By: Mike Reistetter
Maria Höhn, professor and chair of the Department of History at Vassar College, visited Mount Saint Mary College last Monday to discuss the process of her ongoing efforts to create a refugee project within the Mid-Hudson Valley.
Höhn mentioned how when she first broke into the field of refugee care, she was most interested in education, curriculum integration, and classes for refugees. She recalled underestimating her students’ determination, noting their adamant insistence that “they could do more.”
Years later, Höhn now serves as the coordinator of the Vassar College Refugee Solidarity Initiative. In conjunction with her students and collaborators, Höhn has overseen the administration of various refugee programs, such as a series of pen-pal relationships between her students and refugees residing in Berlin and Israel, a myriad of opportunities created for Arabic-speaking refugees to teach their language and make money doing so, and a system where refugees could receive “hot spot” internet access in cafes to complete their educations and connect to the free world.
During her discussion, Höhn memorably addressed her recent experience in Germany with Syrian refugees who had already assimilated into German culture. Hohn shared, via a projector screen, the juxtaposed drawings illustrated by a seven-year-old Syrian refugee. The left-hand picture showed an injured man walking with crutch-assistance down a road polluted with the murdered bodies of natives, with a Syrian flag in the top left corner. While the drawing on the right conveyed a lighter image, one of a man walking down a street cluttered with pedestrians wielding grocery bags, while the German word for police (“Polizi”) was floating front and center above the persons portrayed in the art, with a heart around it.
Höhn believed the refugee outpouring she saw occur all throughout Germany last summer was in response to President Obama’s declaration that “America doesn’t have to get involved (with the issue of Syrian refugees) because it’s Europe.” Hohn took extreme opposition to this assertion, one she called a “logical fallacy.”
“When something like this (mass displacement of refugees due to civil war) happens, you can’t just stand by and do nothing,” said Höhn.
The only remaining issue Höhn speaks of is how to go about settling incoming refugees, citing that the way to do so is to first look inward at the issues America as a society has still yet to overcome.
“We cannot make a home for strangers if we cannot make a home for our own people,” Höhn stressed.
Beginning at Vassar and moving on to Duchess County, Höhn and her team wish to soon add MSMC to their network of institutions for their solidarity alignment project, informing the forum of the looming arrival of the Mid-Hudson Valley’s promised refugees in January. The solidarity movement then plans on further expansion to recruit more schools once their grant is officially awarded.
“We are all refugees here,” Höhn acknowledged, referring to the multicultural background of all those United States citizens who identify themselves as Americans. “Now we must use these gifts and privileges to help teach our students, and lift civic engagement.”