This is just one of many insights Eskinder Negash shared while holding Beloit’s 2016-17 Weissberg Chair in International Studies in April. A refugee himself from Eritrea, he offered many others: The majority of international refugees live in camps intended as temporary sites, but many languish there for decades, even generations, without access to education, a way to make a living, or the freedom to leave without permission. Despite the heated rhetoric in the United States, less than 1 percent of refugees worldwide gain access to the U.S. resettlement program.
“We keep hearing there is a refugee crisis,” says Negash. “I disagree. The crisis we have is our response.”
The senior vice president for global engagement for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Negash has devoted the past 35 years of his life to serving refugees.
During Weissberg Week, a seven-day residency at Beloit, Negash was a ubiquitous presence on campus, leading panel discussions, visiting classes, chatting with students, offering public lectures. Soft-spoken yet direct, he described a system “in global crisis,” with an outdated approach that warehouses refugees around the world in camps similar to prisons. Just one example is Dadaab, a camp in eastern Kenya. Intended to be temporary when established in 1991, it held 400,000 Somali refugee residents by the time it marked its 20th year.
Beloit’s Weissberg program allows students uncommon access to world leaders each year, and 2017 was no exception. On a Thursday afternoon, for example, about 14 students gathered around a table with Negash in the World Affairs Center to seek advice about how to prepare for human rights advocacy. He talked about some of the rewards of this work saying:
“Serving refugees makes me a better human being, I see myself through them.”
He did not sugarcoat the challenges, however. His initial advice to students wanting to get started in the field? “Don’t do it. It doesn’t pay well and it’s difficult work.” Then he softened: “Unless it’s a reflection of you. It has to be a conscious decision and align with your values. It can’t be an intellectual exercise.”