Every Campus A Refuge (ECAR) revolutionizes refugee resettlement by leveraging the sizable resources of college and university systems to host newly arrived refugees at no cost, providing a stronger, more dignified landing in the U.S. From vacant apartments to fleets of bicycles, campuses abound with underutilized assets, along with supportive services from health clinics and cafeterias to wedding venues and art studios. “We’re a small city that has everything you need to host a refugee family,” explained Diya Abdo, ECAR founder and director. Unlike many refugee programs, ECAR takes a “whole person” approach that foregrounds mental and physical health, economic mobility, and more to ensure that refugees thrive. Along with free campus housing, refugees are provided with childcare, interpretation, and other services from trained students, faculty, and staff. Once they’re financially ready—typically after about five months—refugees are able to secure housing off campus and begin the next step of their journey. The potential is vast: if just 10% of America’s universities hosted one family of average size, that would provide supportive integration to 20,000 refugees over a short few years—and forge a hopeful resettlement model grounded in the practice of radical hospitality.
Refugees face many barriers as they navigate complex health and social services, often without adequate finances and social support, and all while coping with resettlement stress and trauma. They also lack the credit background and social security numbers necessary to secure safe and affordable housing upon arrival; their limited one-time stipend and government expectation for quick self-sufficiency promotes failure rather than success. Universities have the necessary physical facilities and human resources to provide temporary housing and community support. ECAR partners colleges and universities with local resettlement agencies to provide a softer landing and dignified beginning for refugees.
ECAR was inspired by the concept of radical hospitality. When Pope Francis called in 2015 on every European parish to host a refugee family, I thought: isn’t a college or university just like a parish—a small city bound by shared values—with everything necessary to support refugees? I realized that the “ivory tower” exclusivity of college and university campuses can be fundamentally upended so that social justice for refugees would be pursued, and their belonging—rather than difference—would be enhanced.
The biggest challenge is ideological. Faculty, staff, and students at dozens of institutions are interested in implementing ECAR, but they need to convince their administrators that this initiative is worth the modest financial investment, and that it is not too radical or political for an institution of higher learning. Increasing polarization in the U.S. predates ECAR’s founding in 2015, but the Trump administration’s historically low refugee admissions, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the so-called “Muslim Ban” have rendered legal refugee resettlement support a partisan issue. While the rhetoric has shifted regarding Afghani evacuees, it is still challenging for institutions to imagine themselves hosting refugees in this way.
Pope Francis’ 2015 call for radical hospitality informed ECAR’s design. His conceptualization of welcome as an act that ought to be carried out by small communities (like parishes), rather than just large ones (like countries), allowed me to see how universities and colleges are the perfect communities for acts of welcome and radical hospitality.
Hosted families leave ECAR campuses employed and financially stable, with ECAR-community support ongoing. But beyond that, myriad campus resources and facilities support the professional development and well-being of hosted refugees. In a striking example, an ECAR campus provided hosted guest Ali Al-Khasrachi—an Iraqi artist and calligraphist—with free access to private studio space and art supplies. He produced work that was then exhibited in the campus gallery and in a gallery downtown. ECAR attends to the “whole person,” ensuring meaningful resettlement where refugees thrive rather than simply survive, increasing mental and physical health and breaking the barriers to economic success and mobility.
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