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Winter Forum 2012: The Lives of Refugees

Students hear from international officials and refugees about the challenges of restarting a life in a new country

Duke students simulate the experience of refugees at a border crossing during a session of the 2012 Winter Forum.  Photo by Les Todd
Duke students simulate the experience of refugees at a border crossing during a session of the 2012 Winter Forum. Photo by Les Todd

When Janga Poudel
boarded the plane that would take him to a new life in the United States, he carried
a plastic bag emblazoned with the logo of the International Organization for Migration
(IOM), which was largely responsible for the dramatic turn his life was about
to take.

Poudel, a
35-year-old native of Bhutan, had spent more than half his life – two decades –
living in a refugee camp in Nepal. When he disembarked at the end of his
airborne journey, he was in Durham, where he now works at a car wash and
lives with his wife, his two children, a sister and his mother-in-law.

Poudel's story
and that of the 36 million displaced persons worldwide are the focus of this
year's Winter Forum, a three-day annual event sponsored by Duke
University's Office of Undergraduate Education and the Provost's Office.

Organized by the
Kenan Institute for Ethics, the third Winter Forum immersed 110 Duke students in
the practical and ethical challenges faced by the world's refugee population as
well as the people and organizations that strive to help them.

One lesson was the
importance of Poudel's IOM bag.  "The
IOM bag is very significant to most refugees," said Kenan Institute
Associate Director Suzanne Shanahan. "All of their documentation is given
to them in an IOM bag as they begin to resettle, so everybody gets an IOM bag.
They are very familiar with the IOM bag."

refugee officials shared some of the nuances of refugee aid. "Never do for
a refugee what they can do for themselves," said Barbara Harrell-Bond, one
of the world's leading advocates for refugee rights.

Founder of the
Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford and the force behind
groundbreaking research on refugee aid, Harrell-Bond told the students that
helping can be a very dangerous thing. "We must give people the opportunity
for reciprocity and we mustn't load them with a sense of obligation," she

Harell-Bond was
one of several panelists who spoke to students over the course of this week's forum. Another was Duke
alumnus Tori Hogan. Graduating in 2004 with a Program II degree in global
health and human development, she has carved out a globetrotting lifestyle that
includes a 10-part film series, a passion for polar photography, long-term
volunteerism and an upcoming book on the effectiveness of international aid.

Hogan encouraged
students to volunteer, first in their own communities; then to go abroad and to
go often; to leverage their privilege and help others; and, most importantly,
to figure out where their passion lies.

you have joy and flow, that's your major," Hogan said. "That's what
you are supposed to do."

undergraduate students attending this year's conference, including Alexis Spieldenner,
a junior majoring in International Comparative Studies and Japanese, responded
to the example Hogan presented.

"Hearing Tori speak about her experiences since graduating (from) Duke,"
Spieldenner said, "was especially inspiring. I loved her advice on finding
your flow and passion in life. It's not always about planning every step of the
way, but enjoying the journey!"

The forum,
Spieldenner said, "has been an incredibly
eye-opening experience. We've had the opportunity to hear some amazing speakers
who have shed light on the issues of displacement not only from an academic or
policy point of view, but also from personal experience."

In addition to
the panel discussions, the forum included a dinner with 36 refugees from Asia,
Africa and the Middle East, including Poudel and his family. It also included a
separate dinner featuring food from their homelands, a simulated refugee camp
in which students played the role of refugees, and a presentation of "No
Place Called Home," a moving play by writer, actor and comedienne Kim
Schultz about her experience working with Iraqi refugees in the Middle East --
and in one case, falling in love with one.

 "In bringing together a really, truly
remarkable set of individuals from various places around the world and various
sets of experiences, our hope was that you'd begin to get a really, truly and
deeply felt sense of the refugee experience," said Kenan Institute
Associate Director Suzanne Shanahan.

The first Winter
Forum in 2010, hosted by the Nicholas Institute of Environmental Policy
Solutions, focused on the viability of a green economy; the second, hosted by the Duke Global
Health Institute, looked at the myriad implications of a pandemic.

Winter Forum 2012
Students in a mock refugee camp during the Winter Forum.  Photo by Les Todd