Temple instructor’s career informs course on refugees

Robert Berry splits his time between Main Campus and the Department of Homeland Security.

Robert Berry wants to be involved in everything. It’s one of his greatest character flaws, he said. 

By the time he graduated from Temple University in 2008, he had several credentials: degrees in religion and Asian studies, minors in political science and Japanese and a certificate in Arabic. 

To apply these skills internationally, Berry started working as an adjudication officer in the Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security. In this role, he makes decisions on asylum cases where immigrants apply for asylum while in the United States. 

This semester, he returned to Main Campus as a political science instructor to teach the honors special topics course Forced Migration Around the World. 

The course explores people’s involuntary displacement across international borders or within a country by having students analyze its causes, like the failure of a government, human rights violations or environmental disasters. Berry also has students examine international human rights law.

The course is offered at a time when President Donald Trump is committed to building a wall along the United States-Mexico border, along with other policies limiting refugees and asylum seekers from entering the U.S.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 68.5 million people globally who have been forcibly displaced from home, including 25.4 million refugees — most younger than 18. 

Berry has also traveled abroad to decide refugee resettlement cases, in which refugees are transferred from a country where they feel unsafe to a new country that has agreed to admit them as permanent residents. 

He relocated to Washington, D.C., in 2017 and now works with the Refugee, Asylum and International Operations’ training branch to guide officers in becoming adjudications officers.  

“I love the ability to be part of a global humanitarian effort,” Berry said. “We’re able to step in and restore somebody’s human rights and say, ‘We’re not going to let this happen to you again.’”

Berry currently splits his time between teaching and working at the Department of Homeland Security. The two roles involve different styles of teaching, he said. In Washington, D.C., he trains officers, whereas in class he unpacks philosophies behind mass violence, humans rights violations and migrations. 

“It’s really great learning from a professor who actually does what we’re talking about,” said Sophia Tran, a freshman political science and global studies major in Berry’s course.

Tran, who is interested in pursuing a humanitarian aid or foreign services career, said she appreciates how in-depth the course discusses forced migration.

“It was very, very eye-opening because it’s a real topic and it’s happening right now,” she added.

The course also examines current issues, like the Syrian refugee crisis, which Berry had worked with. In 2016, he was based in Jordan as a refugee officer to help resettle more than 10,000 Syrians to the United States. 

“There are always going to be individuals that you interact with, that come into your office, that you’ll never forget,” Berry said. “I’ve had the pleasure of having them tell me their story and then really be empowered by the United States under the law to assist those individuals [who] meet the definition of a refugee.” 

Refugees are people outside of their home countries who can’t return because of persecution or fear of persecution, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The persecution can be based on race, religion, nationality or other characteristics. 

Ruth Ost, the senior director of the Honors Program, said she is excited to have students in Berry’s class be exposed to his career path and learn from a subject expert who has an “insatiable love of learning.” 

“Students coming out of [his] class will find that their lives are even more interesting now because they’ve taken that class,” Ost said. “He can inspire them to just go out and be bold with their lives, too, like he has been with his.” 

Berry said he encourages his students to pursue their passions. 

“For those individuals who want to do everything, throw yourself at everything, and I promise you something will stick and the path will become clear,” Berry said. “…Give yourself to those different things, and if you follow the threads, it does lead somewhere.”

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