Working Group on Refugees, Europe, and Service Learning

Now in its fourth year, WRESL – the Working Group on Refugees, Europe, and Service Learning – provides an informal space in which some of the Center for European Studies’ undergraduates, Excel EURO-TAM students, can discuss the circumstances of refugees in Europe and the US. This group actively seeks out opportunities to learn about the immigrant experience on both sides of the Atlantic and to engage with those involved in integration processes. Thus far, we have focused attention on the efforts of refugee assistance programs (Church World Service), community partnerships (Transplanting Traditions), student volunteer tutors, as well as international photographers and film makers. As the name suggests, we are interested in wrestling with the challenges and successes of migrants and the ways in which non-migrants contribute to the immigrant experience.


October Workshop – Chris and Heval

WRESL members were recently invited to take part in a workshop focused on reconciling differing opinions. The discussion took place on Saturday, October 5, 2019 and featured Heval Kelli and Chris Buckley. Both men were born in 1983 and now live in Clarkston, Georgia. Heval fled Syria with his family as a child. When he got to the US, he worked as a dishwasher and is now a cardiologist. Chris is a US military veteran, and former KKK member. The two men have become friends and now speak with communities about overcoming hate. There is a documentary film being made about the two men: To the right, Heval and Chris speak with staff, students and faculty during their visit to UNC.
Two men sit at a cafe table and talk with those around them.

The workshop was part of the  “Countering Hate” initiative in the College of Arts and Sciences. Two students from WRESL attended this event.

First-year student, Tracy Ridley, who has recently joined WRESL, attended this event and provided the following response:

Heval and Chris coming to Carolina was a delight. Both of their stories alone were inspirational and together were indescribably enriching. The most valuable lesson I took from their visit was to not go into a conversation with the goal of changing someone’s mind but simply listen and attempt to understand the other’s perspective. With refugees and integration being one of my main interests, their unique story has shown me how easily I can incite change, whether it be locally or internationally. Their story touched me and will forever be in my mind when I encounter new, divergent personalities and pursue my future career.


Sarah Hutchison, TAM Associate Director and WRESL Facilitator, wrote this reflection:

Chris and Heval told their life stories in alternating segments which they called “acts.” Heval described the rather negative experience he had as a Syrian refugee relocated to a small mountain town in Germany. Though no Germans reached out to welcome him while there, he did encounter elderly American church members who knocked on his family’s door as soon as they arrived in Georgia. These Americans offered Heval food and clothing. Heval made a point to explain that he owes his own professional success to the help he received from his American community. He now wants to “give back” and serve his community as a doctor of preventative medicine. He also sees himself as someone who engages in outreach and makes the first gesture to people like Chris who are angry with and fearful of Muslim immigrants.


Heval noted that the first time he met Chris in person, he was struck by his poor living conditions. Heval explained that Chris’ home and neighborhood were worse than the refugee housing he had experienced. He says that he reminds people now that the US has a population of “rural refugees” – native-born Americans who are living in destitution.


I was particularly interested in these parts of the discussion – I would like to know more about how Heval’s refugee experience differed in Germany and the US. I’d also like to know how Chris feels as a US citizen and war veteran when he hears himself referred to as a “rural refugee.”

Could this term expand our understanding of the word refugee?

One often perceives an anti-immigration refrain – why should our country accept refugees and help them when there are so many Americans who need help. Heval’s narrative provides an interesting reversal as he is a refugee who received assistance and who now is in a position to provide aid to others. His focus lands on US nationals in distress.


WRESL had its first fall 2019 meeting on Sept. 20th

We heard from Professor Christiane Lemke of the University of Hannover in Germany and from one of our WRESL members, Cameren Lofton, about a refugee theater project they worked on this summer. Please read more about Cameren’s summer experience below.


This text was written by Cameren Lofton, a UNC Senior who has been a part of WRESL for several years.

Over the summer, I spent six weeks in Hannover, Germany doing independent research on refugee and integration politics. My research primarily focused on a play that was being funded by the city of Hannover as an integration project. The play, Die Insel (The Island), was largely comprised of refugees from the Middle East and migrants from Eastern Europe. It opens with a plane crash on a remote island. With no way of knowing if/when help is on the way, the people on the island must form their own society and discuss the concepts of peace, freedom, and democracy. This play differed from most integration projects, which usually take place in the classroom. Instead, the participants were encouraged to embrace their individuality and took active roles in the conception and production of the play; they wrote the script for the play together and helped with setup. All of them reported that their German skills and knowledge of the political concepts of democracy and civilization improved from their experience with Die Insel. In addition, three of the people in the play were native German citizens, which is important for a two-sided integration process. Structuring an integration project in this nontraditional way gives refugees and migrants more agency in the process of learning a new language and culture.

My trip in Germany ended with a conference on other creative integration projects in Hannover.  At this conference, I also had the opportunity to present on the history of Black theatre in the US and its connection with politics. My presentation emphasized the role that the arts can play in politics and challenged the notion that the arts belong in the private sphere and have no place in the political sphere. During the conference, I learned more about integration in Hannover from both the logistic and community perspective. The conference covered integration projects that used soccer, painting, film, and other creative and artistic methods as alternatives to the classroom-style. All of them found great success with their methods. Furthermore, they found that the refugees and migrants participating were more engaged and at times did not realize that they were learning. These projects tend to emphasize the agency of the refugee or migrant while also encouraging a two-sided learning process in which the migrants/refugees and people from the native country are getting to know each other instead of the refugee or migrant having to do all of the learning with no effort from people native to the country. For governments that are looking to approach the issue of integration in a progressive way, integration projects utilizing creative methods could be an efficient alternative to the traditional language and culture classes.



On Friday, March 1st, 2019 WRESL members hosted a wonderful lecture and dinner discussion event in the GEC!

Susanne Dieper, Director of Programs and Grants at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., joined us to discuss the AICGS project called “Integration: Made in Germany.” The AICGS website has more details about this project. Round-table discussions followed the talk. Discussion facilitators did a marvelous job keeping conversations going relevant to the following topics:

US-German Migration Politics, Migration Lessons Learned Across Nations, The Ethics and Morality of Migration, Activism and Volunteering related to Migration, Korean Guest Workers in Germany, The Economics of Migration Policy, Education and Migration, Migration in Historical Perspective, Immigration in Geographic Perspective, and Multilateral Organizations and Immigration. Many thanks to the professors and graduate students who served as discussion facilitators.

A round table with a sign that says activism and volunteering related to migration.

Three women sit in the front row of the auditorium holding paper and pens and smiling at the camera.

People eat, drink and talk around a table.

People eat, drink and talk around a table.

Two women sit in the front row of an auditorium and smile at the camera.



WRESL Fellows

The text in the tooltip says: Allison is a first year student in the EURO-TAM excel program at Carolina. She is also pursuing a minor in the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE) Program, and plans to apply to the Kenan-Flagler Business School in the summer of 2019. Beginning with her tenure at UNC this fall, Allison has begun to actively work with the WRESL program and is looking forward to continuing in this capacity throughout the rest of this year and into the future.

The text in the tooltip says: Cameren is currently a Junior from Georgia double majoring in Political Science and Contemporary European Studies. She joined the WRESL group because of her interest in migration and refugee politics and, through this group, hopes to educate both herself and others on the various difficulties refugees face all over the world. After graduation, she plans to go to graduate school for her PhD in Political Science and eventually become a professor.

The tooltip text reads: Hello! My name is Kellan Robinson and I am a junior from Cincinnati double majoring in Contemporary European Studies and Global Studies (focus on Politics in Africa). After the TAM Program, I plan to go to law school. My end goal is to be a world leader who ignites and supports social change and humanitarianism.

Blog Posts

TAM Student Volunteering

After returning to UNC during the peak of the Refugee Crisis, Sam Barber got involved as a volunteer in the refugee community in Chapel Hill, via student organization INJAZ.
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Refugees in Europe and Berlin

My German colleague wanted to enable refugees to join GeTMA – the German-Turkish Master’s Program Humboldt has run in conjunction with The Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara.
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A European Partner and Refugees

Center colleague Christian Wilhelm, from Humboldt University in Berlin, spoke with WRESL about creating a path for refugees in Germany to enroll in Humboldt’s German-Turkish Master’s Program. One student shared her reflection.
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Volunteering with Refugees Overseas

The Center for European Studies hosted a panel discussion focused on undergraduates who will undertake or have engaged in volunteer work with refugees overseas.
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Students Visit Refugee Exhibition

A small group of Excel @ Carolina students who are part of our EURO-TAM Program recently went to The Friday Center to see a multimedia art exhibition called REFUGEE. The students shared their impressions.
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