Positive changes

In 2003, at the beginning of what at times seems like a permanent period of internship/traineeship/fellowship work, I was was intern at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), a resettlement agency in New Haven, CT.

Back then,  if I remember correctly (that was five and a half years ago, so my memory is a bit fuzzy) the office consisted of four rooms, including the in-office food bank, on the ground floor of a very dark, old building. The then director frowned on mentorship and volunteer programs, because she felt they “indulged” refugees and didn’t teach them “early independence and self-sufficiency.” She actively drove would-be mentors and volunteers away if she felt they were getting “too close” to refugee families. Inviting refugee families to a home-cooked dinner or taking refugee teens to the mall to buy winter coats were no-no’s. My family was scolded for bringing a refugee family to Thanksgiving dinner that year.

I couldn’t understand the director’s mentality, and to this day scratch my head when I think about how she treated her refugee clients.  She’s gone now, and IRIS is a much, much bigger organization than it was back when I was there.  Today, it has an extensive volunteer program and encourages exactly the kind of hands-on involvement that the former director forbid. I’m so glad.  It really brings me joy to see how things have changed at IRIS and how much more is available to refugees resettled in the New Haven area.  Also, I see IRIS has a very nice new website.  I especially like the flash animation on the homepage.  It’s worth a look.

Why human rights?

A refugee’s story, recently told to me:

In 1992, hundreds of young Afghans educated in a Soviet-run boarding school were sent back to Afghanistan from Kazakhstan.  Many of these teenagers were no longer comfortable speaking their mother tongues of Dari or Pashto, and Afghan culture was as foreign to them as to non-Afghans. The students, most in their early to middle teens, had been given up during the Soviet-Afghan war by  impoverished parents who hoped that an education in the Soviet Union would release their children from the grim prospects of starvation and violent, early death.

In Kazakhstan, the children were indeed educated, and lived a mostly idyllic life with Russian nannies, summer camps with bonfires and games, and trips to Moscow. And then, in 1992, the foundations of that life gave way.

On their return, the Soviet-educated Afghans were left adrift in a country they barely remembered. Many could not find their parents, as the Afghan Civil War was underway. At some point, dozens of the returned highschoolers, those too young to fight, were left to sleep outside, in the grounds of an orphanage that doubled as a hospital. Scorpions stung them, fleas drained their hunger-weakened bodies, they shivered in the cold, and, worst of all, militia commanders constantly preyed on them. One morning, some commanders arrived and began forcing the girls into their vehicles. The girls’ terrified classmates looked on in helpless horror. None of the kidnapped girls were seen again. Later, a boy was lured away and also disappeared forever into the wave of suffering and death that washed over Afghanistan and much of Central Asia then, and rolls on still.

When I think of the terror those girls must have felt as they were taken from their friends and driven to an unimaginable fate, or the long, and entirely preventable suffering of their classmates, I simply cannot imagine any other line of work.

Refugee resettlement and health mediation: part I

Before landing an international development fellowship, I spent eight months working at a regional refugee resettlement office. Initially, I was attached to the human trafficking victim services program, but I was later moved (or moved myself) to outreach and program development.  Additionally, I, like the rest of the staff, spent a great deal of time just running the office, especially after the director moved on to a better position elsewhere and left us leaderless during the high season of resettlement.

The office I worked at was typical of refugee resettlement offices in the United States: underfunded, understaffed, overworked, and underpaid. Case managers scrambled just to provide minimum services to their long lists of clients. Often, colleagues and I would work from before opening well into the night, go home, and do it all over the next day. And yet, there were still tasks that never saw completion, and programs that fell through because they were staffed entirely by people who were already splitting time between two or more full-time programs. “Cloning is our only hope,” I once joked with my supervisor. Joking aside, during my time at the resettlement office, I became aware of a serious gap in the services provided to clients (refugees). That gap was health mediation.

The largest refugee populations resettled by the field office were Burmese, Iraqis, Afghans, Congolese, and ethnic Nepalis from Bhutan, but we also resettled Somalis, Meskhetian Turks,  and Kunama, as well as asylees fom Sudan and Iran. Each population suffered prior to resettlement and had its  set of common health problems. For the Burmese, coming mostly from overcrowded camps along the Thai-Burma border, the list of ailments was almost endless: rotted teeth, skin infections, malnutrition, lead poisoning (from contaminated water in camps), post traumatic stress and depression, eye problems, amputations (often from some time ago) that had not been performed properly, respiratory disorders, complications from pregnancy, and lots more.  For the Afghans and Iraqis: lots of stress and trauma, as well as  dental problems. The other groups had combinations of all of these. The Kunama and Somali women added the issue of FGM. And several clients were torture survivors.

Just housing and feeding a rapidly swelling list of beneficiaries pushed the small staff to its limit. Unpaid interns were brought in to perform full-time work in education, ESL, and housing services –work so technical and time-consuming that it should have been done by a full-time staffers. Health fell by the wayside. It was everyone’s problem and no one’s responsibility. If a client came in and showed a prescription, obviously confused, someone would rush out of an office, give it a glance, and send the client on his or her way, usually just as confused as before. Occasionally, someone would draw the short straw and have to take time out (invariably from another task nearing deadline) to drive a client to the doctor’s office or hospital. If a client required accompaniment to the low-cost health clinic, a member of the staff or an intern would lose her or his entire day, because the clinic was  a nightmare of hurry up and wait and endless paperwork.

Most of the time, however, clients were on their own. This usually resulted in poor care and lapses in treatment for serious conditions. Medical providers, especially those that catered to the poor, had neither the time nor the know-how to properly provide medical care to refugees.  Clients who spoke no English were often treated without explanation or real consent (telling someone to sign next to the X when she or he has no idea what that will authorize is not consent.) One client, a young and frightened woman resettled just weeks before, gave birth without interpretation services because no one was there to tell her doctors that they needed to get a Karen interpreter on the language line. When it came to mental health care, well, the story was even bleaker. Depressed Afghan? Traumatised Iraqi?  Sorry, you’re SOL, I’m afraid. I could go on and on with anecdotes, each more distressing than the last, and, in fact, I spent many late nights at home doing just that over sad beers with my roommate-coworker.

Complaining can be useful –it brings problems to light and can spur others to voice  similar concerns– but it needs to be followed with action to be productive. Before I left the refugee resettlement office, I fiendishly researched health mediation programs for refugees. I found programs in the United States and elsewhere and looked into how they were funded and implemented and what the results were. Then, I drafted a proposal for a refugee health mediation program for my field office.

to be continued…

Spring plans

I have a busy spring ahead of me, and I’ve probably overbooked myself again. Nevertheless, I’m excited about everything on my agenda. A few of the things that will be keeping me out of trouble between now and May:

1. For work – Putting together an online “digest” of sorts on legislative development.

2. For volunteering -Conducting a survey of visitation policies at immigration detention centres in my state.

3. For quasi-consulting – Pushing as hard as I can to get a refugee health mediation project off the ground. I did the research, designed the project, and have (I hope) found a funding source. This is my baby, and I will write more about it another time.

4. For school – Studying post-conflict reconstruction with a very cool veteran aid worker and international development expert.

5.  For my career- Applying for jobs in Afghanistan.Thanks, ReliefWeb!

6. For life in general – Taking a first aid refresher course and maybe getting some more advanced training.

7. For Afghanistan – Getting better at Dari . At learning languages, I suck. However, I’m also stubborn, so I’m going to do this. Damnit, I will be able to do more than just order food and ask where the bathroom is!

Things I am not looking forward to

Eleven hours of air travel and FOUR stop-overs beginning in…five hours.

Explaining again to my bio-chemical engineer Ph.D-holding stepfather what it is I do, and that no, it’s not a lot of bullshit (most of the time.)

Giving a presentation on the relationships between “Press Freedom, Media Development, and Parliamentary Strengthening Programs in Transitional Regimes” on Dec 11th. I used to be a decent public speaker, back when I was an arrogant shit of a teenager. Adulthood has brought out my true awkwardness.

Finishing three papers over the next four days.

Picking out a new laptop (I need one, and my old laptop is missing keys and held together with an old Amnesty International bumper sticker, but I have a money-spending phobia worse than that of my ninety year old grandmother. This particular phobia, however, makes me an awesome, awesome girlfriend. Go out? You’ve got to be kidding! Netflix and Taco Bell? Now you’re talking.)

A dream involving Rahm Emmanuel

Last night, I slept fitfully. Perhaps this was because the heat was turned up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit in my apartment to accommodate my roommate, who misses India.  Anyway, I had strange dreams.  In one of these, I was working as some kind of lowly administrative assistant in the Obama White House.  Staff were running all over the place, and there was some kind of commotion going on. “Rahm just blew it! Completely blew it. I’m going to cut his fucking head off and I don’t care if he’s my boss!” a stout, prematurely balding and red-faced staffer bellowed, wiping beads of sweat from his brow with a piece of crumpled computer paper. Everyone crowded around, apparently reading the scoop about how Rahm Emmanuel had said something awful, thus triggering the first big public relations disaster of the new Administration.  I tried to squeeze into the huddle to see what the sweaty paper said, but another staffer, a girl who looked like my NYU roommate shouted, “Get back to your desk!” and said my name in this awful sing-song way that was no doubt dredged up from the depths of my junior high school memories. I scurried back to my desk and promptly downed a whole bottle of what looked like ecstasy tablets while a fat chinchilla settled on my filing cabinet. The dream then ended, but I think I was mumbling something about Rahm Emmanuel and my student loan debt as I regained consciousness.

I have workplace self-esteem issues. As for the chinchilla and club drugs, I really have no clue. Mischa is good at non-serious armchair psychoanalysis, maybe he has a theory.

Note to self: stop being an email idiot

Never send your boss a long-winded and (you think) cynically witty email about how a particular person working in a high-level diplomatic post is, LOL, a total ass. Never assume your boss does not know this person personally. Invariably, not only will your boss know the individual in question, he or she will be a close friend of theirs and will respond with “Actually, I talked to [NAME] just yesterday and we’re going to be on a panel together this weekend.”

Lucky for me, I am kept around the office for entertainment value as much as anything else.

Just another day at the office with this dumbass.

Just another day at the office with this dumbass.

Don’t send the rookie to Kabul!

So, early this morning I got an email from a colleague who just arrived in Afghanistan. Basically, he decried the recent bombing of a wedding party in Kandahar Province and expects things to get worse in Kabul for everyone, including foreign aid workers. He said that it didn’t look good for me or other new staff going over there, because of the rapidly deteriorating security situation.

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