An Interview With Rachel Freed, Vice President And Chief Program Officer

Carly Cronon spoke with Rachel Freed about her past work in human rights, what drew her to UUSC, and her most memorable moments with the organization thus far.

When and why did you first become involved in human rights work?

I grew up in a multicultural family and spent a lot of time visiting relatives in Southeast Asia, where I witnessed persistent inequalities and the dehumanization that went with it. It made me eager to develop my own understanding of how different political, social, economic and cultural forces shaped how and why people had certain rights over others.

Years later, a pivotal moment occurred during my junior semester abroad in India. I visited a rural fishing community that had been subject to fly ash pollution from a neighboring Exxon plant. Villagers in the community were mostly illiterate and had been told by the company that the fly ash was not harmful. In response to their concerns, the company-sponsored health clinics told villagers they were fine. This continued until a local nongovernmental organization working with a community member tested the water and found strains of harmful chemicals in the fish and streams.

Through outreach and education, the villagers organized the entire community, mobilized, and successfully demanded accountability. This experience helped me to understand the power of local communities and NGOs to catalyze vibrant and democratic social change movements.

What drew you to UUSC’s human rights work in particular?

My journey to UUSC was inspired by working with a UU congregation and community in a great struggle against injustice. When I graduated from law school, I worked for a civil rights firm in New York City, where the lead attorney humored my request to do pro bono work by connecting me to his UU congregation in Ridgewood, NJ. It was there that I met four passionate women who chose to spend their free time visiting detained asylum-seekers in detention centers. I offered to take one case, but then I started to get calls from the detention center on a daily basis.

There was one rather stark case I can remember – that of a Liberian refugee who escaped rebel forces during the reign of Charles Taylor, the former President and now convicted war criminal. After witnessing her siblings’ deaths, she fled the country and came to the United States. She lived here for almost seven years – just shy of the residency requirement to become a U.S. citizen – when a minor shoplifting incident landed her in detention, facing deportation. She had no representation, she suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and her kids had been taken into child protective services. My UU friends began to visit her each week to connect with her children’s government rep, and to help piece together the documents in her case. Next began our three-year journey together. It was quite a trek from Brooklyn to the middle of New Jersey, but my UU friends never failed to ferry me from the commuter rail, or deliver documents and do a visitation when needed. Eventually, we found the psychologist who had treated this woman in detention; he testified about her PTSD, and we were able to win the case. She was released and reunited with her children after nearly four years of living in the detention center.

I share this story because it is about a few caring individuals and what they accomplished by offering their time and generosity and by organizing their community for a specific cause. This is what drew me, and continues to draw me, to UUSC – it is our collective approach and struggle for justice in this world—as inspired by our founders and continued onwards through the years.

What do you like most about your job?

At UUSC, we are lucky to work with some of the most remarkable human rights activists around the world – people who wake each day not quite sure of what their efforts may bring for their communities, but who continue on anyway because of their deep belief in love, equality, and humanity. We are able to draw tremendous strength and courage from our partners. I also feel incredibly fortunate to work with such talented, passionate, and committed colleagues – I learn so much from all of our staff on a daily basis.

What is one of your most cherished UUSC memories or success stories?

One of my most cherished moments occurred during my trip to Nepal a few months after the 2015 earthquake, while meeting with one of our partners focused on trauma resiliency. They were helping to train a cadre of local teachers working with rural Dalit youth who had received very little support since the earthquake. We were in a small classroom when one of the children began to break down – she had lost her mother during the earthquake and was struggling to take care of her little brother. One of the trainers immediately calmed her down, and they sat for a while, talking and focusing on her breathing and the present moment. She managed to calm down, stop crying, and soon was smiling and sharing with us her dreams for her brother and telling us about her hopes for herself. It was really moving. I felt proud to know that UUSC was able to help bring trauma resiliency skills to teachers serving Dalit children in a remote area that had been overlooked by larger recovery efforts.

What do you and your team look for in finding new UUSC partners?

UUSC’s approach is unique to most Western human rights organizations because we center the voices of communities and their values in our pursuit to advance human rights and transform unjust power structures. Our model focuses not on a community’s helplessness or lack of knowledge, but rather their assets and their solutions. Therefore, we generally look to partner with smaller, lesser-known organizations doing innovative work to transform and empower marginalized populations, often in the face of extreme and adverse circumstances. The process of selecting new partners involves working with those organizations to identify how UUSC’s financial and other resources can be best leveraged to further human rights on the ground. It also includes mapping stakeholders, identifying points of power, and thinking through how UUSC’s voice and prominence as a U.S.-based human rights organization can be used to instigate systemic change.

What is an upcoming UUSC initiative that you are particularly excited about?

I’m in the middle of packing my bags for a trip to Zagreb, Croatia to participate in a convening that brings together our partners in the Balkans who are helping to serve Syrian refugees. At this convening, our partners from Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Croatia will be coming together to exchange information, build relationships, coordinate responses and collectively strategize on how to navigate the increasingly challenging political environments in which they operate. Our Balkans partners work in counties that have become increasingly hostile towards refugees, and their organizations are facing new government restrictions on their work. I’m excited to talk with them about their experiences and strategize ways UUSC can support their collective efforts during this critical time.

Collaborating to Serve Refugees in Challenging Times

This week UUSC organized a convening in Zagreb, Croatia of civil society organizations – many of them UUSC partners – serving Syrian refugees along the Balkan Route. Twenty-six representatives from 16 organizations came together to discuss how they can better coordinate their work, to problem-solve challenges that they face, and to expand their networks in neighboring countries in order to continue serving refugees. It was a privilege to provide the space and hear reflections and feedback from organizations on the front lines of this crisis, many of which experience scrutiny and harassment from their local governments. Because of those security interests we have chosen not to name specific participants.

On behalf of the UUSC family, Rachel Freed and I were grateful for the opportunity to spend time with this quality group of attorneys, case workers, and humanitarians striving to protect refugees in an environment where doing so is highly unpopular.

Participants of the UUSC Convening of Refugee Service Providers in the Balkans.

The groups who participated in the convening face extreme challenges: the closing space for civil society organizations in Eastern Europe, a rising tide of right-wing governments and factions, and general anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the region. When the Balkan Route closed in 2016, refugees headed for Western Europe were suddenly stuck in transit countries ill-equipped to serve the long-term needs of asylum-seekers. Further, both the refugees and the organizations providing services to them faced growing public hostility fueled by a misinformation media campaign similar to what we have recently seen in the United States. Governments are using increasingly aggressive, inhumane tactics to stop the tide of migrants, and there have been reports of border guards pouring water on freezing migrants in the middle of winter, using attack dogs, and other forms of violence and intimidation at border crossings.

As refugees wait for their claims to be processed they are often isolated from the rest of society in camps with varying degrees of accommodations and where their freedom of movement and access to services may be limited. In the camps, education opportunities for children are minimal, and psycho-social support is insufficient to deal with the trauma many have recently endured. The organizations who came together this week are among the only groups providing essential services ranging from legal assistance; protection against gender-based violence and the exploitation of unaccompanied minors; and mobile teams providing medical care. Case management is challenging and the formal systems of care and communication are insufficient. Gatherings, like the one held this week, help the organizations build their relationships—expanding informal networks which are frequently relied on to provide care in such a complex environment.

Participants break out in small groups to discuss the challenges they face and how they can problem solve and support one another.

As the rest of the world turns its attention to other crises, these 16 organizations continue on until the job of resettling and assimilating refugees is done. Much of the funding that was available at the height of the crisis has moved elsewhere and what remains often comes with conditions that challenge the integrity of the mission-driven service providers. As such, the financial support of UUSC members is particularly crucial and we appreciate the generosity so many have shown to ensure we’re able to make a positive difference where we can.

Read Danielle’s pre-trip blog post, Balkans Convening Aims to Offer Support to Partner Refugee Organizations.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading in human rights and social justice! In honor of World Refugee Day on  June 20, this week’s wrap-up includes articles about how technology is helping to address the crisis, climate refugees in Somalia, and education access for refugee children.

The current humanitarian crisis is the largest since World War II. UUSC is dedicated to fighting for the human rights of refugees. Learn more about our partner organizations working in Croatia to provide humanitarian aid for and protect the rights of refugees.

Refugee hackathons and 3D printing: apps for the world’s displaced people, Tazeen Dhunna Ahmad, The Guardian, June 20, 2017

Although humanitarian aid provides refugees access to the essentials, like food, clothing, and shelter, refugees also need access to opportunities to improve their situation. This is where technology comes in and has helped “to transform conditions and empower more than 22 million refugees worldwide.”

The majority of refugees have mobile phones, which has made travel and global communication easier. However, it’s tech initiatives, like the ones Ahmad highlights in this article, that are really helping to create education and employment opportunities for refugees. Ahmad shares the story of, Admir Masic, a former refugee who is now an associate professor at MIT, who recently launched a global hub, Refugee ACTion Hub (ReACT), to provide refugees with education. 3Dmena, another tech partnership, is providing refugees with access to prosthetic limbs, “custom-built and cheaper” due to advances in 3D printing technology.

Hackathons and other tech-centric competitions provide refugees with an innovative platform to solve the problems their communities face and to find job opportunities – from solving water leakages on camps to employing refugees to take on a backlogged recycling system.

It’s rare to find stories about refugees that aren’t grim. Technology and the opportunities it brings for human creativity and collaboration can change the conversation.

Amid Drought, Somali Pastoralists Watch Their ‘Sources of Life’ Perish, Samuel Hall Research Team & Ashley Hamer, News Deeply, June 20, 2017

The number of climate refugees is growing, and is set to grow at a higher rate as the impacts of global warming accelerate. Despite this, efforts to address climate forced displacement have been lacking and even avoided, meaning climate refugees “remain on the fringes of humanitarian support.”

Due to drought in the Horn of Africa, over 739,000 people have been forced to leave Somalia since November. Most are pastoralists who have watched their livestock die of starvation and dehydration and who have no other means of livelihood. Climate forced displacement can have, and already has had, a global ripple effect of economic disparity and violence, namely because of the damage that displacement does to families and communities. Addressing the needs of climate refugees will not only save hundreds of thousands of lives now, but can curb the more widespread conflicts that will likely come in the future.

UUSC has highlighted climate refugees as a marginalized group who are not receiving the help they need, even within the sphere of humanitarian aid providers. This is why our Environmental Justice portfolio is focusing its resources on communities at high risk of climate forced displacement.

What we owe refugee children, Elias Bou Saab, Gulf Times, June 22, 2017

Fifty-one percent of the world’s refugees are children, and without access to education, there are concerns that this group will be a “lost generation” growing up without the skills needed to rebuild their communities or to thrive. Saab, former Lebanese education minister, points out the benefits education access has for children: “Education is also a vital instrument for combating violent extremism, which can capture the minds of young people with no hope for the future. And school attendance is essential for children’s welfare, because it gives them access to basic healthcare services and protects them from the horrors of child labour and prostitution.”

World leaders have recognized the need to educate refugee children, but efforts on the part of host countries to provide education haven’t been enough. Education access has been delayed by poor organization, violence, and strained resources. Saab signifies how important it is that governments and organizations meet their monetary pledges – which many have not – but also calls on them to step up their funding for programs that make remote and online education possible. No child should grow up without an education. Visit the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to learn more.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss.

1. “Judge dismisses Texas lawsuit over resettlement of Syrian refugees,” The Guardian, June 16, 2016

Texas has lost its bid to keep Syrian refugees out after a federal judge on Thursday dismissed the state’s lawsuit over resettlements from the war-torn Middle Eastern country.

“US district court judge David Godbey said the state failed to make ‘a plausible claim for relief’ in its lawsuit against the federal government and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a charity that aids refugees.”

Ruling in favor of both the federal government and the nonprofit IRC, Judge Godbey ruled that existing law does not support the State of Texas’s petition to require advance notice of the intent to settle Syrian refugees in the state, along with specific information about individual refugees.

Texas is one of several states seeking to deny or limit the rights of Syrian refugees to enter their states, an attempt that human rights advocates believe is clearly illegal.

“’The court is unequivocal in validating the lawfulness of the refugee resettlement program,’ said Jennifer Sime, senior vice-president of the IRC’s US Programs.

“The non-profit group said Syrians are the most vetted of the refugees it settles in Texas. A number of intelligence agencies are involved in the background check, and only those with the most well-founded cases ultimately qualify for resettlement.”

Learn more about UUSC’s work to advance the human rights of refugees from Syria and Central America here.

2. “The LGBT community isn’t condemning Muslims after Orlando and neither should you,” Nico Lang, Opinion, Los Angeles Times, June 14, 2016

“For LGBT people, the horrific bloodshed was a reminder that we are not equal in a country where our safety is not considered a priority: Just 18 states—including the District of Columbia—have hate crime laws on the books that cover both sexual orientation and gender identity. Many law enforcement agencies routinely fail to report hate crimes to federal agencies.

“For the Muslim community, however, the tragedy was a sign of the probable violence to come: After every act of violence attributed to a person of the Islamic faith, violent attacks against Muslims in the U.S. skyrocket.”

Nico Lang, the East Coast Writer for The Advocate, notes that “America has a rich, vibrant Muslim community—one as enormously diverse as it is largely moderate. In 2015, a Pew Research survey found U.S. Muslims to be tolerant of LGBT people: 42% supported marriage between same-sex partners, a rate that was more or less equal to Christians (44%) and higher than evangelicals (28%) or Mormons (40%).”

He calls for awareness of all these two communities have in common, and for an end to the hateful rhetoric by politicians seeking to create more division and intolerance. Lang’s comments close with, “This moment is an important reminder. Love always overpowers hate.”

Read more about UUSC’s stance on how to counter anti-Muslim bigotry in our Online Refugee Toolkit.