Tulane hosts Refugee Speaker Series

Gabby Abrams, Contributing Reporter

Tulane University’s Refugee Speakers Series provided a platform for sharing stories of the modern refugee experience. The series was funded by the Center for Engaged Learning and Teaching, the Altman Program, the Jewish Studies Department, the History Department and Tulane Law School. Professors Jana Lipman of the History Department and Sarah Cramsey of the Jewish Studies Department organized the event. 

The series featured Tulane Law School Professor Laila Hlass, who spoke about President Donald Trump’s attacks on modern-day asylum seekers, as well as Professor Adeno Addis, who discussed “The Dignity of Belonging and the Indignity of Displacement.” Cramsey herself gave a talk on Nov. 5 about the migration of Polish Jews. 

The idea for this series dates back to 2014, when Cramsey was in eastern Europe writing a book about the multitude of people who found themselves in displaced persons camps throughout Germany and Austria following World War II. 

“I started to ask myself a lot of questions about how the present situations of Syrian refugees was both similar and different from the refugee situation that I was studying in Europe in the 1940s,” Cramsey said. “I decided that when I came back to Tulane after that summer, I really wanted to put together a speaker series to have many different people who are experts in refugees in many different places throughout the world.”

The series concluded on Nov. 19 with a lecture by Jana Mason, senior advisor of the UN Refugee Agency. Mason detailed the history of the UN Refugee Agency beginning with its creation in 1950 after World War II. She also gave technical definitions for terms like “refugee” — internally displaced person and asylum seekers — and the practical implications that those definitions have for displaced people such as those seeking refuge due to climate change. 

In the conclusion of her talk, Mason answered Cramsey’s initial question about the difference between the approach to refugee issues of the 1940s and those of present day. 

“In Nazi Germany as seen in movies like ‘Schindler’s List,’ we celebrated people that helped others escape from harms way … but when they see what’s happening at the border, they are criminals who are trying to abuse the system,” Mason said.

This negative mindset toward refugees as well as the growing number of people displaced by conflicts makes it all the more difficult for the UN Refugee Agency to achieve its goals. 

Mason noted, however, that the Refugee Agency is taking a new approach to solving the refugee crisis. It is now putting more of an emphasis on supporting host countries so that they have the infrastructure to allow refugees to live and work in their countries. This effort aims to address the staggering statistic that the average refugee is displaced for 19 years. 

The series took major steps toward accomplishing the goals of Cramsey and Lipman to educate the Tulane community about the harsh realities of the current global refugee situation and on the measures being taken to alleviate this burden. 

“We can have a campus-wide discussion about what it means to be a refugee throughout historical time and across geographical space,” Cramsey said.

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