A servant’s homecoming

Less than a year after graduating, Erskine alum Elinor Griffin returns to promote refugee outreach

Elinor Griffin, left, poses with Kay Burklin, a refugee liaison for Mission to the World, during her campus visit in May. Burklin shared the stage with Griffin to speak at Erskine’s Lesesne Auditorium

Erskine College is a small and picturesque liberal arts campus in South Carolina. It’s also a member of the Sullivan Foundation’s network of member schools, and like all Sullivan schools, turns out a lot of graduates who go on to lives of service. Even the most impressive students at Sullivan schools, however, would be hard pressed to do as much as Erskine alum Elinor Griffin in as little time.

Griffin graduated from Erskine magna cum laude in 2016. In March of 2017, she was already returning to campus to speak to her alma mater about her job as Refugee Ministry Coordinator for Outreach North America—and “to challenge the idea that success has to look like a big paycheck, or a fancy job title, or everyone knowing your name, or an easy life.”

She’s gotten off to a quick start.

An education in empathy

Griffin’s first introduction to refugees was during a 2015 Winter Term internship at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Baltimore, Maryland, after she had spent part of the summer in 2014 with a ministry called the Rafiki Foundation in Mojo, Ethiopia.

Griffin’s passion for service is heavily informed by her Christian faith, which she credits with opening her eyes to the suffering of others.

“The Lord used my time overseas to break my heart as the global refugee crisis rapidly worsened that summer,” she says. “For the first time, I grasped so vividly that the thousands of people who were fleeing for their lives were not just numbers or statistics; they were real people, and each one had a name and a face and a story.”

The current refugee crisis is the largest since World War II, with more than 21 million men, women and children affected, and in addition to those who are clearly refugees, Griffin says, “Another 43 million are displaced in some way because of violence and persecution.”

A rousing call

In her talk, Griffin eloquently made the case to Erskine undergraduates—a group she was a part of at the same time the year before—to pay attention to the crisis, noting it takes, on average, 18 months to two years, but sometimes can take decades for refugees to be resettled:

That means that there are people our age who have never known life outside a refugee camp.

Imagine with me for a moment that tomorrow you are airdropped into Uzbekistan. You do not know a single person in the country. You do not know the language. You do not know the culture, the historical context, the climate, the industry, or the political scene of the country where you will spend the rest of your life.

All you know is the name of a city you can’t pronounce and can’t spell, and you are now vulnerable to mistreatment and misinformation unless you happen to find a friend or an advocate to help you.

Griffin recalled the fear she felt as a college senior, not knowing what to do after graduation, and said that she would have to take the fear she experienced at that time “and amp it up by about 1,000” to come close to the terror and trauma of refugees who have had “family members, home, life’s work, belongings, and memories…ripped away.”

The Erskine campus

Making the transition

In preparation for her job with refugees for Outreach North America here in the United States, Griffin spent some time in Greece, and a church planter there told her that refugees’ biggest need is community.

“That need that they are trying to meet in Greece is also a need that we can meet here in the United States,” Griffin says. “They need people who are willing to just open up our daily lives to refugees and share our normal lives with them. They need people who will sit and listen and give refugees the dignity of sharing their story.”

Griffin stressed that special skills in languages or other areas are not necessary.

“It takes being willing to step past the awkwardness of a different culture and be a friend and a support,” she says. “And that can take shape in any way that you are gifted or interested.”

Griffin has known people who have started community gardens, sports leagues for children, and sewing clubs, and she believes one’s own gifts and interests can be a means of building a bridge.

“It’s not always easy. It’s not always pretty. But it’s love in action,” she says

The big questions

In making her impassioned plea for more refugee outreach to students, Griffin wasn’t afraid to put forward bold questions:

As you graduate, is there a category in your definition of success for caring for vulnerable people?

For speaking out against injustice? For being content…to forgo the big paycheck and fancy job and prestige for the sake of investing in the lives of those around you …whatever career you’re going into or whatever degree you will have?

For many in the room, especially seniors, these were questions that would soon have to be faced. For Griffin, who only too recently wrestled with those very same thoughts, the answers clearly came quickly. Her servant spirit has surely been lifechanging for the refugees she’s worked on behalf of. Perhaps, by sharing her inspiration with students, Griffin can multiply her impact by creating new classes of servant leaders.


This article was adapted from a story that originally appeared on Erskine College’s news website. To read the original piece and to learn more about Erskine, visit news.erskine.edu.

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