Forced Migration, Displacement, and the Liberal Arts

An introduction to our feature on Forced Migration, Displacement, and the Liberal Arts.


This issue of EuropeNow is dedicated to Forced Migration and Displacement, and how some institutions of higher learning in the US and Europe are responding to this global challenge. Future editions of EuropeNow will continue exploring migration and displacement in their myriad manifestations, not only in Europe, but globally. This particular March issue introduces the work of the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement and Education (CFMDE) founded in Spring 2016 and supported with a generous Andrew W. Mellon Grant. What initially started at Vassar College as Vassar Refugee Solidarity in late summer 2015 in response to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe, grew into a much more ambitious initiative, when in April 2016 Vassar, Bard (Annandale and Berlin), Bennington, and Sarah Lawrence Colleges joined forces to address this unprecedented  global movement of people.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) more than 68 million people have been forcibly displaced, and of these some 28 million are refugees or asylum seekers.[1] Acknowledging the responses that governments, NGOs, religious relief agencies, and tech innovators across the globe were devising, the four colleges came together in the belief that institutions of higher learning also have important contributions to make. Given the unresolved (and interrelated) challenges of climate change, global inequality, technological innovation, and war, forced migration will continue to increase, and its implications will be dominating global politics as well as domestic debates for decades to come.

At a time when institutions of higher learning are increasingly scrutinized for the contributions they make to society, we can highlight how US institutions can be engaged, and why the US liberal arts education persists as a model of excellence in teaching and preparing our students for what will truly be their generation’s existential challenge. As institutions of higher learning, we are uniquely positioned to draw on our robust local, national, and international educational and cultural networks, as well as our dedicated and extensive alumnae/i bases to prepare our students for a deeper, more nuanced understanding of forced migration and displacement. Indeed, the coming era of human movement will, without doubt, challenge our existing national and global institutions, and our students must be able to respond to these challenges with intelligence, compassion, and ingenuity.

A 2017-2018 planning grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation allowed the Consortium to reflect on how we could best respond and to develop a road map of how to implement our goals. Through a series of convenings, we traveled to each other’s colleges in order to forge new relationships, strengthen our own programs, bring our faculty and students together to work on how to resolve differences in our internal and external structures, and design new models for courses and resource-sharing. We came to learn that by working together, we could accomplish innovative ideas that were not possible to accomplish on our own. We have come to understand the importance of our conversations and the potential of a unique cross/campus, cross/cultural, cross/international opportunity that is possible for our students and faculty. The subsequent four-year Implementation Grant from the Mellon Foundation (2018-2022) ensures the Consortium’s ambitious goal of building and consolidating a shared curriculum on Forced Migration across our campuses.

Our Consortium uses the terms “forced migration” and “displacement” in the broadly inclusive sense to capture the range of people compelled to leave their homes. It is not limited to legal categories that privilege a particular “objective” determination of legitimate reasons to flee. Rather, it is deliberately intended to enable challenges to the legal or objective definitions and to rethink established categories. Underlying all of our conversations as we shaped our consortium was our commitment to the multifaceted meaning of “migrant knowledges:” the knowledge made and held by migrants, and also the knowledge of and for migrants. We recognize “refugees” and the forcibly displaced as knowledge producers in our planned curriculum, and we also take into account that their knowledges differ in kind and form across space, time, and cultures. Integral to our vision was an insistence on asymmetrical partnering with institutions that may not have been “on our radar” previously, e.g., community colleges, research universities, think tanks, NGOs, tech companies, faith-based groups or community organizations. We also agreed to rethink existing higher education models and to create new learning spaces for both Consortium students and student populations that may be labelled as “forcibly displaced” by advancing innovative methods and technologies to increase their access to education.

Furthermore, from the beginning, our Consortium was interested in exploring how an initiative such as ours might create innovative new opportunities to bridge research and pedagogy. For example, in summer 2017, the Council for European Studies partnered with us, in 2018 The New School joined the Consortium, and the Consortium has also been exploring future collaboration with the University Alliance for Refugees and At-Risk Migrants. This path-breaking partnership between liberal arts colleges, research universities, and research centers, such as CES, will produce new research, create widely available digital archives, make possible the exploration of the digital humanities, and pedagogical models that might serve as blueprints and inspiration for other institutions of higher learning and a broader public. Through such collaboration, undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and scholars will be offered unprecedented opportunities to collaborate on research that can contribute to national and international policy debates related to the challenges of forced migration. We are grateful to CES’s EuropeNow for giving us this platform to introduce the work of the Consortium to a wider academic public. We look forward to hearing how other liberal arts colleges and universities are engaging with this global challenge at a critical time of rising nationalism and xenophobia. Below are some examples of the challenges we have faced, how we have dealt with them, and the innovations and new research that have already emerged as a result of our collaboration.

While it was easy enough for our Consortium members to agree upon shared theoretical approaches to our classes, the development of initiatives, asymmetrical collaboration in our own communities, and possible courses could not but reflect–at least to a certain degree–the different institutional values and long-standing commitments at our schools, but also the demographic makeup of the communities in which our respective campuses are embedded. Furthermore, although our founding colleges are all very similar in their commitments to the liberals arts, the logistics of creating a shared curriculum are not to be underestimated. Despite these challenges, Consortium partners agreed on a sequence of study, and the foundational class of that curriculum is the “Lexicon of Forced Migration.” Consortium partners are working collectively to develop and fine-tune this class, which both introduces and interrogates the key terms and concepts of Migration Studies. Student research will ultimately produce a shared digital “Lexicon of Forced Migration” that will be accessible on CES’s and the Consortium’s digital platforms.

The Lexicon of Forced Migration class taught by Parthiban Muniandy at Sarah Lawrence highlights some of the challenges faculty were asked to overcome given that our individual schools differ in the organization of curricula and the structure of majors, disciplines and programs. One of the Consortium schools (Bennington), for example, has no majors at all, and Sarah Lawrence, as Muniandy describes in some detail, only offers year-long classes that have traditionally been connected to “service learning.” In his description of the Lexicon of Forced Migration class, Muniandy explores the adjustments he had to make in order to adapt our shared curriculum to Sarah Lawrence’s institutional structure. He also highlights the Consortium commitment to rethink long-established models of “service-learning,” and to explore how the theoretical readings in our classrooms might translate into new forms of community-engaged learning, which take into account the needs of the community (migrants, immigrants, asylees, community leaders), thus sparking new models of social justice engagement.

In his contribution “Rethinking Europe through Refugees, Populism, and ‘Crisis,’” Jeff Jurgens (Bard, Annandale) highlights how he works with his “traditional” students at Bard to challenge existing terms and labels related to forced migration. Bard’s Prison program at Eastern NY Correctional Facility also made it possible to bring this challenge to a population that might be “displaced” due to mass incarceration. Students in both classes recognized that, though refugees’ lives are embedded in larger structural contexts and they often confront dilemmas that cannot be easily resolved, there is a pressing need to move beyond representations of refugees and other migrants as victims. The students in both classes also concluded that perceptions of “crisis” in Europe highlight lingering contradictions in Europe itself as a seemingly insulated and self-contained zone while ignoring the historical relationships that European actors have long maintained in Africa, the Middle East, and other parts of the Global South.

Our Consortium’s commitment to rethinking old presumptions in our Lexicon of Forced Migration class, also means scrutinizing the terms we use in our scholarly work. Not all migrants have to cross a sea or a checkpoint; incarcerated persons, survivors of environmental catastrophe, or those displaced by structural poverty, for instance, also inform our understanding of displaced persons. Furthermore, our focus on forced migration may be enhanced by a greater understanding of the challenges faced by voluntary migrants. In her article, “At Home in the City? The Persistence of the Ethnic Lens in Everyday Urban Encounters,” Agata Lisiak from Bard Berlin discusses how migrant women mothers in Germany and Great Britain navigate motherhood, and how the negotiations of migrant mothering are informed by class, ethnicity, gender, and specific urban contexts. Without dismissing the importance of ethnic categories in the production and reproduction of xenophobia, Lisiak argues that the persistence of the ethnic lens in migrants’ understanding of their experiences tends to obscure other important power dynamics at play.

The interviews conducted by Vassar students Matt Brill-Carlat and Margaret Edgecomb (with project leaders at each participating campus) highlight how our shared curriculum offers not only new initiatives, but also opportunities that each school on its own could not have pursued. To offer our students a historically informed and geographically comprehensive understanding of migration, existing study abroad opportunities have been expanded, and new ones were created. The emphasis was on making it possible for our students to draw on migrant knowledges and to understand the historical conditions and current connections between migration taking place in different parts of the globe, as well as the different set of debates, challenges, and possibilities of migration. The study and research opportunities created abroad by Bard Berlin, Sarah Lawrence, and The New School are open to all of our Consortium students, which will allow them to respond to this global challenge in a truly innovative, forward-looking manner instead of falling back on the standard assumptions and policies of their own national context.

Kerry Bystrom from Bard Berlin, for example, explains how their college is embedded in a major theater of contemporary migration. Its campus offers Consortium students the opportunity to study together with refugee students attending Bard, and learning through their work with local NGOs and advocacy groups, about a different national response to mass migration. Another new program developed as part of the Consortium is led by Adam Brown (previously Sarah Lawrence), who now directs The New School’s Global Mental Health Lab, which brings undergraduate, graduate students, postbacs, and faculty together in developing a mental health assessment in refugee populations. To broaden our students’ opportunities beyond Europe, Sarah Lawrence developed a new intensive summer program in Malaysia, led by Parthiban Muniandy. As a major destination and hub for transnational migration, Malaysia attracts a wide range of migrants from across socio-economic, national and ethnic backgrounds.  Consortium students will learn together with migrants, migrant NGOs and research institutions, including the Franco-Malaysian Institut Pondok Perancis, how these different experiences of migration are shaped in the context of one of Asia’s “global cities.”

Vassar College’s “New Americans” engages faculty and students from our Consortium in direct work with forcibly displaced individuals within an American setting. The program introduces refugee and migrant youth who have made their way to the US in the past few years to the liberal arts, and aims to prepare and ready them for the college application process.  The summer program builds on Vassar’s substantial experience with existing transition programs that make higher education accessible to previously underserved populations: Exploring College, Exploring Transfer, the Vassar Posse programs for US veterans, and the newly launched initiative to establish aVassar–Dutchess Community College Scholars Transition” program. Bennington College also drew upon a long-standing commitment by expanding and sharing with the Consortium its innovative multilingual and multidisciplinary project, Bennington Translates, which teaches students to be translators and interpreters while also aiming to help forcibly displaced individuals in locations around the world where translation is needed (as well as in their own backyard). As part of this initiative, Bennington Translates will share lessons learned from its work with students as translators in the local community through mobile clinics that will travel to Consortium partner campuses.

Beyond our signature projects, a key deliberation within the Consortium was the understanding that we need to rethink not only what we teach, but how we teach. In her paper, Kerry Bystrom from Bard Berlin offers a bold suggestion through a study of literature. In “Imagining Planetary Refuge,” Kerry Bystrom suggests that though scholars know that the border is not a physical barrier that divides “us” from “them,” in everyday discourse the concepts of border and wall are fused. Through various real life and literary examples, the article maps the literal and metaphorical walls that divide our current political landscape. Her article offers a plea to educators to reform teaching practices so future generations may respond to future migration by “inventing the world for themselves.”

This call to invention has posed productive challenges to our pedagogical practice. And yet while the Consortium’s cross/cultural, cross/disciplinary approach demanded innovation, it has also enriched existing knowledge by highlighting the migrant voices who have already shaped our archive. In her article, “Mobilizing Disciplinary Knowledge in the Migration Studies Classroom: The Case of Migrant Literatures in French,” Brittany Murray from Vassar College illuminates how engagement with refugees and immigrant workers as purveyors of knowledge, can also begin in the theoretical space of the classroom. Using literary works by Hélène Cixous and Leïla Sebbar, she explores the autobiographical writing of women migrants to France to illustrate how past experiences of migration might illuminate contemporary challenges.  Her article demonstrates how educators might draw upon migrant literatures to bridge teaching and research.

The intellectual work of questioning what we teach and how we teach goes hand-in-hand with efforts to forge new relationships and asymmetrical collaborations as our initiative develops and matures. The current issues of EuropeNow highlight some of the work being done already and points toward the larger ambition of bridging the gap between liberal arts institutions such as ours, and research universities who are engaging with the issues of forced migration from a different perspective and with a different emphasis. The Consortium model allows us to connect our undergraduate students with researchers who are proposing innovative models in the domain of mental health and medicine, resulting in innovative approaches to treatment, policy, and research. Already we can point to the important work that Adam Brown has been doing together with the Emergency Department at  the University Hospital in Bern in order to develop a mental health assessment for forcibly displaced individuals. As Brown describes, Consortium students will work together with graduate students, postdocs, as well as faculty and local health care providers to carry out a large-scale multi-site assessment of mental health issues across a network of Swiss hospitals and develop and implement brief psychosocial treatments for refugees. Brown’s research will culminate in policy suggestions for the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, the Hospitals for Equity Network, and the Swiss Committee for Mental Health.

Notwithstanding the rise in xenophobic nationalism across the globe, exemplified by the rhetoric of closing borders in some cases and building walls in others, institutions such as ours can and must recommit to the tradition of the academy serving as a refuge for persecuted scholars and students. Members of our Consortium have stepped up to this challenge in the past by hosting scholars and students from Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe; aiding Hungarians fleeing Soviet persecution after the 1956 Revolution; and welcoming Soviet Jews fleeing anti-Semitism during the 1980s. Today, Scholars at Risk, the Institute for International Education, and The New University in Exile Consortium (founded at The New School) are reviving that tradition of the academy as a place of refuge. Our Consortium also committed to bringing refugee scholars and we are grateful to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for being willing to support that commitment as thousands of persecuted scholars are forced out of their positions across the globe.

In her interview, Susan Sgorbati from Bennington College introduces readers to one such scholar, the actress, dramaturg, and theater studies professor Burcu Seyben from Turkey, who spent this academic year at Bennington. Drawing upon a rich personal history—the two met when Seyben was an undergraduate student at Bennington College many years ago—the interview explores Seyben’s recent experience in Turkey after signing the Academics for Peace petition as well as her current residency at Bennington college. Forced to leave her university and her country as Turkish scholars faced increased arrests and imprisonment, Bennington college was able to help Burcu and her family escape this danger and making it possible for Bennington students to learn with and from a refugee scholar. A scholar who found a safe haven at Bennington College from 1940 to 1943 after fleeing Austria was Karl Polanyi. In, “Polanyi Returns to Bennington,” John Hultgren discusses the continued relevance of Karl Polanyi’s magnum opus, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (1944), which he wrote while at Bennington. Hultgren persuasively argues for the urgency of revisiting Polanyi’s work seventy five years after it was written. Polanyi’s theoretical framework, the article suggests, offers conceptual tools to understand and combat the rise of right wing populism and xenophobic nationalism today. Contextualizing Polanyi as a refugee intellectual whose own life and work transgressed both geo-political and intellectual boundaries, Hultgren urges us to evaluate anew the role that liberal arts colleges can play in intervening in contemporary crises of migration and displacement.

Our Consortium schools have developed some pilots to explore how we might expand the “physical” and “intellectual” boundaries of our classrooms, but none have been as fully developed as the model introduced by Djemila Carron, a member of the University of Geneva’s Law Faculty who is involved in her university’s InZone project. We include her essay “The Study and Teaching of Human Rights in Refugee Camps: Learning from Experience,” as an inspiration for how we might rethink the “boundaries” of our campuses. Carron taught her Introduction to Human Rights in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya and she highlights how the refugee camp environment differs from that of the university, and how, due to limited opportunities for voluntary repatriation, resettlement, and local integration, there is a need for refugees to invest their energies in the life and functioning of this sprawling camp. Carron addresses how InZone carried out its mission of building higher education spaces in refugee camps through classroom modification, improved transportation access, student feedback, and additional research into improving the class experience. Concluding with a discussion of legal empowerment, Carron illustrates how once refugees have opportunities to access knowledge and skills, they are empowered to develop initiatives appropriate for their needs and expectations.  In such a setting, refugees foster both individual empowerment and that of their communities.

The Consortium is also committed to including the arts, both when we learn about displaced populations, and when we learn with and from those who were forcibly displaced. Mural artist Joel Bergner, aka Joel Artista, whose work with refugee youth in Africa, South America and the Middle East was featured in June 2017 in EuropeNow, for example, will be creating a mural with refugee youth at Vassar’s “New Americans” summer program this July. The current issue of EuropeNow focuses not so much on art created by refugees (although our artist does that kind of work as well) but will feature the stunning photographs of Nadia Benchallal, an award-winning French-Algerian photographer who lives in France and has shown her work across the globe. Her photos are accompanied by a short text describing the context of the Markazi refugee camp in Djibouti, written by her collaborateur Nathalie Peutz, program head of the Arab Crossroads Studies Program at NYU Abu Dhabi. Benchallal’s images introduce us to the stark reality of Markazi refugee camp in Djibouti, a country that hosts more than 29,000 refugees from Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. This collection of images attests to Europe’s interconnection with other regions of the globe, as some of the refugees photographed by Benchallal and interviewed by Peutz have made their way via the Mediterranean to Europe.

From the beginning of our Consortium, student voices were integral to our deliberations, so it is most appropriate that we conclude this introduction with a student’s perspective on our past efforts and future challenges. In his article “Forced Migration, Student Responses, and the Liberal Arts,” Vassar’s Matthew Brill-Carlat, who is the student leader of the Consortium, explores a central tension that Consortium students and faculty must wrestle with when balancing each college’s goal of educating its students and creating programs to enrich students’ time at college, and their goal of making an impact on the world and people off campus. He questions what could be lost and gained under a model that values students’ learning and preparation above all else, and acknowledges that we might run the risk of choosing programs foremost that prioritize our schools’ own students so they can have the best possible ‘educational experience.’ The dilemma of how to balance institutional and ethical commitments in the Consortium’s activities has no simple solution, but the best way forward, Brill-Carlat concludes, is for us to ask the communities that we engage with about their needs and goals for such a partnership, and how students and colleges can meet those needs, while not losing sight of the rationales and ramifications of our actions.



– “Imagining Planetary Refuge” by Kerry Bystrom

“Emergency Medicine and Refugee Mental Health: Can Swiss ER Doctors Reduce Gaps in Mental Healthcare?” by Adam Brown

“Polanyi Returns to Bennington: The Role of Liberal Arts Colleges at a Moment of ‘Great Transformation'” by John Hultgren

“At Home in the City? The Persistence of the Ethnic Lens in Everyday Urban Encounters” by Agata Lisiak


“Seeking Academic Freedom: An Interview with Burcu Seyben” by Susan Sgorbati

Visual Art

“Closed Doorways, Barred Windows” by Mohamad Hafez

“Markazi: A Camp At Crossroads” by Nadia Benchallal with an introduction by Nathalie Peutz

Campus Spotlight: Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education

“Mobilizing Disciplinary Knowledge in the Migration Studies Classroom: The Case of Migrant Literatures in French” by Brittany Murray

“The Study and Teaching of Human Rights in Refugee Camps: Learning From Experience” by Djemila Carron

“Rethinking Europe through Refugees, Populism, and ‘Crisis’” by Jeffrey Jurgens

“Forced Migration, Student Responses, and the Liberal Arts” by Matthew Brill-Carlat

“Genesis and Philosophy: An Interview with Members of CFMDE” by Matthew Brill-Carlat and Margaret Edgecombe

“Implementation and Cross-Campus Collaboration: An Interview with Members of CFMDE” by Matthew Brill-Carlat and Margaret Edgecombe

“Syllabus: Confronting the “Crisis:” Refugees and Populism in Europe” by Jeffrey Jurgens

“Syllabus: The Lexicon of Migration: Nations, Borders, and Mobilities” by Parthiban Muniandy


Migrating Borders and Moving Times: Temporality and the Crossing of Borders in Europe, reviewed by Brad Blitz



Maria Höhn is Professor of History on the Marion Musser Lloyd ’32 Chair of History and International Studies at Vassar College. Her research focuses on the U.S. military presence in Germany after WWII, with a particular focus on gender and race relations, and the role that African American GIs played in moving forward the civil rights struggle. Together with Anish Kanoria VC ’18 she is the founder of VC Refugee Solidarity at Vassar College, the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance (Vassar, Marist, Bard College, SUNY New Paltz, Dutchess Community College, Mount St. Mary College, Vassar Temple, Christ Episcopal Church, Majid al-Noor Mosque, and Dutchess County and Greater Newburgh Interfaith Councils). She is the Director and PI of the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement and Education (Vassar College, Bard College/Annandale, Bard College/Berlin, Bennington, Sarah Lawrence Colleges, The New School and the Council for European Studies).

Brittany Murray is a scholar of French and Francophone Studies.  She is also Coordinator for Research and Pedagogy for the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education (CFMDE).  She works with the Consortium’s Project Director Maria Höhn, Professor of History on the Marion Musser Lloyd ’32 Chair and Consortium Coordinator Matt Brill-Carlat. As the liaison between the Consortium and the CES network, she fosters research opportunities among student and faculty partners at Vassar, Bard, Bennington, and Sarah Lawrence colleges. Her duties also include supporting the Consortium’s pedagogical initiatives, and she is currently teaching the curriculum’s entry course, Lexicon of Forced Migration, at Vassar College.

Nicole Shea is the Director of the Council for European Studies at Columbia University and the Executive Editor of EuropeNow.




Published on March 5, 2019.
Photo: Nadia Benchallal


Print Friendly, PDF & Email