By Julia Boccagno
Emily Sernaker’s eyes beamed with joy as she walked through the mustard-colored hallways of her office building, the International Rescue Committee. Stumbling upon a young boy—a child refugee–she took a moment to chat with him, realizing that he possessed an eagerness to practice his newly acquired English-speaking abilities to anyone who granted him the opportunity to do so.
It’s moments like these that make Sernaker’s work at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) meaningful.
“I feel very lucky that…I get to hear their stories and to see firsthand how people carry themselves even after going through some of the more horrific things that someone could experience,” she said. “That they are kind and hopeful and hardworking, and honest about the challenges they face, but still keep trying. I feel very moved to witness that and to get to hear about those experiences.”
The IRC—which has 22 U.S. offices and 40 international ones—assists the refugees who are screened and selected by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to resettle in another country. Though the U.S. State Department says there are more refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons now than at any other time since World War II, only one percent of them are able to obtain refugee status in another country. The projected ceiling for refugee admissions in the United States for the 2015 fiscal year is 70,000.
Of those 70,000, 1,000 refugees, asylees and victims of human trafficking travel from places like Iraq, Sudan, Myanmar, Colombia and Ethiopia to seek direct services from the IRC office in Silver Spring. IRC staff members and interpreters not only greet refugees at the airport, but they also help their clients with finding a furnished home and job, obtaining health care, receiving English language classes, and setting up their children in the county’s educational system. Built on a system of self-sufficiency and empowerment, the IRC hopes that its clients will only need its services for eight months; though, it is able to legally provide assistance for a maximum of five years. After five years pass, the organization hopes its clients go on to apply for U.S. citizenship.
“We’re set up to help people as they are beginning the integration process and to give them tools, so, that once they hit that eight month mark, they’ll be able to take those tools and continue on to the next steps of their integration,” Sernaker said. “But, we have community groups and other ways for people to stay connected.”
As the Development Coordinator for the IRC’s office in Silver Spring, Md., Sernaker is primarily responsible for bolstering the non-profit’s work concerning refugee resettlement through external and internal initiatives. Through the arrangement of speaking events and presentations, the managing of promotional content, the brainstorming of funding initiatives and the implementation of educational programming, she is able to advocate for the 14 million refugees around the world who have been displaced due to conflict, persecution or natural disaster.
Although Sernaker worked for The Polaris Project, Wellspring International, The San Diego Rescue Mission and Invisible Children in the past, she always possessed a special admiration for the IRC and its work. She describes it as the perfect job, allowing her to blend her passions of writing and social justice.
“I have always been interested in how stories connect people and how they can motivate them to make a difference,” she said.
For Sernaker and her fellow colleagues, making a difference means helping refugees overcome bureaucratic tasks that create barriers for foreigners. This includes navigating the healthcare and education systems, explaining the hiring and job process, and informing them of their rights and liberties. The IRC also provides psychological support and services to those who have fallen victim to torture, gender-based violence and mental health illnesses.
Sernaker says that the IRC’s seasonal job fair is one of the organization’s widely anticipated events. In 2014, the IRC partnered with more than 150 local businesses to help 87% of its clients secure jobs, primarily in the hospitality or food industries. Prior to the event, the IRC Economic Empowerment team leads resume workshops, conducts mock interviews and ensures every client has business attire to wear.
Despite success stories like this, however, there are still bumps in the road.
“There’s a mix of gratitude and excitement, and then also the realities that everyone would be home if they could,” she said. “So, they’re often missing loved ones who didn’t get to come or loved ones who didn’t make it. Some have just fled violence. There’s a lot of trauma that, when they get here, they still have to sort through.”
She also describes the process of obtaining refugee status as “complicated” and something that their office doesn’t specialize in. Those seeking refugee status must undergo a lengthy application process conducted by the U.S. embassy and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Applicants are expected to go through various health screenings and background checks.
“And, for most people, if it’s a smooth process, it takes at least a year,” Sernaker said. “We’ve had many individuals who’ve spent most of their lives in refugee camps and who have waited for many, many years, and then some who wait for just about a year. So, it can really vary.”
Though Sernaker and her co-workers are proud of the work they do, they wish they could do more. According to the United Nations, Syria is now the world’s largest displacement crisis. In its Mid-Year Trends 2014 Report, the UNHCR says, of the 5.5 million people who have been uprooted, 1.4 million have fled international borders.
“Our organization has publicly suggested that the U.S. consider taking more Syrians,” she said. “So, there are times that the IRC will make a public statement saying this is something we hope for, this is the community we hope is remembered when legislation is being made or when decisions are being made.”
However, Sernaker urges that some of the obstacles that refugees encounter on a daily basis can be alleviated with a bit of empathy.
“There isn’t always the warmest reaction to people coming in our country,” she said. “Our country is built on immigrants, and people had wonderful things to contribute, who often fled persecution to get here. So, I think it’s a nice part of our country’s history to continue doing that.”