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Universities, faculty gearing up in response to Afghan refugee crisis

Experts on campuses from coast to coast are needed to deal with the current emergency as well as future ones, Afghan-Canadian lawyer says.


As the political crisis in Afghanistan grew this summer, Ryerson University business professor Wendy Cukier experienced a bit of déjà vu.

Six years earlier, Dr. Cukier had helped launch a campaign to assist people fleeing another troubled part of the world. Lifeline Syria worked with individuals and institutions – including a number of universities – to sponsor and support the many people from that war-torn country seeking refuge.

This past August, Dr. Cukier realized a similar response was urgently needed. The result is Lifeline Afghanistan, which Dr. Cukier and a core team of collaborators — including journalist Sally Armstrong, Ontario Sen. Ratna Omidvar and Rachel Pulfer, executive director at Journalists for Human Rights — set up within just a few days. The initiative is housed at Ryerson’s Diversity Institute, where she is academic director.

Dr. Cukier sees Lifeline Afghanistan as emblematic of the ways in which universities can lead Canada’s response to humanitarian emergencies. “My personal view is that university professors are incredibly privileged and have access to all kinds of resources, including tenure and flexibility in defining their research,” she said. “Individually, faculty can make a tremendous contribution, and there is also this incredible resource of students who are often so passionate about these issues.”

Their contributions will be needed. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has suggested that more than half a million people may flee Afghanistan by the end of 2021. Canada has committed to resettling 40,000, but clearing the pathways for their travel and arrival is still a work in progress. And the government is relying heavily on domestic partners, from private citizens to universities, to lend a hand.

An informal survey by University Affairs of more than 20 universities coast to coast found that while most don’t have plans in place yet to support the Afghanistan effort at an institutional level, some are starting to take shape in earnest. The University of Toronto is assisting five Afghan journalists to take up fellowships in global journalism at its Dalla Lana School of Public Health. The university is also supporting several students and their families who have fled Afghanistan (their identities are being kept confidential for now to protect relatives still in the country). Carleton University is currently hosting two Afghan scholars and has dedicated funds to host another.

For the most part, however, the big efforts currently underway are faculty-led, and often integrated with other community partners. Lifeline Afghanistan is a perfect example. It’s seeking sponsorship opportunities, conducting needs assessments and working on pathways to employment for the new arrivals.

At York University, an informal working group has emerged with members from the faculty of health, the Centre for Refugee Studies and the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research. Like Lifeline Afghanistan, its immediate efforts are focused on what Afghan refugees will require when they arrive in Canada – and hopefully within the York community. That includes creating educational opportunities.

“We have faculty members with experience offering education online for other refugee groups,” said Farah Ahmad, an associate professor in the faculty of health who is leading the working group. Its members are developing courses “to enroll refugees in borderless higher education.”

Dr. Ahmad’s group is also hoping to establish scholarships and to put other financial supports in place for potential incoming Afghan students. In addition, they are working to develop a program for refugee scholars on campus, in collaboration with an organization called Scholars at Risk (SAR).

SAR’s Canadian arm is collaborating with 25 postsecondary institutions – including its newest members, the University of Winnipeg and the Université de Montréal – to find opportunities for Afghan academics to continue their work here.

SAR Canada is seeking more institutions to become members in order to build up capacity to respond both to Afghanistan and to future emergencies, said Viviana Fernandez. She’s the chair of SAR Canada, as well as assistant director at the University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre, which has been designated by that university as the lead for its SAR program, helping to identify faculties and departments in a position to welcome scholars.

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing so many situations recently that require a sustained effort,” she said. “The time wasted in building groups that can respond could be dramatically reduced by having, for example, standing committees of experts at large universities, who could help mount a rapid response with expertise in refugee law, immigration, politics. These people are already present on campuses, and they could really be helpful in developing responses that are faster and more thoughtful.”

One of the founding members of Lifeline Afghanistan, Hila Taraky, understands intimately what those on the ground in the country are facing. She fled Afghanistan with her family as a child. That was in 1998, during the Taliban’s last period in power. Now a lawyer, Ms. Taraky says that there are a number of impediments to taking action faster, which underscores the need to involve subject-matter experts found on campuses from coast to coast.

“We can’t limit our response to what exists now,” Ms. Taraky said, echoing Ms. Fernandez. “We need to think creatively and build new pathways, to respond imminently to this crisis, and in the future.”

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