working to develop a pen-pal app that would connect Vassar students with refugees housed in camps or those on “the move.” Refugee Solidarity is also working with educators and artists in the U.S. and Germany who have been responding to the crisis. One of the key aspects of the initiative is to explore, together with the administration, how the digital humanities can be used to facilitate educational exchanges between Vassar students and refugee students.

Kanoria says Refugee Solidarity is galvanizing the student body. “There are many aspects of the problem we can’t solve, of course,” Kanoria says, “but if we can make life better for some of these people, then we should do it. There are some issues on campus that may divide us, but this should bring us all together.”

Refugees in Lancaster, Pennsylvania photographed by Kristin Rehder.
Refugees in Lancaster, Pennsylvania photographed by Kristin Rehder.

Because of student demand, Höhn developed a six-week mini-course titled “The 21st-Century Worldwide Refugee Crisis” for the spring semester. The course includes academic lectures by other Vassar faculty members on various aspects of the crisis; a presentation by Kristin Rehder, a photographer who has chronicled the arrival of a large contingent of refugees in Lancaster County, PA; a workshop conducted by representatives of Scholars at Risk, a New York City–based program; and a lecture, open to the Vassar community and the public, by a Syrian refugee scholar. More than 100 students enrolled in the course.

Höhn and the students of Refugee Solidarity also created a website ( that will serve as a sort of go-to portal for others who want to get involved. “We should do what we’re good at, and one thing we do very well at Vassar is gather, analyze, and exchange information,” Höhn says.

The campus-wide effort is receiving some guidance from an alumna with a unique perspective on the crisis, Mariya Nikolova ’07. In her capacity as editor of the International Review of the Red Cross, Nikolova has visited a refugee camp in Jordan and has overseen publication of numerous stories on the issue. A former student of Höhn’s, she has spoken to Vassar groups via Skype from the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland, on two occasions.

Nikolova says that people flee from their homeland only when all other options have been exhausted. “Before they flee, they sometimes make desperate, often remarkable efforts to stay and rearrange their lives around the ongoing violence,” she says. “It’s critical to understand this when we hear of people fleeing across the Mediterranean—it has to do with their desperation to flee from violence and repression.”

Höhn says she is impressed by the scope of Vassar’s response so far, from the administration, the faculty, and the students. “This crisis is so big that there was an initial paralysis. We were asking ourselves, ‘What can we really do?’’’ she says. “But we have already laid the groundwork for responding to what will be a crisis that will be with us for a long time.”

She says the students who have signed on with Refugee Solidarity are “Jewish and Christian and Muslim and people with no religion at all. We are a diverse group who all see the crisis a little differently, but together we can make a real difference.”

Sam Speers, Vassar’s director of Religious and Spiritual life, has helped organize several events and initiatives regarding the refugee crisis. He says he too is confident the Vassar community will find ways to make significant contributions. “Yes, it’s a hugely complicated problem, and that can be overwhelming,” Speers says, “but it also means there are multiple points of entry where we can help.”

Harriford says her brief experience on the front lines of the crisis changed her forever. She said that transformation began last May when she was walking along the beach in Lesbos, unaware the island was a key stop in the journeys of many refugees. “A group of young men I had never seen before walked up to me, and one of them picked me up and twirled me around and said, ‘I am so happy,’” she recalls. “They were college students from Syria who were hoping to get to Western Europe. I told them I was a college professor, and we spoke for a while. They could have been students from Vassar.”