By Kseniya Kniazeva
The refugee crisis may seem far from the shores of our Great Salt Lake, but six Utes are about to travel to Thessaloniki to spend ten days working with refugees, staff and stakeholders to do their part in this humanitarian disaster. The “Refugee Policy and Global Ethics” work/study visit will be preceded by lectures and meetings in Geneva with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the International Organization for Migrants, among others, as part of a two-and-a-half week summer seminar organized by the Oxford Consortium for Human Rights.
The International Rescue Committeee estimates that 62,000 refugees are stranded in Greece today, though more than a million refugees crossed into Europe in 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis. Many are housed in overflowing refugee camps with squalid conditions, but one camp named Elpida, which means hope in Greek, has set out to create a new model; it is here where the summer Consortium cohort will conduct their service-learning. Funded by a chocolatier, a philanthropist and the president of the Radcliffe Foundation, the refugee camp has individual units housed within a large factory and room for up to 700 refugees. Medical care is included for everyone. Cupboards are full of real dishes, "not plastic." The camp epitomizes the notion of “human rights” for a people who have faced anything but humane conditions for many years, and all for cost of “gas money for somebody’s private jet,” says Ahmed Khan, one of the primary donors to the project in an interview with the Huffington Post.
Professor Deen Chatterjee of the University of Utah College of Law and one of the faculty directors of the Oxford Human Rights Consortium, has been thinking about these issues for years. “The real world belongs to future generations. What are we giving them? How do we get them into [the area of human rights] and get motivated and focused to find solutions to the world’s most pressing problems?” asks Chatterjee.
Along with Cheyney Ryan, the Director of Human Rights at Oxford, Chatterjee and faculty from Oxford and the US invite a select group of students to ask the right questions – What are human rights? How far can we extend charity or obligation? How do nations join hands? How do you peace build after conflict? – and hopefully spend their lives working towards a more just and peaceful world.
The Oxford Consortium started five years ago with students from three US universities. Now a group of 30 to 35 attending the seminars each Spring, Summer, and Fall come from Oxford and several US universities, including the Universities of Southern California, Oregon, Georgetown, and Utah, and also lately from universities in Brazil, Kenya, and India, reflecting the Consortium’s push for inclusion of voices from the Global South.
Chatterjee says diversity is important in the selection of candidates for the seminars. The University of Utah selects students from several departments, including the Honors College, the Business School, the Hinckley Institute of Politics, the Law School, along with one student from Westminster’s Honors College. In addition, the Office for Global Engagement sponsors one student and provides the institutional support for the program. Eighty-percent of the Utah attendees are women. Most, if not all, are globally and locally engaged.
While this summer’s seminar will be focused on the refugee crisis, in March, another group of 35 tackled the main reason for which so many are fleeing their homes in the first place. Titled “Human Rights, Violent Conflict and the Struggle for Peace,” the six-day program was held at Oxford University. It concluded with a workshop on bringing human rights home, with Utah students focusing on climate justice, and how poor air quality such as that in the Wasatch negatively impacts residents’ human rights.
Last fall the Consortium conducted a ten-day workshop in New York City at the Carnegie Council and the UN, and at Quinnipiac University and Yale. This fall, students will be going to Nairobi, Kenya, for a week-long seminar on the topic of human rights and sustainable development, hosted by the United States International University-Africa.
“The Human Rights Oxford Consortium is the epitome of the Ripple Effect,” Elizabeth Gamarra, a graduate student at the College of Social Work and an attendee of the March workshop, says of her experience. “It is composed of driven, leadership-oriented individuals that never seem to underestimate the pivotal importance of human rights, and the impact a small act of kindness may hold along the way. I had the opportunity to become part of a vibrant and engaging cohort that discussed the complexities of social challenges required for interdisciplinary partnerships to catalyze holistic human-rights oriented resolutions.”
The ability to study at Oxford with such “a long legacy and aura as the oldest university in the English speaking world” has an immense impact on the attending students, Chatterjee says. “They realized they were no less, perhaps even better, than the Oxford students.” Chatterjee remembers a student who came from humble beginnings, born to a drug-addicted mother and a father in prison. “She couldn’t believe she was at Oxford. She felt she can now do anything.”
Students that complete the Consortium have many doors opened to them. Past Utah participants have gone on to study at Cambridge University and at top graduate schools in the US, and one is on a Fulbright to Spain. The networking opportunities with like-minded others interested in migrant and refugee studies has lit Spring 2017 attendee Angie Portel’s inner fire. “Making these connections has re-energized me and motivated me to pursue a career as an immigration attorney, with the hopes of one day working for an international human rights organization,” says Portel, a student at the College of Law.
For Gamarra, the Consortium “provided an understanding of critical challenges still rooted in our engagement in the communities in which we reside, and those national and global communities with vulnerable populations we serve.”
“Upon my return from Oxford, I have had several actions that I’ve undertaken to “stay on the pulse” with community needs. I have also been motivated to enhance my local involvement as an advocate, ally, and agent of difference in my community and sphere of influence,” says Gamarra.
Perhaps one day, an army of Oxford Human Rights Consortium allies believing in justice beyond borders will design a global society where refugee crises don’t simply seem far away, but are a distant memory of a confused and turbulent world.