Imagine arriving in a new country. With nothing but what you can carry, no income, and a daunting language barrier, you’re forced to find a new home.   

Now, imagine arriving during the pandemic. No welcoming smiles. Just masked faces, sterile environments, and a heightened sense of anxiety during an already stressful time. Across the country, including the Roanoke and New River valleys, this is often the reality for refugees, migrants, and other displaced people.

Since its founding in late 2020, the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies at Virginia Tech has strived to provide community resources for displaced families and individuals arriving in the region. The center also works to better understand displacement on global and local scales through humanistic and interdisciplinary research.

On April 8, the center will hold its official launch celebration from 4 to 6 p.m. on Virginia Tech’s Upper Quad. The previously planned event was delayed by the pandemic. 

“This event is an opportunity to highlight the important work students, faculty members, and community members are already doing to address issues of mobility, relocation, and displacement,” said Katrina Powell, director of the center and a professor in the Department of English.

To complement the official launch, the center has kicked off a crowdfunding campaign that will continue until April 24. Proceeds will fund experiential learning opportunities for students working with refugees and migrants.

The center provides several opportunities for student involvement. Its “In Place” podcast, for example, shines a light on displaced people in Virginia. Meanwhile, the student-led Coalition for Refugee Resettlement fosters relationships between students and the refugee community, and the college preparatory program Elimisha Kakuma offers tutoring for refugees. The center’s digital series, “Roots & Resettlement,” provides a multimodal outlet to share writing, art, and compositions about displacement, resettlement, place, and belonging.

Deepa Gajulapalli, a senior majoring in human development and minoring in strategic communication and political science, said the center has changed her perception that refugees are placed only in large cities.

“If you look into the recent Afghan refugee crisis, and where these refugees are going, it’s not necessarily cities,” she said. “It’s usually rural areas, and it’s hard to imagine coming from a different country, and then going somewhere with little diversity, that doesn’t have the same people or culture, and where you don’t know the language.”

Aside from Powell, the center’s other founders include Brett Shadle, chair of the Department of History and the center’s associate director of outreach; Rebecca Hester, an assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society and the center’s associate director of education; Georgeta Pourchot, coordinator of the Virginia Tech International Refugee Research Project and the center’s associate director of international initiatives; and Katherine Randall, the center’s first graduate research assistant, who now works as a national community sponsorship associate with Church World Service.  

Powell said the center, which is interdisciplinary in nature, brings together years of faculty research, including that of the International Refugee Research Project, which Pourchot launched in 2016. Pourchot is now associate director of Virginia Tech’s Center for European Union, Transatlantic, and Trans-European Space Studies.

“I think the center is so important because it’s a central place where scholars across the university can come together and collaborate and tackle problems about displacement and resettlement, and things affecting migrants in Virginia and elsewhere," said Randall, who graduated with a Ph.D. in writing and rhetoric in 2021. "I think that’s really the way forward — to go and get a lot of different areas of expertise on an issue.”

Powell said the 2017 travel ban — and the community-welcoming events the university held in its aftermath — solidified the founders’ decision to create a center benefiting students, faculty, and the community. The center regularly collaborates with the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership, as well as the Virginia Consortium for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies, which it now administers. 

What differentiates the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies from other research centers in the country, Powell added, is its holistic approach to displacement issues.

“When we explore issues of migrants and immigration, we’re looking at multiple kinds of displacement together and looking at intersectional issues,” she said. “Some of the things that happen, such as a natural disaster, are not discriminatory. But the policies put in place, the aid that comes, and all of the bureaucracy associated with the aftermath can often be quite discriminatory.”

Gajulapalli, who has worked as a tutor and as an editor on the center’s podcast, said because of the number of refugees in the area, Virginia Tech is uniquely positioned to assist with the crisis through academia and service projects.

“With COVID, it’s really hard to connect with people who want to feel connected,” she said. “They’re already leaving a country and probably feel lonely, and on top of that, no one can assist them without a mask and gloves. This event is really, really important because it can show how everything we stand for — connecting with refugees, using our work to help — is finally coming to light through the center.”

The April 8 celebration will include music by Virginia Tech’s Itraab Arabic Music Ensemble and a poetry reading by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. The first 100 attendees will receive a copy of Shire’s latest poetry collection, “Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head.” The co-founders of Elimisha Kakuma will be in attendance, as will the founder of Kanere News, Qaabata Boru, among other special guests. A reception will follow the event.

Register for the free launch event here. To support student involvement with the refugee community, visit the center’s crowdfunding campaign here.

Written by Kelsey Bartlett