As the number of refugees continues to grow worldwide, surpassing 103 million, Rutgers-Newark leaders and faculty have joined with advocates to tell their stories and explore how colleges can provide housing and other support.

Rutgers-Newark’s Newest Americans collective, which creates multi-media narratives about migrants and immigrants, held a screening last month, showcasing three short documentaries on refugee youth, each depicting a different facet of their experience. The event, held at the Newark Museum of Art and titled "Refugee Youth: Breaking the Cycle of Statelessness,'' also featured a panel discussion, where Rutgers-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor shared her thoughts.

“This is an opportunity for us to grow the network of people who are working to support refugees,’’ Tim Raphael director of Rutgers-Newark’s Center for Migration and the Global City, told the screening audience. 

Spanning ten years, the screening, titled "R opened with a film about a Syrian family, newly adjusting to life in a Lebanese refugee camp, while the second film explored the long-time limbo of young refugees in Malta, featuring images they shot themselves as part of a National Geographic photo camp.

The final film, which focused on the power of self-advocacy and the promise of education, featured Hourie Tafech, a third-generation Palestinian refugee and co-founder of Spark15, the first refugee-led organization recognized by the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees. She received her PhD from the Rutgers-Newark Division of Global Affairs in 2021 and was a member of the event’s panel.

Tafech and Spark15 have raised awareness of the need to make higher education accessible for refugees, who only have a 6 percent rate of attending college or university. Not only can it help individuals, it can change the fate of entire families and their prospects for the future, Tafech said. 

Tafech was able to help her family leave the refugee camp and live independently because of the opportunities that resulted from her degree. “It has an intergenerational impact,’’ she said.

Cantor and others stressed that the event at the museum was part of something much larger. “It’s important to understand that this is a national movement,’’Cantor said, urging higher education institutions in New Jersey and beyond to devote resources toward helping refugees, a conversation that Cantor is helping to lead as co-chair of the Steering Committee of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. The alliance is comprised of American college and university leaders dedicated to increasing public understanding of how immigration policies and practices impact students, campuses and communities.

Part of that national movement is Every Campus a Refuge, an advocacy group established in 2015 to resettle refugee families at colleges and universities in the U.S. Diya Abdo, a second-generation Palestinian refugee who founded the organization, also spoke at the event, outlining reasons why the global population of refugees keeps increasing.

According to the United Nations, from  2011 to 2022, the total number of people worldwide forced to flee their homes due to conflict, violence, fear of persecution, and human rights violations, more than doubled to 103 million, the highest since World War II. More than 40 percent of refugees, about 35 million, are under the age of 18. 

“Climate change and the environment is going to produce larger and larger numbers of refugees. There is also global poverty, global injustice,’’ explained Abdo.

In the face of overwhelming numbers, it’s important for people to recognize their capacity to help, she said.  Abdo, an English professor at Guilford College, described what inspired her to found Every Campus a Refuge. 

“I took stock of where I was. Where are you? What do you have access to? What can you do with what you have access to? There’s a role for advocacy and policy change, and what we’re doing here, talking about campuses as a place of refuge, we’re talking about redistributing our resources in ways that are equitable and ethical,’’ she said. “We need to hold ourselves accountable for what’s happening in the world and show up.’’

The organization’s mission dovetails with other U.S. efforts, including Welcome Corp, a new federal program announced in January that helps Americans sponsor refugees by offering initial housing and helping them access employment and education.

Erik Cruz Morales, policy and advocacy manager for the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, discussed the importance of creating policies in New Jersey that support refugees and their contributions, including a requirement that they qualify for in-state tuition, a move strongly supported by Cantor.  Morales, a Rutgers-Newark alumnus, received his masters degree from the School of Public Affairs and Administration.

All of the panelists said its imperative to recognize  the potential of refugees, and what they have to offer the world, rather than viewing them as a drain. The Newest Americans short films were created to bring that to light, said film maker Julie Winokur, co-founder of Newest Americans, who was also on the panel. 

“Refugees are a resource, not a burden,’’ she said. “We have to be able to see them as human beings and not just refugees. If we can reshape the narrative and get back to the humanity of it, that’s when we can solve these problems.’’