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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Old Dominion University Joins Every Campus a Refuge

By Amber Kennedy

Old Dominion University is hosting its first refugee family this spring as part of Every Campus a Refuge (ECAR), a national movement to provide support on college and university campuses. ECAR is a global outreach initiative that supports refugees by providing a welcoming environment to build a strong foundation of educational resources for the first stages of transition to a new country.

More than 40 colleges in the U.S. and Canada are preparing to offer refuge for new arrivals. ODU is the first public university in the country to become an ECAR partner and the first campus in Virginia to join the mission.

Founder Diya Abdo, an English professor at Guilford College, began ECAR in 2015 to call on colleges and universities to partner with local refugee resettlement agencies. College campus resources - housing, food, language training, care and wellness - can provide hospitality for refugees as they begin their new lives in the aftermath of war, displacement and trauma. Abdo will visit Norfolk to launch ODU's initiative and offer a campus and community talk at 6:30 p.m. March 30 in the Yetiv Auditorium in the Batten Arts and Letters building.

For Jennifer Fish, a professor of women's studies at ODU, this movement is a continuation of 10 years of research and service-learning projects with refugees living in Africa and Hampton Roads. To partner with ECAR, she built a refugee resettlement support alliance within ODU including the Office of Housing and Residence Life, the Center for Global Engagement, the Women's Studies Department, the English Language Center, the Graduate Program in International Studies and the Office of Intercultural Relations. This network will support refugees who are being resettled by the local Commonwealth Catholic Charities (CCC) affiliate.

Bridget Weikel, ODU's associate vice president for learning and associate dean of students, noted the direct link between this initiative and ODU's wider mission.

"The ODU-ECAR initiative highlights the importance of engaging in global citizenship right in our community. In addition to the value of assisting a family that's new to America, this program elevates our campus partnerships to engage our students in a variety of opportunities from educational awareness to action and teaching technical to transferrable skills," Weikel said. "This initiative gives back to our global citizens and supports our students' continued success at ODU."

The ODU-ECAR initiative will be directed by Fish, with the support of a team of student, faculty and community volunteers. CCC will provide guidance on resettlement procedures, core services and funding.

"For many years ODU has been a wonderful partner to CCC and has been an important ally for refugees," said Kristen Larcher, director of operations at CCC's Newport News location. "We are pleased to continue working together to support refugees who are rebuilding their lives in Virginia."

Jennifer Ditona, a Ph.D. student in the graduate program in international studies, will oversee the day-to-day aspects of hosting the first ODU refugee family. Mahfoudha Sidelemine, a Fulbright Scholar from Mauritania, has been leading an English language class for women and conducting research on refugee resettlement for her doctorate in international studies. Ditona and Sidelemine will link the ECAR initiative to their research and applied support for refugee communities. This initiative provides valuable, direct content for the refugee studies curriculum built through the Department of Women's Studies.

This month, ODU welcomed its first refugee family, which has been awaiting relocation from Syria for more than two years. Ditona anticipates the University will host refugees for six to eight months while they transition into the community.

Organizers are collecting supplies for their first resident family, including housewares, books, nonperishable food items, cleaning supplies and more. Donation and volunteer needs will be ongoing. To get involved with refugee resettlement on ODU's campus through direct volunteer support or giving, contact Ditona at jdito001@odu.edu.


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