For the past three months, the son of a Vietnamese refugee currently studying in the United States interned under a British boss at a Japanese non-profit organization that supports refugee projects in countries ranging from Colombia to Syria to Uganda.
I begin my final reflection blog post with that statement to emphasize that connections between people across borders constitutes the reality of the modern world we now live in. So it is with refugees, and so it was for me in this summer internship.
When I initiated my connection with RIJ and contacted Ms. Best for the first time regarding the possibility of a summer internship, I did so with the primary intention exploring the realm of humanitarian non-governmental work that takes place in settings that at first glance might seem far removed from the lives of the intended beneficiaries. At a previous internship with UNHCR in Malaysia I worked with a department of the organization that was directly involved with implementing and monitoring many of the same types of projects that RIJ funds around the world. Thus, the combination of RIJ’s small staff size, independence from governmental assistance, international scope, and the promise of an internship targeted at work at the fund-raising end of the project cycle appealed to me as something that seemed to complement my previous internship experience.
After three months with RIJ, I am glad to report that I have successfully been able to accomplish the goals that I initially set and have had a deeply fulfilling and rewarding experience. My work at RIJ was both varied and interesting. The three primary projects that I engaged in were a comprehensive website update, a World Refugee Day social media campaign, and the organization from start to finish of a fundraising and advocacy and awareness event titled “Beyond the Headlines.”
Though it may be a cliché to say that you make out of your internship what you put in, I found that to be especially the case with my internship with RIJ, as Jane gives interns both the freedom and the responsibility to craft your own projects to suit your own particular interests. Thought at times challenging, this ensured that I was always engaged with meaningful and productive directly tied to my own personal interests. Through the website updating project, for instance, I was able to read through many of the project files and meeting notes RIJ keeps and thereby gain considerable insight into how RIJ operates and has changed over time. In contrast, my work organizing the “Beyond the Headlines” event was a collaborative project that required me to take on responsibilities and perspectives I had not had previous experience.
All along the way, Jane was a great help to me, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunities and the feedback that she consistently gave me these past three months. The warmth and professionalism of my fellow volunteers and co-workers stand out to me as enviable connections that I will seek to rediscover in my career moving forward.
Finally, I wish to end this blog post with a few concluding thoughts about RIJ’s work and one of the most common phrases that I have seen these past few months: “Refugees are just like us.” What do we mean when we say those words and what might it possibly obscure?
The phrase is itself inherently paradoxical, for even as we declare that ‘we’ are just like ‘them’, we do so by using a label that emphasizes difference. It is critical to acknowledge that refugees make up the same human community that we all belong to, that they are neither aliens nor helpless victims, and that in many ways they are “just like us.” Yet it is just as important to recognize the different conditions that cause some of us to become refugees and face struggles that are not just like ours. Indeed, it is precisely because refugees are “just like us” and share our same desires, hopes, and goals, that we must take action to help them overcome the challenges caused by forced displacement. This is the space in which RIJ’s projects take effect, supporting and empowering refugees who are faced with circumstances so different from ours, out of the conviction that we share a deep connection with one another merely by being a part of the same human community. The distinction between ‘us’ and ‘refugees’ is not one of humanity, but rather circumstance. We must care for refugees, both because they are just like us, and because they are not like us.
Because we are different, and because we are the same.