During the summer of her study abroad year in Jordan, Betsy Fisher ’10 interned at a refugee community center, teaching English. Among her students was a group of Iraqi refugees who had worked for the U.S. military in Iraq. “They would bring me the letters in English telling them they had a [resettlement] interview, but they hadn’t realized they had an interview because they couldn’t read the letter,” says Fisher. More than a decade later, Fisher is now the director of strategy at the nonprofit International Refugee Assistance Project, which counts its counsel of Iraqis and Afghans who worked with the U.S. military among its primary concerns. We spoke to her about the current state of refugee policy, the impact of the coronavirus on the refugee community, and the stories that keep her going.
We’ve seen historic levels of refugees in recent years. How dire is this issue from a global perspective?
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ statistics note that there are more people displaced now than at any other time in history. We have major conflict and humanitarian crises in places like Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, and Afghanistan. At exactly the same moment, places like the U.S., Australia, and some parts of Europe are closing their doors to people who are hoping to reach safety.
Rules and regulations that govern refugees and resettlement seem to be ever-changing in the U.S. When a new policy gets enacted, how does your organization react?
Part of the challenge is that there are these huge policies that are really high-profile and that people can see—like a tax cut. But there have been dozens, if not hundreds, of these small policy changes, that in some cases, we don’t even know about because they might not even be announced. And it can take a long time to figure out whether there is an official policy—whether it’s in writing or whether it’s just something that people are doing differently. And then all of those changes kind of pile on to make these processes more difficult to navigate.
How has the current COVID-19 crisis impacted the refugee community?
If you’re living paycheck to paycheck or going hungry and you can’t work—and nonprofits are decreasing services because they don’t have funding or are unable to provide services because of curfews—all of those things will impact [refugees] much the same way that they affect anyone who’s living on the margins. There is no reason to think that refugees are more vulnerable than any other group of people living in similar situations, but refugees disproportionately live in highly concentrated and urban areas without proper sanitation, or, in some cases, are living in camps where they have limited access to basic sanitation supplies.
I have to imagine that elements of this work can be extremely frustrating and that there’s an emotional toll that comes along with the job. Is there a story that you return to that reminds you about why you do this work?
I was able to be at the airport for a family who was able to reunite. The dad had been resettled in the U.S., but was unable to bring his wife and kids because she is from Iraq and ISIS was there—and he thought it was too dangerous to try to get his wife and kids to [the necessary] embassy interview, getting through ISIS-run checkpoints. Several years later, they were able to reunite in safety. And to be there at the airport, to see them all reuniting, was fantastic. But I do think, as in many areas of work, it’s about taking small victories, continuing to hope for the best for the people we’re trying to work with, and to help them achieve their goal: to live in safety.