In Turkish, we have a concept called kismet. It can be translated to “fate,” a somewhat controversial idea across the world. I don’t know if I entirely believe in fate, but I do believe that opportunities in life come to us at the right time, and that closed doors are key to conceiving the future. Prior to this summer, I was at a crossroads in my career development. I had spent a long time pursuing a professional pathway in the federal government, with my primary focus being on national security. Having witnessed security concerns in my parents’ countries of birth (Colombia and Turkey), I felt compelled to make a change. I felt that my calling was in counterterrorism and that was the path I pursued for four years, throughout my senior year of high school and first three years at university. However, my multiculturalism also lended itself to a passion for mutual aid and community organizing. Eventually, I found these two passions were at odd. National security in the United States, as it stands today, is a tool to target marginalized communities. We can look at prior security legislation and easily find flaws driven by political bias and bigotry. This is not to say that security studies are not important, but it is to say that security studies are deeply flawed.
Oftentimes, we are encouraged to “be the change” by fixing a system from inside. However, I am a strong proponent of thinking outside the box and scrapping existing systems when necessary. With the ongoing wave of racial justice protests, birthed from the brutal murder of George Floyd, it is easier than ever to identify problems with the United States’ criminal justice and security systems. Finally, we are beginning to see a push to start over and a platform being given to radical thought leaders with worthwhile models of policing (and non-policing). Although this may not seem inherently relevant to my internship at the International Rescue Committee, both my internship and the prison abolition movement are at the core of my newfound passion: human security.
Human security is a relatively new security model, prioritizing social services and individuals’ needs over punitive measures. While studying abroad in Azerbaijan, I conceptualized and led a research project on the intersection of education policy and violent extremism. The project was instrumental in eliciting my hesitance about entering a national security career. However, I still decided to apply to some traditional national security internships for my Frederick experience. Call it kismet or whatever you will, but I ended up interning at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and finding myself in a completely new frame of mind. Since starting at the IRC, I have found my niche in humanitarian aid, refugee relief work, and direct service. Finally, I feel like I am headed down a career path where I can engage with individuals on the ground and simultaneously change systems that cause social harm.
For those unfamiliar with the IRC, it is a nonprofit agency responding to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and providing services to conflict-affected individuals. Throughout my time interning at the IRC, I have uncovered five key attributes for individuals in this line of work. Some of them are ingrained in me from my global upbringing, and others have been much more difficult for me to develop. To provide a brief summary of these attributes:
- Internationalism: although it’s not required to come from a global background, many working in refugee services do. This is in stark contrast to diplomats, security experts, and policymakers, who tend to be overwhelmingly white, male, and wealthy. At the IRC in particular, nearly all of the staff are former refugees and asylees, or come from diverse cultural backgrounds that enable them to empathize with clients’ circumstances. Language skills are also of immense importance when working with recently resettled refugees, who may not know English, and native speakers of these languages are heavily recruited by organizations such as the IRC.
- Flexibility: working in refugee services is a multidimensional challenge. For example, I am interning in employment services at the IRC, and my position description focuses on helping recently resettled refugees become economically self-sufficient through early employment opportunities. However, when working with conflict-affected individuals, no one service area can remain insulated. I have helped with applying to pandemic financial assistance, creating eviction one-pagers, identifying college programs for youth, leading English language lessons, and countless other tasks as they come up. Furthermore, federal law is fast to evolve and becomes increasingly restrictive each and every year. One example of this is the recent push by the Trump administration to alter reasonable fear review for asylees and prevent thousands of individuals from seeking refuge in the United States. Since a number of factors can influence the aims and abilities of these organizations to serve their client base, anyone looking to work in this field must be a quick and creative problem solver.
- Resiliency: during my second week at the IRC, I was assigned a training called Building Personal Resilience for Humanitarians. The two hour training shed light on the mental and physical toll that humanitarian workers face. There are a number of challenges in working with refugees and asylees – the stress of knowing a client may have a housing crisis if you cannot find them a job, the urge to work overtime and answer late-night or weekend communications from those in your case file, and other unavoidable stressors. The good thing is that resiliency can be built over time, and handled with healthy coping strategies.
- Sacrifice: this field is not lucrative in the least. On the bright side, this ensures a workforce of dedicated and passionate individuals. Unfortunately, this also means that a great deal of sacrifice is often involved with working at organizations like these. Starting nonprofit salaries sit at around $30k and slowly rise with time, but nobody gets rich off of a humanitarian career – in fact, most just scrape by, leading to a large turnover rate and a perpetually young workforce. Furthermore, entry to these jobs is competitive and often requires long, uncompensated stints in intern positions. Luckily, many of these organizations recruit from their intern programs, and in the IRC’s case (at the very least, in the Silver Spring office) the majority of the staff are former interns or volunteers.
- Social responsibility: finally, it is important for employees to have a strong sense of social responsibility. This type of employment lends itself to community organizers and intersectional thinkers, as refugee justice does not exist in a vacuum. While at my internship, I have joined the IRC’s employee-led Global Anti-Racism and Decoloniality Network and written a manual outlining the connections between race and refugee rights, for both staff and client use. In order to serve refugees, it is important to understand their barriers to progress. Only then can we begin to break these barriers and solve systemic issues in our communities.
These five attributes are central to success in this field. Other competencies can be learned, but it is imperative that prospective humanitarian workers either come equipped with the aforementioned qualities or with the capacity to develop them. I use plenty of other skills in my day-to-day tasks – creative skills for creating resumes, computer knowledge for logging case notes, and language ability for client interaction – but at the end of the day, these are learnable tools. What is needed in the humanitarian workforce is a coalition of diverse and aspirational individuals with a passion for change and willingness to be challenged. My internship at the IRC has better prepared me to be the kind of community leader I want to be, and I look forward to continuing this journey of self-discovery throughout the summer and beyond.