War, religious persecution, ethnic cleansing and other dire situations have forced approximately 65.6 million people worldwide to flee their homes. An estimated 10,000 refugees have moved to Syracuse since 2000, several of whom are students or alumni of the College. Delia Popescu, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Political Science, has followed closely the “patterns of global, structural injustice” that follow the forced movement of people. Now she is hoping to join others at Le Moyne and play a more active role in considering the College’s response to the humanitarian crisis.
Popescu recently traveled to Rome to participate in a conference titled “Migrants and Refugees in a Globalized World,” led by the International Federation of Catholic Universities in partnership with the Being the Blessing Foundation, Pontifical Gregorian University, and Center for Interreligious Understanding. She and other participants – including leaders from Catholic and nondenominational colleges and universities from around the world, and representatives from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and other relief organizations – reflected upon their moral and professional responsibility to stem the suffering of migrants and refugees around the world.
Overall, the aim of the conference was to create a network of academic institutions that will work together to better understand the scope of the refugee and migrant emergency, Popescu explained. More specifically, the participants sought to study various approaches to providing education and training for refugees living in settlement camps; to teach university students about the refugee and migrant reality; to investigate pressing research needs; to launch a research and action network to collaborate in the fields of teaching, research and action in relation to migrant and refugee issues; and to strengthen access to higher education globally.
That Catholic colleges and universities should play a pivotal role in this conversation seems natural to Popescu. The church is the largest nongovernmental provider of higher education in the world, with nearly 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. alone. And throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has stressed the importance of a culture of encounter. The Holy Father attended the conference and spoke to Popescu and her colleagues about the social responsibility individuals have to create a more just world. He urged them to remember the “four cornerstones” in the church’s stance on migration: welcome, protect, promote and integrate.
“The message of the conference was loud and clear: Pope Francis considers the issue of migrants and refugees as the fundamental issue of our time, and Jesuit institutions have a responsibility to respond to the call of the times,” Popescu said. “It is especially important now to consider the broad implications for the life, dignity, and human rights of those fleeing conflicts, natural disasters, violence and political oppression. One in every 100 people today is displaced from her home; this is the highest count since UNHCR has started tracking this data in 1951. The UN has started referencing in its studies an ‘age of unprecedented mass displacement.’ If that’s not a crisis, I don’t know what is!”
At the conclusion of the conference, Popescu and other participants signed an agreement to launch a network to collaborate in the fields of teaching, research and action in relation to migrants and the refugee crisis. With the support of Provost Joe Marina, S.J., and Director for Mission Integration and Development David McCallum ’90, S.J., Popescu will now work with faculty and staff at Le Moyne to launch a series of initiatives, broadly included under the umbrella of a Migration Studies Initiative, geared toward helping Le Moyne become a local and global resource for migrants and refugees. They include the possibility of opening a few seats in online courses to refugees through the Jesuit Refugee Services network; creating a way for faculty to offer clinics on topics such as law, writing, history and professional development for refugees in the local community; and possibly developing a summer program that would offer a level of training to local refugees. Popescu also hopes to investigate the possibility of establishing an academic degree equivalency path and sending faculty members to volunteer to aid refugees at sites outside of the U.S. She hopes that the experience of service in refugee camps would galvanize both a different way of teaching about refugees and migrants, and broader awareness of the way in which policies affect the lives of displaced people.
“I am very concerned that national boundaries and internal policies proliferate injustices against the most vulnerable population today: those displaced from their home, psychologically traumatized and physically hurt by conflict, and left without any resources,” she said. Popescu pointed out that “the United Nations estimates that at least 200,000 Syrians had their post-secondary education cut short by the conflict, and just one percent of displaced persons have access to higher education. At the simplest level, there is something colleges should do about that, especially Jesuit colleges who aim to serve the disempowered.”
In the past, Le Moyne has supported the refugee resettlement programs sponsored by Catholic Charities and Interfaith Works, the Northside Learning Center, and other local organizations. Father Marina noted that as Syracuse continues to welcome refugees from Burma, Bhutan, Somalia and many other countries, he is proud of the College’s efforts to respond through its institutional commitment to social justice, and that he hopes and expects it will continue to do more “to advance the common good as a hallmark of Jesuit education."
“This issue is critical in our present age and yet so unnecessary. People continue to leave and flee their homes because of oppression, poverty, hunger and violence – social problems that are so out of place in the 21st century and yet still so pressing,” said Father Marina. “The current situation going on in Burma with the displacement of the Rohingya Muslims is a striking example. I can think of no better way to address the realities facing refugees and migrants than through Catholic/Jesuit higher education since it empowers learners to be agents of change and focused on people who have been pushed to the margins.”