Building Bridges: Unseen Passages

Elliot SteevesStaff Writer

On March 4, 2023, Building Bridges will hold its 28th annual conference. This year’s topic was Unseen Passages: Refugees and the Collective Fight for Vitality.

True to its name, the conference focuses on refugees and asylum seekers. On the Gustavus Adolphus website, Building Bridges co-chairs Senior Ashley Ley and Junior Tessa Yaeger wrote that “there is not enough recognition nor education surrounding the hardships that refugees face.” They further emphasized the “importance of advocacy,” for refugees and asylum seekers who are in need of policy action to better their conditions.

Two different keynote sessions are planned. One is by Alicia Vazquez-Crede, the Associate Director for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services in Texas, who will talk about her experience working at the border in the state. Another is by Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay, a former Laos refugee who has done work writing both children’s books and a play focusing on Southeast Asian voices.  

In addition to the conference, the Complement, Advocacy, Impact, and Reflection session will be held on March 6. Per the event poster, this session is, “a workshop…that spotlights and amplifies the impact of innovative activism to address pressing issues in society.” 

The inaugural edition of the session will feature two different lectures from members of the Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota-Refugee Services. One is by Senior Director of Refugee Services Karen Blythe, and the second is by Volunteer Program Coordinator Lynn Mullin. Following this, there is a Coffee and Tea session in conjunction with the Chaplain’s Office.

Crucial to the event is an opportunity to discuss community-building around ways to advocate for refugees, as well as discussing solutions around the global refugee crisis. The names among this discussion are as follows, per Professor Lai Sze Tso: Gustavus Career Development, Alpha Kappa Delta (the international sociology honor society), Gustavus Nursing, the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, the Department of Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies, the Department of Scandinavian Studies, LALACS, the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Chaplains, the Vice President’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, the Sociologists of Minnesota, and Gustavus First Forward.

Tso, the developer and organizer of the inaugural CAIR session, shows a high level of commitment and enthusiasm for the launch of the program.

“When I worked in Oslo, I could see that the tide was turning for normally supportive countries [who were] turning their backs. They were forcing [out] people who thought they had a resettlement, and were being told they needed to leave,” Tso emphasized regarding her own experience witnessing the global refugee crisis.

Tso also has an extremely high amount of optimism regarding what students would get out of the CAIR session.

 “It’s not just networking,” she stated. “If people are excited about this topic, they can have real synergies about steps forward…Who do we want to be as a campus? What can we contribute? How do we deal with the hardships that already happened?”

Tso further discussed the Participatory Action Planning Booklet she and the other groups involved with the session put together towards this goal. The booklet gives readers a chance to see various refugee populations, as well as steps for advocacy.

“People who feel in their interest or capacity that they have a contribution to share can share a resource,” said Tso of the booklet, and also added that, “students have been able to find work and internship opportunities through the booklet.”

The booklet can be found in a Gustavus-L email on the link for Building Bridges if students are interested. 

Building Bridges held promotional events for the conference earlier this week, including a board game event and a bracelet-making event.

The board game event was a chance to see the group in a more relaxed environment, free of the hefty work that goes into planning the conference. Games that were played included Spoons and Codenames. Similar was the bracelet-making event, where Building Bridges assembled different colored threads to make bracelets. 

At the Courtyard Cafe event, Sophomore Alex Dylan had high praise for the efforts to promote both Building Bridges as a group, as well as the conference

“I do enjoy putting on events. I think it shows that building bridges doesn’t only do educational activities,” Dylan said, commenting on the normal perception of the group.

Yaeger commented on how rewarding the conference was to put on: “That’s one of the things that keeps Ashley and I going. It’s a lot of really hard work. The fact that we get to go to the conference, see the speakers, [it] keeps us going, especially since we are super busy,” Yaeger quoted on the reward of getting to work with renowned speakers on the Refugee Crisis.

Yaeger also talked about how important the theme concerning refugees was, especially in light of current events around the globe.

“With the ongoing crisis in Ukraine…it was a really good time. The refugee crisis isn’t always something that gets talked about,” Yaeger said on the aptly-timed nature of this year’s topic. Yaeger also noted how it meshed with other issues such as, “racism within refugees,” and geopolitical examples like, “why Poland isn’t accepting refugees of color.”

Ley, the fellow co-director along with Yaeger, discussed attending the immigration conference in 2019 as a senior in high school, and how it played into this year’s topic.

“We wanted to approach the experience that refugees and asylum seekers have,” said Ley on how the group narrowed the focus of the conference down. “We wanted to give people an idea of what it means to be a refugee; how hard it is to never go back home.”

Building Bridges is described on the college website as a “student organization at Gustavus Adolphus College that focuses on educating and informing community members on issues relating to social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion.” It was founded by students in 1985, and the first edition of the conference was in 2013, concerning Mass Incarceration.

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