Marlboro College opens refugee series to the public

Reporter and researcher Clare Morgana Gillis kicks off a Marlboro College summer series of public talks on “Refugees in the USA Today: Gaining Some Perspective.” Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

MARLBORO — Clare Morgana Gillis could have talked about the five years she worked as a reporter in the Middle East, landing in the West Bank in 2010 before moving on to Egypt, Iraq, Mali, Syria, Turkey and Libya. In the latter country, Muammar Qaddafi’s forces held her captive for 44 days.

Instead, the New Englander shared a YouTube video titled “The Epic Journey of a Refugee Cat to Find Its Family.”

“There’s no mention of smugglers, dangerous travels, all sort of other things,” Gillis said of the two-minute vignette of an Iraqi feline reunited with its owners after they fled to Norway, now viewed by nearly 400,000 people. “But the way the refugee situation has been made human again is by a cat video.”

And, her hosts at Marlboro College hope, by their new summer series, “Refugees in the USA Today: Gaining Some Perspective.”

Marlboro College students watch a YouTube video titled “The Epic Journey of a Refugee Cat to Find Its Family” that has been viewed by nearly 400,000 people worldwide. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
“Although the refugee crisis is a global problem, very few Americans know about refugees in their own country, their status, the resettlement process, the joys and the challenges of building a new life,” says Beverley Burkett, head of the school’s program on teaching English to speakers of other languages.

Marlboro recently partnered with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants to create an English for Refugees Fellowship that allows students to offer language instruction at resettlement centers in Colchester and five other American cities while completing a graduate degree.

Burkett was gathering a group of experts to speak to students when, hearing public debate over refugee resettlement as close as Rutland, she decided to open the lectures to everyone.

“There are so many questions and a lot of emotional reactions,” she says. “Given that, I thought the public would be interested in this information.”

Gillis, a freelance journalist for publications ranging from The Atlantic to USA Today, appeared Wednesday as the first presenter in the five-week series.

For her talk, she returned to her roots in historical scholarship — she holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate — to explain how the end of World War II brought the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and United Nations Refugee Convention in 1951.

“People have been living in refugee situations for a really long time,” Gillis said, “but we didn’t perceive it here because they were outside our door.”

The current refugee crisis in Syria — the largest such situation in nearly three-quarters of a century, with more than 5 million people displaced — has brought the issue to the forefront statewide and nationally.

“There’s a lot of fear, particularly now with people coming out of the Middle East,” Gillis said. “We in the West imagine terrorists will infiltrate.”

But the reporter, who also has worked as a U.N. researcher, said extremists aren’t likely to wait the many years required to make their way through the refugee vetting process.

“The fundamental state of refugeehood today is being unemployed and homeless,” she said. “To have a life suspended in this way strikes me as one of the deepest injustices.”

The Marlboro series aims to offer a road map out.

On Wednesday, Amila Merdzanovic, who came to the state in 1995 from Bosnia and Herzegovina and now leads the USCRI Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, will speak on “Resettling Refugees: The Inside Story” with colleague Ashraf Alamatouri, English language coordinator in Colchester.

On July 19, Windham County consultant and case worker Connie Woodberry will outline “Transitions: From Camp to Community.”

On July 26, Ana Rawson, head of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program, will talk about “Students Dealing With Trauma or Interrupted Schooling” with fellow teacher Jennifer Course.

And on Aug. 2, retired senior United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees officer Lloyd Dakin will consider the question “Refugees: Never-ending Story?”

The talks are free, but the public is asked to register online. Organizers hope the series will help locals recognize a need to tackle a seemingly faraway issue.

“The best way forward for refugees,” Gillis concluded, “is any kind of resumption of a normal life.”

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