Having completed my internship and had some time to think over all of my experiences I know that my time at the International Rescue Committee has greatly influenced my career goals and prepared me for a field that I could likely end up in. Although working in Refugee Resettlement is not expressly considered social work in a lot of ways it resembles the field. One aspect of the internship I was not prepared for was feeling emotionally drained. Seeing up to three clients a day was great because I got to meet and learn about new people and a commonly misunderstood population, but the meetings were not without their hard conversations and problems.
Throughout my time at the IRC I was able to see at least five of the clients I worked with achieve employment, but the jobs they were got were not ones that I was particularly happy to see them being funneled into. Most clients would apply to be housekeepers, work in restaurants, or seek other entry level jobs. Although clients would be enthused most of the time they got employment, it was bittersweet knowing the ladder they would have to climb to obtain higher caliber positions. Other clients had a much more realistic picture of the job market after searching for employment. Many expressed frustration and remorse having been given a overly optimistic view of the American job market in the country they left. For many arriving in the U.S. was a rude awakening and some stated they were better off where they came from.
Even though I only worked in the office for three months I still felt emotionally drained and discouraged leaving the office throughout my time. Although that is the “nature” of the work, I found myself doubting the prospect of continuing work in the field of social work or non-profits because of the sheer heaviness of the work that is done. Now, having had the chance to reflect on my internship I don’t feel as disheartened. My internship provided me with one of the most meaningful experiences in my life thus far, but additionally reminded me that society is flawed and problems can’t be fixed overnight. Though I now see Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. as a flawed process, it is better to reflect on these issues and deal with the emotional aspects than cut yourself off. These heavy subjects demand attention and hopefully that attention can lead to concrete improvements in the system.
Although most of my time at my internship is spent in a cubicle, over one weekend I got to participate in World Refugee Day and hang out with the IRC’s clients. I was dubbed the “official” photographer of the day and took my duties very seriously.
In the photo above one of the organization’s Congolese interpreter is teaching a traditional dance to all of the attendees. I have to admit I was pretty jealous I couldn’t partake in the dancing because I had to take photos. This photo includes all of the people I have the pleasure of working with on a daily basis. Whether that is the various interpreters we see or client’s children I happily keep busy while their parent are in a meeting.
It was nice to see all the clients and my co-workers out of an office environment. Everyone was understandably more relaxed and easy going. Likewise events like these are important in building a sense of community and trust between the IRC and our clients. I’m glad I was the photographer because now I have all these great photos to look back on to remember the people I worked with.
Every week at the International Rescue Committee we have what we dub “the special day.” This occurs every Tuesday, when all the new refugees or walk in asylees come to the office to get assessed. This assessment consists of them meeting their caseworker, getting a lesson in education, and sitting down with the Economic Empowerment Team.
Since, I am part of the Economic Empowerment Team I sit down with a couple of clients every week and pick their brain about their work and education history. I enjoy these days because I end up learning a lot about client’s personal history as well as the culture of their country. Usually things go pretty smoothly until I ask about their short-term and long-term goals. Many times client’s short-term goals are simply to find a job, any job, as soon as possible. However, it gets trickier when I ask client’s about their long-term goal. Clients will repeat their short-term goal or become silent and aloof. Sometimes I try to give examples to them such as continuing their education or getting technical training. Often they will pick one of the two just to humor me. When I ask what specific field they would be interested in pursuing once again I am met with silence.
This is not the case with all client’s, but certainly a lot of them have no idea what they want to do in the future and have never put any thought into it. This reminded me of an 8th grade psychology concept, “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” in which you need to fulfill your basic needs before you can start thinking about broader and more complex individual goals. It is a pyramid in which you move from wanting good health to safety to love to esteem and ultimately self-actualization. On this pyramid client’s are usually in situations where their immediate concern is staying healthy and safe. Many client’s did not think they were ever going to leave their refugee camp or live a life free of persecution and oppression. For them there was no point in mulling over career goals because that wasn’t a reality or priority. Before I would get frustrated with client’s for having no answer to this, but now I tell them to think about it, they have time and options.
I have noticed throughout my internship that women coming from different cultures are more disadvantaged then their male counterparts when it comes to the refugee resettlement process. A lot of the time a women will not be able to speak English and her husband will act as a translator, but the level and thoroughness of the translation varies and many time these women are left without necessary information. One of my favorite experiences has been working with a Women’s Empowerment class that teaches women job skills and provides a setting for them to socialize and build a sense of community. The women’s class helps to close this gender inequality and helps women from traditional societies to become empowered.
One of the exercises the class does involves going around town and approaching businesses to ask if they are hiring. While this may seem elementary, many women are used to getting jobs through personal connections or not being able to get a job at all. As I was escorting the women around a shopping center everyone was understandably nervous and uneasy. Finally, I persuaded two of the women to go into a restaurant and ask to speak with the hiring manager. They came out with a business card and a smile on their face. After that I couldn’t keep track of who was going where, everyone was eager to go into shops and ask for applications. It was the first time that I had witnessed a complete change of attitude in the women and had seen them brighten up to such an extent. From then on whenever one of us spotted a “now hiring” sign everyone got giddy and angled to be the one to go in and ask for an application.
It was great to witness how one simple exercise empowered these women to take control of their own job search. For many of the women who had come from Afghanistan or Iran they had never felt like starting a career or getting a job was an option. Having the option to work or not to work is one that allows you to feel free and in charge of the direction of your life. However, like many other experiences I have had at my internship this lesson was bitter sweet. One of the women had been a nurse in Haiti and another was in charge of marketing at an international organization. Knowing that they could not continue their professional careers without starting new in the U.S. was a bit hard to swallow. Still, it was nice to be able to show them a practical part of the job search process even though some of them were way overqualified. The lesson also proved that while refugees do face many barriers to employment (language, cultural norms, gender), they continue to be resilient, determined, and hopeful.
Working with refugees during this divisive and polarizing general election has been surprisingly difficult and frustrating. Working with a non-profit that aids in resettling refugees, what I see as a necessary and beneficial service, others see as aiding criminals and terrorists access to the country. Those who work in resettlement know this couldn’t be farther from the truth, but misconceptions and myths persist regardless.
It has been difficult to come to terms with the fact that people still believe that refugees are somehow trying to undermine the American dream. Working with clients everyday I know that these people are some of the most resilient and hardworking that I have ever met. Refugees stay an average of 17 years in refugee camps before they are granted refugee status, if at all, in a country. Yet, I continue to hear figures like Donald Trump insist that this population is dangerous and their access to the country should be halted. Still, refugees are the most intensely scrutinized group that enters the country. Every person that is granted refugee status goes through two years of background checks, where family members are interviewed and their character and history is picked apart and examined. The process of being vetted is extremely thorough and in-depth. But Donald Trump insists that the process needs to be tweaked so that we can “better” assess people, though it would be hard to make this process any more vigorous and detailed.
There is so much misinformation having to do with how refugees gain access to the United States and while I don’t expect the public to be an expert on this topic there should be a better understanding of how the process works. Without this understanding people will continue to believe that people are granted refugee status arbitrarily and with little vetting which could lead to the end of refugee entrance into the country. I am not sure what would be a proper solution to this issue of misinformation, maybe we should have schools touch on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers or hold the media accountable for setting the record straight. Without this internship I would be in the dark about some of these issues as well so it’s understandable that the public is largely misinformed. Still, there is no excuse that this population continues to be torn apart and targeted for trying to salvage their and their families life.