“The time is right for a systematic and practical study of the questions surrounding refugees and forced migration,” says Shailja Sharma, associate dean of LAS and director of the new MA program, the only one of its kind in the United States.

“Why are people forced to move? What physical and mental health problems happen when they do? What laws govern them? What are a state’s responsibilities? What should be done differently? Forced migration—whether it’s caused by conflict or economic collapse or environmental stress—is a global problem calling for global solutions. 

"With the MA in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, DePaul is the leader in a field that’s both of-the-moment and timeless.”

When Sharma sent out a call across the university asking whether faculty would be interested in the program, she was flooded with responses.

“I heard a resounding ‘yes’—from faculty in psychology, business, law and public management, political science and history, public health and communication. My assumption was confirmed: Because of the scope and depth of the issues surrounding forced migration, the program would have to be interdisciplinary. So, we’ve packed a lot of expertise and perspective in just two years.”  

One of the professors who responded with enthusiasm was Rajit K. Mazumder, an associate professor of history. In addition to serving on the program’s curriculum and admission committees, he teaches a class on forced migration in South Asia, where the achievement of independence from colonial rule 60 years ago triggered the largest displacement of people in modern history.

“About 15 million people moved between India and Pakistan, and we’re still dealing with the impacts,” he says. “Also, the emergence of two post-colonial nations was just the beginning. Since then, the area has seen huge disruptions caused by economic development, by militancy and by state-led violence. In every case, the impacts on food security, shelter and economic stability have been extreme.”

Of the World, In the World

The program is designed to convert theory into real-world skills.

That’s exactly what Kevin Douds was looking for: “After getting a degree in theological studies at Vanderbilt University, I worked as an intern with Catholic Charities, and that’s when I decided I wanted to care for refugees. Becoming able to do that begins with understanding the issues they face. I like the fact that we’re expected to apply what we learn in class to real-life situations. I’m interested in religious persecution in Myanmar and hope to go there, maybe even as part of the program.”

Field work is a big part of the MA. “We’re lucky to be in Chicago because it’s such a big hub of migration,” says Sharma. “A student in the MA program will spend at least 200 hours in internships, working with a refugee population.”

In fact, many of the students already work for resettlement organizations. For example, Jill Nyhof is a case manager with Refugee One, which helps people build new lives of safety, dignity and self-reliance.  “My goal is to advocate for better U.S. policies,” she says. “In the program, I’m gaining a better understanding of the global impacts of forced migration, of the complex needs of refugees, and of the ways that even small tweaks in policy can make a big difference to the success of resettlement. The classes are well-rounded and engaging; just as important is the one-on-one time we get with faculty to plan our futures and to make connections in the community.”

Certainly, the world wants what the program offers, as Rose Malinowski, mental health services program manager for World Relief Chicago (WRC), attests: “Being able to find people who understand the issues refugees face and appreciate the support they need, individually as well as programmatically, is very important.”  WRC is a resettlement agency that provides case management, employment services, English language education and youth services to 400 refugees annually.

Christa Kuntzelman, a PhD at candidate at Northwestern University who is the volunteer lead for casework with the Reconnecting Families Program with the Red Cross in Chicago, is a big proponent of the MA program. 

“The students are going to end up head-and-shoulders above others who study forced migration in less focused, more tangential ways,” she says. “The field needs people with the know-how to do research, conduct root cause analyses, influence and devise policy, do interventions, integrate and assimilate displaced people, engage with those in camps—all these really complex things. I’ve had the honor of knowing the people who created and lead the program: They’re not just great scholars; they’re also great humanitarians. This program is great for the university, for Chicago, and for the world.”

For a perspective on the complex challenges of delivering refugee relief, read the article “Supply Chains on Steroids” in the Words and Deeds section of Distinctions.