Answering the Call

DePaul has provided free online courses to students at Ukrainian Catholic University, shown here in 2021. (Photo courtesy of Ukrainian Catholic University)

DePaul has provided free online courses to students at Ukrainian Catholic University, shown here in 2021. (Photo courtesy of Ukrainian Catholic University)

With a strong spirit of service, DePaul initiatives and displaced populations in Chicago and internationally

By Chris Quirk

Welcoming the stranger who arrives at your door is a fundamental act of empathy. Sometimes, though, you have to go find the stranger yourself.

Through its people and programs, DePaul has become widely known as a refuge and advocate for those in need. But current events have demanded more services and more compassion to provide for people in distress. And the university community has answered the call.

Ukrainian Student Outreach

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, GianMario Besana began thinking about what he could do to help students in Ukraine whose lives were being upended by the war.

Besana, who is associate provost for global engagement and online learning and a professor in the Eugene P. Jarvis College of Computing and Digital Media, had been in touch with a colleague at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv to set up virtual collaborative projects with faculty.

When war broke out, Besana and his Ukrainian colleagues quickly changed gears to brainstorm how DePaul could help students.

“Our partners at UCU wanted to know if we had any openings in our classes. They wanted their students to be able to continue to study, if possible, despite the war,” Besana says. “This was toward the end of February. Given DePaul is on the quarter system, we were perfectly positioned to act.”

The DePaul team didn’t waste any time. With the support of DePaul’s president and provost, Besana gathered a team to identify suitable online classes and open them to the students. “The faculty not only were enthusiastic, but some of them also set up special Zoom meetings with the Ukrainians to ensure the hours of their classes were convenient and the students would be able to stay on track,” Besana says.

DePaul waived tuition and fees for the Ukrainian students for spring classes, and almost 100 Ukrainian students signed up. “It was an outpouring of generosity and hard work from people here that was heartwarming and affirming,” Besana says.

Ukrainian Catholic University student Sofiia Kekukh

Sofiia Kekukh, a student at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, took online classes at DePaul after she was forced to flee Kyiv when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Sofiia Kekukh is a 19-year-old Ukrainian student who attended classes remotely at DePaul in the spring as part of the initiative. “I am studying during the war, and I am surviving during the war, so this is my life right now,” Kekukh says. “It is really important for us students to continue because our future is in our hands.”

Kekukh was in Kyiv at the start of the invasion and was urged to leave immediately as the city came under intense bombardment. After arriving in Lviv, which was farther from the front, Kekukh found a post on the UCU Facebook feed inviting students to sign up for DePaul remote-learning courses. She took a French class and a media communications class and also took advantage of French tutoring through DePaul’s Tutoring and Language Learning Center.

“I really improved my French and media skills,” Kekukh says. “It was outside my comfort zone, but it was a great opportunity. I think things like this help to open people’s minds. A lot of wonderful people were kind and supported me.”

Clara Orban, a professor of French and Italian, had six Ukrainian students in her Italian 101 class. “GianMario sent faculty an email asking if we wanted to participate. I immediately said yes, although I wasn’t sure how much benefit a beginning Italian class might be to the students.”

As it turned out, two of her Ukrainian students were refugees living in Italy at that time. “These students in Italy were grateful, as they were able to converse a little better,” Orban says. “The Ukrainian students were focused. They handed in their work absolutely on time and were enthusiastic about participating. Overall, there was a lot of curiosity between all the students, and we learned a lot about Lviv and the Ukrainian language as well.”

Resettling Afghan Refugees

DePaul’s reputation as a refuge is strong. In fall 2021, Christian Hudson, an attorney from the Mayer Brown law firm working on an initiative to help Afghan refugees, was seeking allies. He contacted his friends Tara Magner, from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, who had worked extensively in immigration policy, and her husband Scott Hibbard, chair of DePaul’s political science department.

A group of women who had escaped from Kabul just prior to the Taliban takeover were on their way to the United States. Could anyone at DePaul help resettle them in Chicago?

“It was natural for Christian to turn to DePaul, given the long-standing commitment to the Vincentian mission and serving those in need,” Hibbard says. “The DePaul staff and community are genuinely committed to the mission and stepped up.” Hibbard put Hudson in touch with Besana, who pulled together advocates and resources from across the university to support the refugees.

“It’s what you would expect at DePaul, isn’t it? It’s just remarkable to see how this group of students, mentors and experts jumped in and did whatever was needed.”
–GianMario Besana

Working with RefugeeOne, a nonprofit resettlement agency, numerous DePaul faculty and staff members pitched in to relocate the Afghan women to Chicago and help them feel at home. “It’s what you would expect at DePaul, isn’t it?” Besana says. “It’s just remarkable to see how this group of students, mentors and experts jumped in and did whatever was needed.”

Avery Tunstill, a leader of the DePaul Sanctuary Group, collects donations for Afghan refugees. (Photo courtesy of Kathleen Arnold)

Avery Tunstill, a leader of the DePaul Sanctuary Group, collects donations for Afghan refugees. (Photo courtesy of Kathleen Arnold)

The DePaul Sanctuary Group, a student organization, was an integral part of the response team, setting up a peer network to mentor the newly arrived Afghan women, says Kathleen Arnold, director of the Refugee and Forced Migration Studies graduate program.

“The students and I collected clothing donations and arranged the clothing to look like a store so the Afghan women could select socks, belts, purses and other items that they liked, rather than handing them a bag of things,” Arnold says. They also raised funds so the women would have spending money to purchase personal items such as toiletries.

“Our students were just awesome. They created genuine friendships and a social network with these women who were forced to flee their country,” Arnold says. Some of the Afghan refugees are now in the process of improving their English skills and taking classes at DePaul.

Assisting with Asylum

DePaul’s Asylum & Immigration Law Clinic is also involved in assisting Afghan refugees, says Sioban Albiol, clinic director and senior professional lecturer in the College of Law.

The clinic began in 1996, training law students to assist asylum seekers in the United States. Since then, its mandate has expanded to assist clients with other immigration and humanitarian remedies, defend against deportations and aid clients obtaining citizenship or naturalization.

“Right now, there are about 2,500 Afghan refugees in the state of Illinois,” Albiol says. “The law students I supervise have been working with families who have arrived through the evacuation flights from Afghanistan. They are assisting them and navigating the asylum process.”

Albiol is also co-director of the recently formed DePaul Migration Collaborative, which brings together the Asylum & Immigration Law Clinic, which is in the College of Law, and the Refugee and Forced Migration Studies program in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. Students in the two colleges share their expertise in law, public health and social sciences, working together to serve others.

Ensuring Human Rights

Another program at the College of Law dedicated to assisting those in need is the International Human Rights Law Institute (IHRLI), which since 1990 has engaged in projects and research to protect human rights. The institute, run by Executive Director Elisabeth Ward, prepares students to be effective attorneys and advocates.

In the International Human Rights Law Practicum, a year-long course that Ward created, law students study human rights legal issues. “The course is designed to give students a substantive understanding of the law and also give them a glimpse of what the field of international human rights law looks like,” Ward says.

The work is intense, and progress can be frustratingly fitful. “In human rights work, you’re never going to get a slam dunk,” Ward says. “I try to give my students an understanding of the frustrations that characterize day-to-day work in this field in order to better prepare them for the reality of the work.”

Morgan Drake (JD ’22) took the IHRLI practicum course in her second year in law school. Prior to enrolling at DePaul, Drake worked for the National Immigrant Justice Center, where she represented unaccompanied immigrant children before government agencies. “I chose DePaul in large part because of its dedication to service work and values, but also because of its investment in the international human rights practicum and the opportunities that come with that. That’s pretty rare for a law school,” Drake says.

Alumna Morgan Drake (JD ’22) presented oral arguments before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights as part of DePaul's International Human Rights Law Practicum.

Alumna Morgan Drake (JD ’22) presented oral arguments before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights as part of DePaul’s International Human Rights Law Practicum.

As part of the practicum, Drake and her classmate Michelle Redondo (JD ’22) presented oral arguments remotely before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in San José, Costa Rica. Their five other classmates helped them prepare the arguments and write an amicus brief saying that particular groups of people — such as children and pregnant or postpartum individuals — are more vulnerable in detainment and should be afforded increased care to meet the standards of international human rights law.

“I chose DePaul in large part because of its dedication to service work and values, but also because of its investment in the international human rights practicum and the opportunities that come with that. That’s pretty rare for a law school.”
Morgan Drake (JD ’22)

“Practicing attorneys don’t usually get to do that. The fact that I testified as a second-year law student still blows my mind,” Drake says. “Seeing the inner workings of that court is something that is incredibly rare to witness as a law student. It was an experience unmatched by any other that I had in law school.”

Countering Anti-Asian Hate

The DePaul community safeguards rights in many ways. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, acts of hate, harassment, discrimination and assault against Asian Americans have surged. Moreover, the needs of Asian American-Pacific Islander (AAPI) people in the United States are often underreported.

“Structural racism magnifies problems for Asian Americans,” says Anne Saw, a DePaul associate professor of psychology. “Racial stereotypes portray them as a model minority, and we haven’t adequately acknowledged the needs of those communities and directed resources toward those who are most vulnerable.”

While Saw was on the board of directors of the Asian American Psychological Association, she coordinated a survey to learn more about the needs of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations during, and as a result of, the pandemic.

The survey was the first of its kind in terms of its broad scope. The questionnaire was produced in 13 languages, with about 5,000 people from around the country responding.

DePaul Associate Professor of Psychology Anne Saw

DePaul Associate Professor of Psychology Anne Saw, who oversaw a national survey assessing the needs of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, has previously met with other marginalized communities, including Rohingya refugees at the Rohingya Culture Center in Chicago. Her outreach efforts include helping immigrant populations address their mental health needs. (Photo by DePaul University / Jamie Moncrief)

The survey revealed that during the pandemic Asian Americans broadly reported declines in self-assessments of their health and economic situation and faced significant discrimination. Plus, seven in 10 felt physically endangered due to their racial or ethnic background. The violence and discrimination have contributed to increased physical and mental health issues.

“Asian Americans have been left out of many health equity conversations and policies,” Saw explains. “So when the pandemic rolls around and stress — including anti-Asian racism — is on the rise, our health care systems can’t address the increased threats adequately.”

The survey had the ear of lawmakers at the national level. U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, was instrumental in getting the survey off the ground, and Saw briefed the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and other representatives on the findings.

There is a growing urgency on Capitol Hill to ensure equity for AAPI communities. The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, passed in 2021, addresses AAPI hate crimes in particular. Efforts such as Saw’s survey add important data to inform policy changes and advance equity.

Walking the Walk

For Besana, the work being done throughout the university is evidence that DePaul is walking the walk.

“Folks look to DePaul and say they can do something here,” he says. “The work is not easy, but life is full of these opportunities. You can see need wherever you look. The miracle of DePaul is that the right people are always there, and they’re always willing to get in there and stick with it.”

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