April 2019 – Students in Drew University’s New York City Semester on Social Entrepreneurship received inspiration and practical advice from an alumnus who founded a nonprofit.
Diya Abdo G’98,’01,’05 launched Every Campus a Refuge to help refugees resettle in the U.S. The organization provides temporary housing and support services for refugees on college campuses after the U.S. vets them and before they find their own homes.
Abdo started ECAR in 2015 on the campus of Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., where she’s an associate professor of English. Since then, six other schools—in N.C., Georgia, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania—have opened chapters, collectively helping some 150 refugees assimilate, including 45 at Guilford alone, with each living on campus anywhere between three to eight months.
During a talk at Drew, Abdo shared why she started ECAR, how it works and its core principles. She also answered questions from students and Drew Professor Jennifer Olmsted, who directs the Semester on Social Entrepreneurship. Here are five takeaways.
1. Refugees lack resources.
Once approved for resettlement, each refugee receives a one-time stipend of about $900 from the U.S. But because they often arrive with little money of their own, the stipend isn’t enough to cover the cost of basic necessities like housing, food, transportation and furniture. Also, it’s challenging to land a job right away to pay for such expenses. So, ECAR provides the basics until refugees become self-sufficient.
2. Campuses fulfill lots of needs.
With dining halls, infirmaries, housing, libraries, career centers, and gyms, colleges function like villages catering to most needs. And at small schools like Guilford, it’s all accessible on foot, eliminating the need for transportation. What’s more, “it’s incredibly inexpensive,” Abdo said, and the “reward is astronomical.”
3. Don’t study a problem. Take action.
Rather than host a panel discussion on refugees, the English professor hatched an idea for welcoming them, got immediate approval from Guilford President Jane Fernandes and launched ECAR, learning as she went. As Abdo explained, “I was really getting tired of the vigils, of the panels, of the teachings, of online petitions or letters. We were doing a lot of that. And I got sick of it.”
4. Activists and Pope Francis inspired her.
Amid the refugee crisis in Syria in 2015, Abdo was moved by the spontaneous activism of Austrians who drove to Hungary in convoys to pick up refugees by the thousands and bring them north to Austria. Around the same time, Pope Francis urged every parish in Europe to host one refugee family. The Pope’s words and the Austrians’ actions compelled Abdo to act.
5. Start with one.
At a small scale, it’s easier to get approvals, cover costs and achieve goals. “Say that you just want to do this for one time,” Abdo said. “Try it. Maybe you just don’t do it again. You don’t have to. The idea is to support one family.”