Rollins Welcomes First Refugee Family

A new program—the only one of its kind on a Florida campus—is providing transitional housing and support to people displaced from their homeland.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Since early September, a refugee family from Colombia has been living in a furnished, two-bedroom apartment on the Rollins campus.

Part of the College’s pilot Refugee in Residence program, the family—a husband, wife, and 4-year-old boy—fled their country’s prolonged civil war in hopes of a safer life in the United States. For the next three months, Rollins will provide transitional housing, meals, English instruction, and other support services.

An eight-person committee led by Shelby McGuire ’15—Bonner Leader Program coordinator and AmeriCorps Public Ally—is working closely with Catholic Charities of Central Florida, the federal government’s nonprofit agency in charge of refugee resettlement, to help the family find permanent housing, obtain jobs, and ease into American culture.

As long as it has vacant residential space, the College plans to house one refugee family per academic semester.

“This program allows us to live our mission of global citizenship and responsible leadership in a very tangible way,” says Dan Chong, assistant professor of political science and Refugee in Residence committee member. “Dozens of students will be interacting with this family—whether as volunteers, tutors or in the classroom—so it’s an opportunity for a transformational learning experience that’s very personal and intimate. I’m inspired that people are coming out of the woodwork to offer support and goods the family might need.”

Leading the Way

According to Diya Abdo, who runs the national Every Campus a Refuge network, Rollins is the only college in Florida providing on-campus housing to refugees—all of whom have been vetted by the Department of State. Abdo, an associate professor of English at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, started her campaign last fall when Pope Francis urged European Catholic parishes to take in families fleeing political violence in the Middle East.

Around the same time, Women’s Golf Coach Julie Garner had been wondering how Rollins could play a role in aiding refugees. After doing some research and finding Abdo’s organization online, she approached Marissa Corrente, associate director of the Rollins Center for Leadership and Community Engagement, to see what could be done locally.

“From a holistic standpoint, a college campus has all the requisite needs to help a family make a fresh start in the U.S.,” Garner says. “When we formed the committee and presented our idea to President Cornwell, people really rallied behind the idea.”

On September 9, Cornwell announced the program in an email to the Rollins community. “I enthusiastically support this plan,” he wrote, “and I hope that we can all strive to assure its success.”

‘Win-Win Scenario’

Rollins will incur no out-of-pocket costs to house the family. Furnishings and other items have mostly been donated, and meals are provided through Sodexo’s Food Recovery Program, a student-driven initiative that donates all unused Cornell Campus Center food at the end of every day.

English language teaching services will be offered through Project Bridge, a free program Rollins provides to its ESOL employees. Participants receive classroom lessons and help from student tutors.

According to Chong, campuswide events on the experience of refugees are being planned for late October and mid-November. The family is under no obligation to share its story publicly. However, they might choose to speak to select classes.

“We would love to see other campuses following this model,” Chong says. “We assume we’re not the only campus with some excess housing capacity or whose students could benefit directly from interacting with refugees. This is a win-win scenario.”

While Chong acknowledges that any effort to resettle refugees could be met with opposition—one North Carolina legislator, for instance, asked Guilford College to rescind its offer to house a Syrian family—the idea is not to make a political or partisan statement.

“Our goal at Rollins is to live out our mission,” Chong says. “This is about merging a humanitarian mission with an educational one.”