Hundreds of students from De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) have attended a summit at the United Nations headquarters in New York to launch the university’s involvement in the UN’s Together campaign to offer worldwide support to refugees.
DMU has been asked by the UN to take the lead in engaging the higher education sector worldwide to be part of the campaign, and were joined by nine other universities from countries such as Germany, China, USA and Cyprus to debate the current challenges faced by refugees in local communities.
Partners signed an action charter which sets out what will be done by universities on their own campuses to address the refugee crisis.
DMU Vice-Chancellor Professor Dominic Shellard, who led the day’s discussions, emphasised the important role of universities in meeting one of the world’s biggest challenges.
He said: “We are enormously proud to have been chosen as the academic lead for the Together campaign.
“We are faced with a significant human crisis, but we have the same spirit and aspiration. Universities are uniquely placed to make a difference.”
The audience had the privilege of hearing from Maher Nasser, the United Nations Director of Outreach for the Together campaign, and Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the UN.
Mr Nasser said: “Universities play an important role, it was really important to us that De Montfort University came forward and volunteered to be the university’s lead in the Together campaign.”
Ambassador Rycroft explained the UK’s role at the United Nations and encouraged students to think of themselves as activists to make a positive change in the world.
He said: “The Together campaign is about activism from everyone in the world making a difference in what happens. Everything we do in diplomacy is about changing something in the world, and you can play your part in that.”
Perhaps the most important panel member of the day was ZamZam Yusuf, a refugee who is now a first year Youth Work and Community Development student at DMU, who outlined her experiences and explained the support that has been provided to her by DMU.
ZamZam fled Somalia to go to Sweden as a young child before later seeking asylum in the UK. She said: “It’s such an honour to be here today, it wouldn’t have been possible without DMU.”
The first discussion session of the day looked at why the Together campaign is needed. Representatives from various partner universities and senior United Nations staff gave a global perspective on what can be done by universities to help with the crisis.
Dr Diya Abdo spoke about how Guilford College in North Carolina has used their campus to support refugees, including hosting 32 refugees in campus housing and Moritz Schram, a student at Humboldt University in Germany, explained how a law clinic at his university provides free legal counselling for up to 150 refugees per month in the Berlin region and called on other law students to do similar.
Grainne O’Hara, from the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees brought home to students the severity of the refugee crisis by highlighting the figure of 65million people across the world that are currently displaced, the highest rate since the Second World War.
There were thought-provoking questions from students in the audience that addressed issues such as the impact of populist politics, portrayal of refugees in the news and how the burden can be lifted from countries with disproportionate numbers of refugees.
In the day’s second session, university representatives demonstrated what can be done by universities to help refugees.
Pro Vice-Chancellor David Mba gave a summary of the work done in the community, including the work of the #DMUlocal programme. Wesleyan University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Santa Maria in Brazil also shared examples of what higher education institutions can do to support refugees.
The final session of the day got to the heart of what the summit was all about and shaped the action charter that will be adopted by partner universities to address the problem.
Baroness Doreen Lawrence OBE, Chancellor of DMU, was one of five panel members from partner universities who discussed the way the Together campaign should move forward in the coming months.
Panel members agreed that learning from other partners was the most important commitment to make, while other suggestions included working more closely with community organisations, showcasing existing refugee work more effectively and presenting new narratives.
Professor Shellard summed up the significance of the summit. He said: “We can all make an impact and we can all be the change.”
Posted on Tuesday 9th January 2018