A Yellow Springs roundtable on refugee crisis
- Published: April 14, 2016
Syrians. Afghans. Somalians. Columbians. Kosovars. Iraqis.
More than 60 million people around the world are refugees and migrants, according to recent UN figures, and over half of them are children. Not since World War II have this many people been displaced from their homes.
What can a village of 3,500 do?
That’s one question motivating the upcoming roundtable event, “An Uncertain Welcome: Displacement, Migration and Refugees,” which will be held Thursday and Friday, April 14 and 15, at Antioch College’s South Gym. Organized by the college and Community Solutions, the event is free and open to all villagers interested in understanding refugee issues in greater depth.
The refugee crisis “definitely marks what’s going on in our world — it’s a feature of our time,” said Rick Kraince, associate professor of cooperative education at Antioch College and a co-organizer of the event.
“Destabilization of the Middle East and north Africa by the Western powers, with our government at the forefront” has been a huge driver of displacement, he said, together with U.S. policies in Central America that go back decades. Climate change is another driver. The Syrian war has its roots in the “worst drought of 900 years,” said Susan Jennings, executive director of Community Solutions, citing new research linking climate change, conflict and migration in the Middle East.
“Uncertain Welcome” will explore many of these issues, opening with a keynote on Thursday evening, 7–9 p.m., by Ethiopian human rights scholar Semahagn Gashu Abebe, who will address food security issues and the forces affecting displacement and migration. The event continues on Friday, 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m., with roundtable discussions focused on the causes of displacement, the forces shaping our perceptions of the crisis and the support systems currently in place, as well as the urgent question of what individuals and communities can do to help.
But another impetus for the gathering, according to the organizers, is to counter negative and demonizing rhetoric about refugees.
“Where we are in our national discussion is disturbing,” said Kraince. “Presidential candidates are competing to outdo each other to be unwelcoming to refugees,” he added, citing rhetoric by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich.
Kraince believes that civil society — the sector of society that includes nonprofits, educational institutions and faith groups — has a special responsibility to respond to such rhetoric, and to foster an atmosphere of tolerance and welcome. Jennings agreed.
“Community Solutions and Antioch College and village leaders have all been very distressed by the rhetoric around refugees,” she said. “It’s so important that good people speak up. Even though we’re a small community, our voices are important.”
Indeed, villagers have already spoken up — and signaled their willingness to help. In December, Village Council unanimously passed a resolution of support for any local efforts to relocate Syrian refugees to Yellow Springs. That action followed Governor Kasich’s statement in November that he opposed the entry of Syrian refugees into the U.S. and Ohio. And in February, Rev. Aaron Saari, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, organized a meeting to brainstorm ways to aid Syrian refugees, including exploring steps to bring refugee families to the village.
Around 40 villagers turned out for that meeting, said Saari recently. But as eager as people are to open their homes to refugees, the resettlement process is long and complex. Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley is the primary coordinator for refugee resettlement in our region, Saari said, and according to that agency, Syrian refugees are not currently being placed in the Dayton area. Resettlement, when it happens, could take five or more years, he added, and requires that a community build out the necessary supports for refugee families — affordable housing, medical and social services, job training and language classes.
“It’s a tremendous investment of time, talent and treasure,” said Saari, who will be speaking about a possible Yellow Springs refugee initiative at the upcoming roundtable. The April event will be followed by another meeting in May, Saari said, to determine what form of commitment to the Syrian refugee crisis villagers are willing and able to make.
Yellow Springs has a history of welcoming refugees, according to Scott Sanders, Antioch College archivist and another roundtable speaker. He’ll be telling the story of the Conway Colony, freed slaves who were relocated here in 1863 by Moncure Conway, an abolitionist. Among them were Eliza and Dunmore Guinn, who established a home on Grinnell Road and have descendants in the village today. Another story Sanders will relate involves the Folkmanis family, who came to Yellow Springs as displaced persons after World War II, thanks to the efforts of First Presbyterian Church, Antioch College and the local community. Atis Folkmanis, who was 10 years old at the time of the family’s relocation, went on to graduate from Antioch and later became a major supporter of the college with his wife, Judy.
Kraince believes that Antioch College today has “real momentum” around contemporary refugee issues, in part because of its students’ wealth of co-op experiences. Since reopening, the college has made about 750 co-op placements, Kraince said, more than 90 of these overseas. About a dozen students have worked specifically on refugee issues in their co-op placements, he added. Some of those students, as well as graduate students from Wright State University studying migration, will bring their work and perspectives to the roundtable.
“We hope this will be a launching board for other collaborations,” said Kraince. “There’s a lot of knowledge here.”
According to Saari and others, it’s not yet certain what form villagers’ collective response to the Syrian refugee crisis will take. But it does seem clear, given the village’s history and its present engagement with refugee issues, that Yellow Springs residents are unlikely to sit out what Jennings called the “largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.”
“With the roundtable and other actions, we’re hoping to help shape a compassionate and informed response,” she said.
For more information about roundtable topics and participants, villagers can email firstname.lastname@example.org. Child care is available for the event; those needing child care are asked to contact the organizers in advance.