Damir Utrzan knows what it’s like to flee a war-torn country and resettle in a foreign land.
After leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian War more than 20 years ago, the University of Minnesota family social science PhD student came to the United States when he was 10 years old and has made it his life’s work to help others from similar situations
“Sometimes when I look in the eyes of some of the people I help, I just think, ‘This could be my grandfather,’” Utrzan said.
Many non-profit organizations and efforts by the University have contributed to Minnesota’s long history of taking in refugees like Utrzan. This summer, the University is hoping to expand its role in educating about international human rights.
Professors at the school are working to create a new master’s program in human rights, which organizers hope will advance knowledge and skills for people who want to work in the discipline.
Director of the Human Rights program Barbara Frey said the graduate program is a joint venture between the College of Liberal Arts and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and will likely admit 15 to 20 students starting in 2016.
“We anticipate placing people in positions across the world, not just in Minnesota. This is a global reach,” Frey said. “We have really important organizations in Minnesota, and we have a great base. [But] we also want to make sure our graduates are competing for the highest level international positions.”
Law professor and Co-Director of the Human Rights Center David Weissbrodt said the new program could draw on the University’s existing human rights programs.
“We have a substantial group of faculty members that will respond to the needs of these students,” Weissbrodt said. “Minnesota has a long and strong tradition of work in the human rights field.”
The University already has several centers related to human rights and a graduate minor in the field but does not offer a program that would allow graduate students to easily take classes in other disciplines.
“The ability to be able to take classes across different departments is phenomenal,” Utrzan said. “The real world is changing. Human rights are constantly changing.”
In the past 40 years, influxes of refugees and asylum-seekers from around the world have made their new home in Minnesota. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, more than 95,000 refugees have found their way to the state from 1979 to 2009.
Utrzan said his work focuses on how the asylum process in the U.S. worsens existing mental illnesses, adding that unlike refugees who have been given residency, asylum-seekers can be deported anytime. The uncertainty, he says, exacerbates mental illnesses like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Utrzan said the process to gain asylum can range anywhere from one to five years, but he said there are factors that could lengthen the process.
Utrzan also works for the Center for Victims of Torture, a non-profit organization headquartered in St. Paul that cares for torture survivors.
There are between 30,000 and 40,000 victims of torture living in Minnesota according to CVT data. The center sees 1,000 clients, including family members of victims, and around 3,000 international clients, said Peter Dross, director of external relations for the CVT.
“Torture is an invisible problem,” Dross said.
This year, the U.S. will admit up to 70,000 refugees into the country, according to a White House press release, with 33,000 admissions specifically set for near East and Southeast Asia.
Minnesota has seen a growth in refugees from Myanmar over the past few years following instability as rebel groups clash with the country’s military. According to a
2013 report by MDH, of 2,141 refugees who came to Minnesota, more than 45 percent were from Myanmar and Bhutan.
Dross said the CVT has faced stagnant funding for torture survivor rehabilitation in the last decade, but he hopes the new MA program will create a larger candidate pool and training ground for future CVT work abroad and in Minnesota.
“It’s really a testament to the work and lasting legacy that several key human rights leaders at the University who’ve helped bring human rights issues to Minnesota,” Dross said.
Frey said she will bring the proposal for the human rights master’s to the Board of Regents for approval in September.