Inspired by a call from Pope Francis, a Guilford College professor launched Every Campus A Refuge in 2016 to house refugees, just as Donald Trump was exploiting xenophobia to fuel his successful presidential bid.
Ali Al-Khasrachi, his wife and their three boys arrived at Piedmont Triad International Airport on March 8, 2017, only two days after President Trump issued a revised order dropping Iraq from the list of countries included in his controversial travel ban. (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen remained on the list.)
Al-Khasrachi ran a printing and design shop in Baghdad, but after surviving two assassination attempts due to his work with a company that had contracted with the US military, he knew that it was time to go. His personal safety was at stake, but he told Triad City Beat through a translator that the No. 1 reason for leaving is that he wanted to ensure that his children would have a future.
“We were surprised when we arrived at the Greensboro airport, and the people who met us were smiling and welcoming, and they said we would be guests at Guilford College,” Al-Khasrachi recalled. “When we arrived at the apartment, it was fully furnished. There were even toys for the kids. Everything was taken into account. One thing that was very joyful was the volunteers coming with open hearts, wanting to ease our arrival, and not wanting anything in return.”
Al-Khasrachi and his family stayed on the campus of Guilford College for eight months through a program founded by Diya Abdo, an associate professor of English. Abdo was inspired to found Every Campus A Refuge by a call made by Pope Francis in 2015 — at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis — for every parish to host a refugee family.
“If you think about it, a university or college campus is like a parish or a town with shared values and common goals,” Abdo said. “We have housing and clinics — basically anything you need to meet people’s needs. A campus has more skills than any other community. We have people who know the law, people who speak particular languages.”
As a Quaker institution rooted in core values of diversity, equality and justice with historic linkages to the Underground Railroad, Guilford College was a natural place for Every Campus A Refuge to be launched. Guilford College started housing refugee families in January 2016, as Trump began storming Republican primaries. By mid-summer, fear-laden excoriations of refugees, particularly from Syria, would become a centerpiece of the Trump campaign.
Abdo said she “wasn’t thinking of Trump at all” when she decided to launch Every Campus A Refuge.
“Trump is a gross manifestation — and by that, I mean large — of the ideas that have been tracking through narratives about immigration and refugees,” Abdo said. “It’s the same in Europe. There isn’t an outpouring of welcome that we would hope for in this time of catastrophe. There’s a lack of hospitality in this country; it’s more hostility and indifference.”
Faculty and student volunteers at Guilford College, Wake Forest University and other participating institutions take on a myriad of tasks to assist refugees, from arranging for vaccinations to taking children on outings to the swimming pool, along with tutoring and fielding phone calls in the middle of the night from a family member who thinks they might need to visit an emergency room.
As the name implies, Abdo’s goal for Every Campus A Refuge is literally for every campus in the world to host a refugee family, and she travels frequently to try to persuade faculty and administrators to sign on. So far, six other campuses have joined the network. Wake Forest University signed on in late 2016. Other campuses include Lafayette College and Northampton Community College, both in Pennsylvania; Agnes Scott College in Georgia; Rollins College in Florida; and a college in Ohio that prefers to remain unnamed to protect the safety of its guests.
After staying on the Guilford College campus for eight months, the Al-Khasrachi family moved into an apartment of their own on the west side of Greensboro. The three boys — Abdulrahman, Ahmed and Yousef — have adjusted well to the schools in Greensboro. They like to play soccer and ride their bikes around the apartment complex.
Ali said at first he was a little concerned about how people might react to his wife, Marwa, because she wears a hijab, a head covering associated with modesty in the Muslim faith. “We haven’t felt anything,” Ali added, “or been projected with anything.”
While Al-Khasrachi takes a dim view of the government in his native country, the United States represents a new start.
“One thing I like is this is a nation of laws and systems,” Al-Khasrachi said. “If you go with the system, you can live a safe and prosperous life.”
The refugee resettlement program, which is administered through the US State Department, leaves little time for readjustment. Walid Mosarsaa, a member of the leadership team at Every Campus A Refuge, said the State Department provides refugees with $1,100 per person for a three-month period. The stipend is enough to live at poverty level, but Al-Khasrachi had to hit the ground running to find work to ensure that he would be able to support his family after the money ran out. In comparison, Al-Khasrachi said his sister was given a year to learn English before she was required to find a job as a refugee in Canada. In Germany, he said, the government doesn’t even allow refugees to work until they have learned the language.
Al-Khasrachi works at Tyson Foods in Wilkes County. An organization comes to the factory to provide English lessons from 6 to 8 a.m., but the hour-long commute doesn’t allow Al-Khasrachi to avail himself of the opportunity. He does get tutoring in English and conversational practice from a volunteer who comes to his home every Sunday.
The chicken plant is an adjustment for an Iraqi professional who left behind a print and design shop. Al-Khasrachi learned diwan-style calligraphy from his father, who once inscribed headlines for newspapers. Since the family’s relocation to North Carolina, Al-Khasrachi has continued to practice calligraphy, which features bold flourishes of lettering over gentle yet expressive geometric color schemes. Al-Khasrachi said his art is inspired by ancient Arabic calligraphy, Islamic architecture and the folklore of Baghdad.
Al-Khasrachi takes a positive attitude towards his job at Tyson Foods, where he’s befriended his supervisor, but the work has already taken a toll. The repetitive motion of one knife motion — slicing off chicken wings at the shoulder, 56 per minute — leaves him with pain in the muscle that connects his thumbs to his palms.
“If I continue with this job, it’s going to be hard to continue calligraphy,” Al-Khasrachi said. “It’s hard to hold a pen.”
Since Trump took office, the annual count of refugee arrivals in the United States has fallen from 84,994 in 2016 — an 18-year high-water mark — to 53,716 in 2017. By executive order, Trump capped refugee entries at 50,000 per fiscal year. As of July 31, the United States has only admitted 18,214 refugees for the calendar year 2018. Of the 806 refugees placed in North Carolina, the largest share come from the Democratic Republic of Congo (326), followed by Burma (156). The ban on certain countries — derided by opponents as a “Muslim ban,” but upheld by the Supreme Court — provides a waiver for the affected countries. Two individuals from Syria have been relocated to North Carolina since the beginning of 2018.
As director of Every Campus A Refuge, Abdo frequently pitches the project to faculty groups.
“I think usually the staff and faculty are very excited about doing something like this,” she said. “This project is in line or at least similar to the core values of any college. At the top, with administrators, that’s where there’s often some reluctance because of questions about risk and liability. It’s not strange. People just need to understand that it’s important. It’s very useful for everyone involved. It’s very rewarding.”
Abdo said Guilford College has housed 43 individuals since Every Campus A Refuge launched in 2016. As of March 2018, the six other campuses have housed 37 individuals.
Considering the magnitude of the crisis — the UN High Commissioner on Refugees reports that there are currently an unprecedented 25.4 million refugees, including 6.3 million from Syria — the work of supporting refugee resettlement can feel like a drop in an ocean.
“Where I feel like I’m making a breakthrough is when I’m talking to local people — a church,” Abdo said. “They’re loving, but they might have stereotypes about Arab and Muslim people. That’s where I really feel like I have an opportunity to change the way people look at things.”