We are all migrants to WashU

The “Safe Asylum” Ampersand program gave first-year student Gené Nieuwoudt a new perspective on issues of global migration.

Gené Nieuwoudt (left) and friends on the WashU campus.

I can distinctly remember my first breath of American air. It was cold, refreshing, and a little dirty. My younger sister, who was 4 at the time, beelined to a giant pile of snow outside the John F. Kennedy International Airport, squealed with excitement, and shoved her hands straight into the mound. Although this moment was almost a decade ago, it often feels like just yesterday. As an 11-year-old, I was beyond excited to take a 20-hour flight to America from South Africa. As far as I was concerned, my life was about to turn into one of my favorite Disney movies.

Preparing for my first year at WashU reminded me of an experience my family had soon after we arrived in America. On our first trip to a Target, we found ourselves dumbstruck. Every choice we had to make was overwhelming: What was the right brand of butter? Why were there so many different laundry detergents? What was a cantaloupe (not because we'd never had one, but because we'd never heard it called by that name)? Eventually, my dad had the idea to follow around a woman who looked like she knew what she was doing. Everything she put into her cart went into ours, too.

Choosing my first-year classes at WashU felt the same — extremely exciting and totally overwhelming. So, when I found out WashU offered the “Safe Asylum: Refugee Politics and Pathways” Ampersand program, it immediately caught my eye. Beyond my own experience immigrating to the U.S. as a child, many of my closest friends and some of my biggest role models have been immigrants. The idea that this personal passion of mine could be translated into an academic setting — and that I could engage with others on the issue — thrilled me.

The Safe Asylum program approaches the study of migration from an academic standpoint as well as a deeply human perspective. In my first semester, we discussed the theory, history, and culture of migration around the world. However, to supplement the academic work, we were also exposed to moving personal anecdotes from peers and guest speakers. The first semester ended with a group project that involved interviewing a member of the St. Louis community on their experience with migration. These projects were a test run in the challenges and techniques of conducting field research, but they were also emotional and intimate experiences.

My mom helped connect my group with a man she had met through work. He and his family had fled Eastern Europe under the rise of communism in the mid-1990s. In a local coffee shop, our interviewee shared the story of his family coming to the United States. His story was both unbelievably inspiring and incredibly sad. At one point he shared that we were the first people to hear his whole story, and I took that as a massive honor. Now an adult, he spoke proudly of his family and his children's accomplishments. I shared many quotes from our interview during my group’s essay and presentation, but this piece of advice on adversity stuck with me: "(Life) is bright if you are ambitious, if you are patient, if you accept that there will be ups and downs. The ups are great, but it's the downs that you will have to overcome and not let them drag you down."

In our second semester, we turned our focus to the influence of colonialism on migration. Our studies have led to conversations about how we define culture, how we measure time, and a reevaluation of the concept of citizenship. I’ll admit that when I was first introduced to the idea of spending an entire semester on the influence of colonialism, I was a bit skeptical. I've studied colonialism numerous times in in history and English classes, and I ignorantly felt as though I was well versed in the topic. This semester forced me to confront my lack of knowledge and question my perspectives on the world.

This semester forced me to confront my lack of knowledge and question my perspectives on the world.

When people ask me what I learned in this class, my words often fail me. While it's true that I am better prepared to discuss the vocabulary, theories, and history surrounding migration, the more honest answer is a bit cheesier. “Safe Asylum” is a course about questioning the world around you and diving into the human experience in all its shades. My faith in this line of study is unwavering, and I cannot emphasize enough the value and importance of this class. I would be remiss not to shout-out our incredible professor, Dr. Tarbouni, who, with his warm guidance and contagious enthusiasm, helped us take advantage of everything the course had to offer both on and off the pages of our textbooks.

While migration has made headlines in numerous forms over the last few years — contentious debates in American politics, global refugee crises, and post-pandemic relocations — it’s important to remember that it’s been around throughout human history. In fact, all of us have participated in our own migration: some to the United States, some to Missouri, and all of us to WashU.


More voices from 'Safe Asylum'

Younasse Tarbouni, teaching professor of Arabic

“The class is a vibrant discussion in which we are all on equal footing. We sit in circles, look each other in the eye, and allow our ideas to move freely. The objective is not to convince anyone of any particular viewpoint, but to be global in our views.”

Maeve Healy, student 

“At the end of the first semester, our final project was to do a case study on a refugee success story in the St. Louis area. I interviewed two Afghani refugees: an architect who climbed mountains to leave on foot, and a nurse who left when she was very young. Their stories reminded me of my grandparents, who left Ireland in the 1950s, in the midst of tensions between the royal forces and the Irish Republican Army. Now, I want to help people in similar situations as my grandparents.”

Maryam Olaletan, student 

“Learning about the different backgrounds of my peers really helped the overall learning experience. There were students from Honduras, Mexico, Tunisia, China, and Taiwan. I immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria in 2016, but there were many aspects of migration that I had never considered before taking this class. Because we had different backgrounds, we were able to bring different values and perspectives to the class. That really enriched our discussions.”

Trevor Sangrey, assistant dean, College of Arts & Sciences

“I've advised a number of Safe Asylum students, and I've watched it change what they want to study. It's profound that this class can have that kind of immediate and long-term impact. Not only does Dr. Tarbouni teach a really important and timely subject, but he also puts so much care and effort into knowing the students and nurturing them, making sure that the class meets all of their interests and needs.”

(Interviews by Josh Valeri)