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Many of the newest and youngest refugees are fleeing armed conflicts around the globe.

The world’s refugee crisis has never been worse. The number has doubled in a decade to more than 100 million people, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

To ease the growing crisis, the U.S. State Department launched a program in January 2023 with private partnerships, called Welcome Corps, to help resettle refugees. Six months later, it launched a companion version called Welcome Corps on Campus to resettle and educate refugee students by partnering with colleges and universities.

“Certainly, the Welcome Corps on Campus is not going to solve the global refugee crisis,” said Nele Feldmann, associate director, Welcome Corps on Campus, Community Sponsorship Hub.

“I think many times we feel powerless when confronted with the scope of displacement,” Feldmann said. “And I think that programs like Welcome Core on Campus give universities and colleges and their surrounding communities a really tangible way to have a positive impact and give back to refugee communities.”

Currently, Welcome Corps on Campus has recruited students who are in refuge in Jordan and Kenya for the incoming classes of 2024 and 2025. The students sheltered in Kenya were recruited from South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And the students being sheltered in Jordan were largely recruited from Syria but include some Iraqi and Yemeni students.

As the program grows, the geographic scope of the recruitment efforts will include refugees from other parts of the world.

Two for JMU

James Madison University joined the new program and will sponsor two refugees.

The school handpicked a team of five sponsors who are tasked with providing care, support and guidance to two young Kenyans coming to their Virginia campus.

“This team is going to propel them so that their story doesn’t stop at James Madison; it is going to start here,” said Christina Kilby, a sponsor and a James Madison professor of religion.

“Only 5% or 6% of refugees get to access higher education,” she added.

The sponsors are anticipating and preparing for all of the details, big and small, their two African refugees will need to address to live in Harrisonburg, Virginia, along with the 22,000 other students on the JMU campus.

“What are those first interactions going to be like and what food are we going to bring?” said Kim Davidson, a sponsor, who is also the director of the Community Engagement Center at James Madison. “And where are we going to stop on the way home, and can we bring them a pillow?”

“What’s exciting to me is introducing them to my family,” Kilby told VOA. “And having my kids get to learn from them and their experiences, and that new network they are going to build to really make possible whatever their goals are.”

Another member of the school’s refugees sponsor team is associate professor Delores Phillips, director of the African, African American and Diaspora Studies Center at JMU.

“I think I want to take them out myself and see what they like and see what they know,” Phillips told VOA. “And give them some time to acclimate. And let them wander around a little.”

Starting this fall

The program’s freshman class of 33 refugees, ages 18-24 and sheltered in Kenya, will start school, the first year of the program, in the fall of 2024 at 18 U.S. colleges and universities.

And the 75 members of the class that will start in the fall of 2025 were accepted and recruited while taking shelter in Jordan. If all goes as planned, the two incoming classes of freshmen will graduate from their schools in 2028 and 2029.

The State Department has resettled 138,134 of the world’s refugees into the U.S. since 2021. But Welcome Corps on Campus is a new path for resettlement into the U.S.

As part of Welcome Corps on Campus, the State Department granted the students in the program refugee status, humanitarian protection and asylum from the problems they are fleeing, such as violence or persecution based on their nationality, politics, religion, race or social affiliations.

One of the most important jobs the five sponsors will have is to protect the refugees from stereotypes and biases, Phillips said.

“I think that stigmas and assumptions are also going to be our challenge, in terms of an institution,” she said. “We will assume that they are poor. We will assume that they are unlettered and unread. We will assume that they are dusty village people and they may not be.”

Phillips added that, prior to being accepted into Welcome Corps on Campus, some of the refugees may have had outstanding educations that are equivalent to those received at Oxford University.

“They may have actually been schooled in the Oxonian tradition,” she added.

Survey results

Republicans and Democrats in Congress, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are battling over immigration policy in the U.S. Currently, anti-immigration sentiments in the country are so high that many of the schools helping refugee students fear backlash, and they asked VOA not to identity their campuses.

A September 2022 Pew Research Center poll found 72% of Americans said it was very or somewhat important for the U.S. to take in civilian refugees seeking escape from violence and war, but only 28% of Americans said taking in refugees was a very important priority.

But JMU and its Welcome Corps on Campus sponsors are unwavering in their support for refugees, which some immigration experts and refugee advocates say sets an example for students and other schools.

“I just believe that we are all citizens of a very interconnected world,” said Davidson, of JMU’s Community Engagement Center. “They are leaving so much behind, like family and everything that they’ve known, and hopes and prayers. That’s a heavy weight on them and a responsibility on us, too.”

The sentiment all the sponsors share is that the Welcome Corps on Campus is good for refugees but also good for JMU because it is in line with the university’s mission to make a difference on a global scale by making a difference in the local community.

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