Global migration course provides an on-the-ground learning experience

Students help an actor during a simulation exercise
Students in the Intensive Summer Course on Migration and Refugee Studies help an actor playing a migrant during a simulated water rescue.

June 3, 2024 — It’s one thing to read about forced migration—and another to participate in a simulated water rescue in Lesbos, Greece, a favored gateway to Europe for migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Now in its third year, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Intensive Summer Course on Migration and Refugee Studies offers students the opportunity to step outside of a traditional classroom and engage both conceptually and practically with key issues in contemporary migration, and to return home empowered to make change.

The course is offered in Greece by the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, in collaboration with the Refugee and Migration Studies Hub at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (NKUA), Greece, and with the support of the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies in Greece and the U.S. Total enrollment in the Summer Course is capped at 32 students, of whom 16 are Harvard students and alumni and 16 enrolled through the NKUA. The three-week course (which runs this year from July 5–28) is divided between time in Athens, the ancient capital of Nafplio, and the island of Lesbos, the busiest arrival point for migrants in Greece.  Applications for the 2025 cohort will open in the Fall.

During the course, students attend lectures and workshops on topics in contemporary global migration such as international refugee law, the child protection needs of unaccompanied migrant children, and the complexities forced migrants encounter in trying to access health care.  Students also have opportunities to visit refugee camps and to interact with frontline workers including nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives, human rights lawyers, Greek government officials, and members of the local community. This year, participants will also be able to shadow NGO workers on the job.

“Students can test their understanding of concepts they learn in the classroom and see what does and doesn’t work in the field,” said the course’s director Vasileia Digidiki, Harvard instructor and FXB Health and Human Rights fellow. She teaches the course with Jacqueline Bhabha, professor of the practice of health and human rights and FXB Center Director of Research. Through activities such as the simulated water rescue, Digidiki said, “We encourage our participants to learn by experience, creating a fertile ground for critical analysis and reflection, and professional development.”

Read reflections from four students who attended last year’s course.

A responsibility to act

Digidiki is a role model for learning by experience in this space. A psychologist by training, she was born and raised on Lesbos but had never worked directly on migration issues until they landed on her doorstep. The crisis of 2015—during which more than 500,000 migrants arrived on her small island—changed her life personally and professionally. She had been home visiting family that summer and felt a moral responsibility to join with people from her community and around the world to offer help. Since then, her research and policy work has focused on issues of distress migration and child migrant protection.

“Every face and every personal story has remained with me,” she said, recalling for example a man from Syria who carried his elderly mother on his back and young musicians with big dreams who turned a couple of tents and pieces of cardboard into a makeshift home. She added, “Many times I wondered whether I could ever be as strong and resilient as them, leaving everything behind in the hopes of rebuilding my life from nothing.”

Digidiki said that refugee voices are an important part of the course she leads. During its first two years, the course trained 50 students originating from 18 countries, including six students with refugee backgrounds.

Although the students in the course come from diverse backgrounds, they share a motivation to become strong migrant and refugee rights advocates. Digidiki said, “If our course can make a small contribution to students’ achievement of this goal, we have truly succeeded in our core mission.”

Amy Roeder

Photo: Courtesy of François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights