A university mobilised in the refugee crisis

A university mobilised in the refugee crisis

This week on the EAIE blog, we are covering the very topical and relevant issue of the refugee crisis in Europe. While Europe-wide responses are still underdeveloped, local responses have emerged and, with them, best practices. Today’s blog post is from Hungary, an important point of contention in this situation. Countering hostility towards refugees, the Central European University has taken serious action to alleviate the dire conditions under which refugees are living.

In August 2015, Budapest became the centre of a burgeoning refugee crisis in Europe, with thousands crossing through the city on almost a daily basis, bound for a more welcoming Germany. Central European University (CEU), a graduate institution founded in 1991 with the explicit mission of supporting open society and democracy, reacted quickly, organically, and on several fronts to the humanitarian crisis unfolding just blocks away from our campus.

A unique approach

As word spread via social media about how citizens could help, CEU staff and faculty, both Hungarian and foreign, joined the dozens of volunteers providing food, water, blankets and other supplies to refugees stranded at train stations in the capital. The university administration agreed to provide space for a key humanitarian group, Migration Aid, to collect and sort donations on campus for delivery to the stations for the month of August. University president and Rector John Shattuck created a task force to coordinate all the initiatives, both humanitarian and academic, that were emerging from faculty, staff, and students across the university. As students arrived, experienced volunteers from the CEU community held 14 information sessions on how to help – one incoming student formed a Facebook group called CEU Helps that continues to coordinate volunteer activities.

Some of our initiatives were unique or innovative. For example, to harness the power of our university’s incredible diversity – we have students from 104 countries – we called for volunteer translators who know Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Pashto and other languages and arranged for them to help various NGOs and refugees communicate. A CEU team developed and operated mobile WiFi and phone-charging stations for refugees throughout the crisis in Budapest, providing a ‘digital lifeline’ for people who often had nothing else with them but a mobile phone. Team members now offer workshops to NGOs and are helping to extend this project to other refugee border crossings.

Academic response

The Hungarian government’s response in September shut refugees out of the country and the crisis shifted to the borders. Meanwhile, CEU did not stop its efforts – our community continues to collect donations and deliver them to the Croatian and Slovenian borders and assist with translations, for example. Institutionally, we now put more effort into longer-term programmes suited to a university – to help refugees prepare for or continue their graduate education, research or teaching. Our academic initiatives include:

The refugee crisis, for CEU, dramatically illustrated the relevance of our open society mission and the importance of our location in Hungary, on the perimeter of the EU. The heart-breaking circumstances brought our community together to carry out activities based on our longstanding commitment to civic engagement and supporting the principles of open society and human rights.

The recent terrorist attacks and the continuing influx of refugees to Europe have deepened controversy about how to manage the crisis. In this situation, we feel strongly that universities have an important role to play in participating in humanitarian efforts, contributing to policy discussions, and providing opportunities for study, research and teaching.

Adri is Director of Communications and member of the CEU Refugee Crisis Response Task Force at Central European University