Although a majority of Duke students spent the final days of winter break settling back into campus, about 100 students instead dedicated their time to learning about an issue that affects more than 360 million people worldwide.
At this year's Winter Forum, titled "Refugees, Rights, Resettlement," students focused on displacement: the involuntary movement of people from the places they call home. Bringing together academics, humanitarian leaders, policy makers and students, the forum included a series of events and speakers discussing problems that accompany displacement and the resettlement processes.
"The goal [was] to essentially walk students through the life course of refugees from initial displacement to the point of a state of warehousing [in refugee camps]... or to repatriation or resettlement... highlighting ethical challenges along the way," said Suzanne Shanahan, associate director for the Kenan Institute for Ethics, which hosted the Winter Forum this year. "We're trying to energize students around the refugee situation and think creatively with them... to create positive change.
The forum opened with a play demonstrating the plight of Iraqi refugees and featured panel discussions that ranged from the role of religious organizations in resettlement and the causes behind refugee aid failure.
Kenan hosted the three-day conference, which was also sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Education and the Provost's Office. The forum—Duke's third annual—changes its theme and host each year to focus on a particular global issue, in this case the plight of refugees.
Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost of undergraduate education, said people can be displaced for many different reasons, which leads to the pervasiveness of the issue.
"Displacement... can be because of conflict, it can be because of economic issues, [or because of] disasters," Nowicki said. "The idea is to not just talk about it but to then give students real problems to work on."
Forum participant Christine Delp, a freshman, said her interest in the program was sparked by her participation in the Ethics, Leadership and Global Citizenship Focus cluster, also organized by the Kenan Institute. Delp added that the matter of displaced people and their rights is not as distant as people may think.
"Durham has a lot of Bhutanese, Burmese, Iraqi and Somalian refugees," Delp said. "They live primarily in one apartment complex in Durham, and they only get six months of aid from the government, so they always need help."
She said she hopes that the Winter Forum group becomes more involved with the Durham refugee community.
Discussing Duke's efforts to get students engaged in the world in many different ways with programs like DukeEngage, Nowicki said the forum was developed to get students involved outside of Duke's campus.
"We have a lot of students who do study abroad, we have DukeEngage and so forth and this was seen as another prong in our efforts to make our educational program here really connected to the world and to real problems," he said.
Only 110 of the 250 applicants were accepted to attend the forum, marking an increase in student interest in the program. In order to meet increasing demand for the forum, Nowicki said he has considered having more than one forum per year, either at the same time or during different semesters.
Nowicki attributed the success of the forum to the students and their relentless dedication to the program.
"The interesting thing is each of the three Winter Forums have been on different topics," he said. "Each one, although different, has captured an energy, which is what I think is remarkable about Duke students [and the program]."
Delp said the forum taught her a lot about the complications surrounding current solutions to the refugee problem and giving aid to displacement camps. Calling the forum intellectually stimulating, she said the event brought to light the issues in a much more vibrant way than what she has experienced in the classroom.
"It [was] really intense, but a good kind of intense," Delp said.
Nowicki added that there are beginning discussions of hosting next year's forum at Duke University Marine Lab and focusing on environmental challenges concerning the ocean.