This summer, I worked as a Casework Intern with the International Rescue Committee in Charlottesville, Virginia. As someone who holds a particular interest in refugee crises, working for a nonprofit organization such as IRC was a dream of mine. While the IRC assists many people from refugees, to asylum seekers, to human trafficking victims, IRC Charlottesville in particular focuses on refugee resettlement.
Resettlement is very fast-paced, especially within the first 10 days of the arrival of a new case. Members of a case must receive certain services such as applying for a Social Security number, public benefits, housing, and receiving a health assessment. With multiple cases arriving in a short period of time, I realized that set routines or schedules did not exist in a position like this. I learnt something new every single day on the job, but there were two big points that I would like to reflect on below.
On my first day, I learnt that that only 1% of the world’s refugee population is ever resettled, and most people multiple years for the possibility to be resettled. I was able to hone my understanding of the refugee experience when first I met one of my supervisors, Geeta. As a refugee from Bhutan, he had spent 13 years in a refugee camp in Nepal and was resettled by IRC in Charlottesville in 2011. Geeta began volunteering for IRC, then worked his way up to the Caseworker position and obtained his citizenship. During his naturalization ceremony, he said, “The country I was born in considered me a non-national. The country they said I belonged to considered me a refugee. The country I had no connection to accepted me as its citizen today.” Working alongside Geeta allowed me to fully understand the refugee experience and the importance that resettlement programs play for refugees in countries like the U.S. (You can watch a clip IRC made about Geeta here.)
I also realized that the biggest problem facing refugees being resettled in the U.S. was the declining number of refugees being accepted into the country. In 2019, the Trump Administration capped the annual number at a historic low of 30,000. However, this number could drop even further in the wake of threats of abolishing the refugee program all together. In response to these threats, IRC announced its support of the GRACE Act. The GRACE Act is a piece of legislation introduced to the U.S. Senate that would increase the number of refugees admitted to 95,000 annually. As an intern, I definitely understood the importance of advocating on refugees behalf. When searching for housing for our clients, I noticed I was often fielding questions about those who did not know anything about refugees or attempting to change people’s minds about misconceptions they held about refugees. I found myself reiterating the statement, “Refugees are very harshly vetted by the Department of Homeland Security for nearly two years,” over and over again to those who would claim not to trust our clients. While this could be frustrating at times, it was well worth it when I would find a family or client their first home in the U.S.
In this field, it is important to try to keep in mind that while the work can be fast paced, stressful, and sometimes even chaotic, one’s efforts will not be in vain. From this internship, I learned that casework can sometimes feel under-appreciated. This is not because staff members do not recognize your efforts, but because many of IRC’s clients do not speak English, and understanding the processes and procedures of a foreign country can be hard for someone who has just arrived in that country. However, any time I was feeling as though I was not doing well enough or letting clients down, a client would somehow remind me that I was helping them restart their lives. One day, I was feeling particularly down. I went to pick up a client who had arrived 2 days prior, and was going to take him to his health assessment. But five minutes into the drive he started crying in my passenger seat. Then, after I pulled over, he said something that will stick with me forever: “Before, I had nothing. But here, this is everything I could have ever dreamed of. Thank you. Alhamdulillah.”
At the beginning of this internship, I had no idea what to expect. And to be fair, some mornings I would go into the office without knowing what to expect. With a position in casework, having helped resettle over 60 refugees in Charlottesville, I have realized that each person is unique and has different needs. At the end of this internship, I knew how to meet those needs no matter how unique they might be. I have learned more in three months about the refugee experience than I ever could from a book or a class. These past 10 weeks have equipped me with invaluable experience and have laid the foundational stones for my future career path.
Disclaimer: Any views expressed in the above post are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee or the Reiff Center.