One Vassar Professor Tackles the International Refugee Crisis Locally

Vassar College historian Maria Höhn founded Vassar Refugee Solidarity as a way for the Poughkeepsie campus to support those in need across the globe.

In 2015, the historian Maria Höhn was visiting Germany, where she witnessed the realities of Europe’s refugee crisis. The Vassar professor saw direct parallels with her own work on 20th century German history: “I was deeply shocked and moved and concerned that another crisis was unfolding,” she says. “We needed to do something.”

Students of the inaugural New Americans Summer Program / Photo credit: Karl Rabe, Vassar College

Together with some of her students, Höhn founded Vassar Refugee Solidarity on the school’s campus. Today, says Höhn, “the project at Vassar itself is sprawling, huge,” encompassing charitable work, student activism, and the Consortium on Forced Migration, a brand-new curriculum for whose development the school received a $2.5 million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant. In the fall of 2019, it held a conference on the intersection of forced migration and mental health, with attendance from representatives of several international refugee organizations.

From its beginning, Solidarity was focused beyond the campus. Throughout 2016 Höhn connected with a number of local community and religious organizations, including the Vassar Temple, Masjid Al-Noor mosque in Wappingers Falls, and several local colleges, to found the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance, which planned to work with Church World Services to resettle some 80 refugees, primarily from Congo and Myanmar, in the Poughkeepsie area. Such resettlement is hardly unprecedented for the area: Masjid Al-Noor helped Bosnian families fleeing the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and a good many other refugees call the area home.

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Maria Höhn (second from right) with (from left) Poet Gold, 2017 and 2018 Dutchess County poet laureate; Elizabeth Bradley, president of Vassar College; Robert Rolison, mayor of Poughkeepsie; and Matthew Brill-Carlat, from the Consortium on Forced Migration / Photo credit: Karl Rabe, Vassar College

Though the plan received some vicious pushback from a small group of what Höhn describes as “very angry, very nasty” Poughkeepsie residents, it was ultimately undone by the reduction of refugee admissions, which left the office with almost no one to resettle. In the end, a single Egyptian family joined the Poughkeepsie community before CWS closed its office at the end of December 2017.

Having raised money, supplies, and other materials for refugees who were no longer coming, Höhn and Solidarity donated much of it to various Poughkeepsie organizations and shifted their attentions to the Albany area, long a prominent resettlement area. Students set up a lab for which Vassar donated computers, help with SAT prep, and they periodically organize drives for products which can’t be purchased with food stamps, like shoes, diapers, female hygiene products, soap, wipes, and other necessities, which they store in a trailer donated by the Arnoff Moving & Storage family and organize trips to deliver.

According to senior geography and Hispanic studies major, and Solidarity co-president, Mojan Farid, the key is “to listen to the needs of others, whether that be the need for clothes, books, toys, kitchen utensils, or even schooling.” To that end, this summer, Vassar held its inaugural New Americans Summer Program, at which 18 high school students with refugee and forced-migrant backgrounds took two college classes and were given advice about how to prepare for and apply to colleges.

At its conclusion, these teenagers from places as distant at Ecuador, Haiti, and Afghanistan painted a mural on the Vassar farm, which was unveiled at an event attended by Poughkeepsie Mayor Robert Rolison. Given the hatred expressed by certain members of the community in 2016, the event was not promoted by Solidarity. But Höhn wants people to know that this work is being done. “There are good things in this country: We help people who are desperate, who are in need,” she says. “I think we need to advertise these things.”

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