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.

Balkans Convening Aims to Offer Support to Partner Refugee Organizations

This week, UUSC’s Director of Programs, Research and Partner Support, Danielle Fuller-Wimbush is in Zagreb, Croatia to hold a three-day convening of our partners and other non-governmental organizations advancing refugee and migrant rights in the region. It’s an opportunity for 15 organizations serving refugees along the migrant route that cuts through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary to share strategies and better coordinate their critical work across multiple borders.

The Balkan Route, pre-March 2016. Source: Eurostat, Frontex

Since the spring of 2015, thousands of families have risked their lives to seek refuge in European Union (EU) countries, with most traveling through the Balkans. Many are fleeing the devastation caused by the Syrian civil war, which continues today.

In 2016, less than a year after the initial wave, countries began to close their borders and institute anti-immigrant tactics, stopping thousands of asylum-seekers from continuing their journey to safety and security. Hungary responded by building a razor-wire barrier on its border with Serbia and later with Croatia. Austria erected a four-kilometer-long fence at the Slovenia border, deployed armed forces around the border, and dramatically limited asylum applications. Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia announced that they were no longer letting migrants and refugees through their borders with Greece. For refugees, this has meant that their movement is largely curtailed and their access to asylum services is limited.

UUSC’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis has focused on supporting critical areas along the Syrian refugee migration route, where there is a lack of international protection, cooperation, burden sharing, and respect for the human rights of displaced peoples. Partners like the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Centre for Peace Studies, and Are You Syrious, provide essential support to ensure that these families are resettled into their new home countries, that their rights are protected, and that they have sufficient access to basic services.

UUSC supported the Asylum Protection Center in buying this camper, which carries an interdisciplinary team throughout Serbia to assist refugees. The team includes a lawyer, psychosocial worker, and a translator.

Over the next few days our partners will discuss the current landscape of this crisis and how they can support one another to better serve refugees.

As conflicts throughout the world continue to fuel the largest refugee crisis since World War II, the need for convenings like these—which allow organizations on the ground to reflect, share stories, successes, and build relationships with one another—are critical. UUSC continues to find ways to respond to and address this and other humanitarian crises with compassion and genuine partnership. Read more about Danielle’s experience from Zagreb!

Tell Congress to stand up to hate

Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hate groups are mobilizing their members to oppose all refugee resettlement. Their voices are loud. We can be louder. Tell Congress to stand against hate.

On the Ground in Greece

Delivering Aid with Dignity to Refugees in Europe

His name was Jawed, and he was screaming in pain when Latifa Woodhouse met him and his mother. His hands were swollen, bleeding, severely frostbitten. And he was just one of the thousands of refugees arriving on the shores of Lesbos, Greece, every day. Latifa and her husband, Colin — both longtime and deeply committed UUSC supporters and volunteers — met the family while volunteering for a week at Camp Moria in Lesbos, where UUSC is partnering with PRAKSIS, a Greek civil society organization, to support refugees fleeing their homes and seeking safety in Europe.

PRAKSIS: UUSC’s partner

Thanks to generous supporters who have donated almost $630,000 to the UUSC-UUA Refugee Crisis Fund, UUSC has established strategic partnerships with grassroots groups across the migration route in Europe. UUSC started working with PRAKSIS (which, translated from Greek, stands for Programs for Development of Social Support and Medical Cooperation) in December to deliver vital aid to refugees — from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere — who are arriving daily in Greece from Turkey.

Founded in 2004, PRAKSIS provides humanitarian aid in the form of medical care, legal assistance, social welfare, and psychological and financial support to socially vulnerable groups in need. To serve the vast influx of Syrian refugees — who have faced a dangerous journey across the sea, brutal weather and travel conditions, and exploitation by traffickers — UUSC teamed up with PRAKSIS to facilitate transportation of refugees from their arrival on shore to the refugee camps 40 kilometers uphill. UUSC’s support also enables the distribution of winterization kits for 536 babies, to help ensure they stay warm and healthy during the cold winter months.

When the Woodhouses — who served for 10 years as UUSC volunteer regional coordinators and presently are UUSC volunteer local representatives at the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock — began their humanitarian mission in Greece, they met PRAKSIS staff members by chance: walking through the camp, Latifa saw people wearing PRAKSIS jackets, introduced herself, and made the connection with Youta, a social worker, and Eva, and a teacher, who mostly work with Syrian refugee children at and around the U.N. compound at Camp Moria.

Navigating the refugee journey

When Latifa met Jawed and his mother, the mother was relieved to hear a familiar language — Pashto, her own. With Latifa’s help translating and navigating the unfamiliar camp, Jawed received initial treatment and pain relief at a health clinic and his family was set up in Camp Pikpa — for vulnerable children, disabled refugees, and those recovering from wounds, sickness, and the loss of loved ones. Not only that, Jawed’s mother was assured that a surgeon would provide necessary care for Jawed’s hands.

During their time together, the mother told Latifa the family’s story: They were an extended family of 22, traveling from Kunduz, Afghanistan, where they feared for their lives. They used all their money to pay a smuggler to get them to Greece; the trip to Turkey, over mountain ridges, took 22 hours, in brutal cold. Their elderly grandmother died on the trip. Jawed lost a glove and suffered severe injuries to his hands, and the whole family suffered frostbite. In Turkey, they were turned away from a doctor for lack of funds and insurance. They were directed by a smuggler to take a small rubber boat — that was over capacity — across the Aegean Sea to Greece. They had never seen water like that. They were one of the lucky families that made it to the shore of Lesbos.

That is the story of just one family among millions. The Woodhouses heard heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story. But they were struck by the strength and resilience they witnessed. “They are really amazing, strong people with a great hope for the future,” reflects Latifa.

The Woodhouses’ mission

“The refugee issue is very close to both of our hearts,” explains Latifa, the daughter of Afghan refugees herself. The Woodhouses saw the refugee situation unfolding — and worsening — in the Middle East and Europe and felt they must get involved. They raised money amongst friends, family, and community, including urging their congregation, the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock, to contribute $100,000 to UUSC’s refugee relief efforts.

With the funds they personally raised, Latifa, Colin, and their daughter Alexandra traveled to Lesbos in January, and they were joined by Diane Lombardy, a pediatrician. At Camp Moria, a processing center surrounded by tents hosting refugees going through registration, they got to work doing the following and more:

  • Helping provide and distribute aid, like clothing, firewood, and food
  • Creating vital camp infrastructure like walkways and irrigation, and making the medical tent and other areas accessible to wheelchairs
  • Translating and navigating language barriers (Latifa is fluent in Farsi and Pashto, and can converse in Arabic and Urdu)
  • Providing crowd control
  • Sharing information and connecting people to services

The Woodhouses worked with and alongside volunteers from around the world and with the refugees themselves, from sunrise to well past sunset. “During the past four days we have gone to the shore at night and welcomed the boats that have arrived in the dark. There is truly so much one can do,” Latifa wrote from the field. “Especially with my language ability, I have been everywhere. At the health clinics to translate for doctors. At clothing facilities to make sure every one is fitted properly. At the information booth to guide them to buy their tickets for Athens and how to register as they arrive from Turkey. It goes on and on. I have become everyone’s aunt and sister.”

“We must be involved”

The Woodhouses embody the values that UUSC puts into action every day. Martha and Waitstill Sharp, two of UUSC’s founders, carried out vital missions in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, rescuing Jews, dissidents, and refugee children at great personal sacrifice. “There’s no better organization to take this work on than UUSC, given its history and legacy,” says Colin. “UUSC and the story of the Sharps inspired us. The similarities are incredible — this refugee crisis is global and it’s the worst since World War II.  We must be involved.”

With a shifting situation that changes daily, working with local grassroots groups that know the realities on the ground is essential. Europe has been further tightening its borders and shutting its doors to the refugees arriving on its threshold. Christen Dobson, program director of research and policy at the International Human Rights Funders Group, recently wrote: “Moria, the reception centre where asylum seekers were registered and received assistance and from which they were able to freely depart, has become a detention facility.”

The Woodhouses reported to their personal donors: “Refugees continue to arrive in Les[b]os every day, but now are regarded as criminals, locked up, and told they will be sent back to Turkey or their country of origin. For many, this is essentially a death sentence. . . . How can we force people to return to communities in ruin and homes in rubble? How can we send them back into the line of gunfire, brutality, and war? We cannot. We will, however, continue our efforts to bring compassion, love, comfort, and justice to the people who deserve no less.”

Indeed, this is why UUSC is committed to providing emergency aid, ensuring access to legal help and resettlement support, and advocating for necessary changes in policy and public perception of the refugees attempting to find safety and build new lives in Europe. Colin reflected on their time in Lesbos: “All we did was offer a little humanity.” Everyone deserves that. Asylum seekers are not criminals. And UUSC will continue to deliver aid with dignity to refugees throughout the Middle East and Europe.

What you can do

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.Time to Turn Olive Garden’s Good Food Rhetoric into Reality,” by Kari Hamerschlag and Hannah Hafter, Food Tank

“Fixing our broken food system won’t work if we only focus on one part of the problem. By adopting the following principles Darden can turn its citizenship ideals into meaningful action for customers, communities, farmers, the environment and thousands of Darden restaurant employees.”

This piece, coauthored by UUSC’s own Senior Program Leader for Activism Hannah Hafter, outlines the case for Olive Garden — and its parent company, Darden Restaurants — to adopt Good Food Principles. These principles call for fair working conditions, environmental sustainability, more humane treatment of animals, support for local economies, and better health and nutrition. UUSC is part of a robust coalition that is pressing the restaurant giant toward ethical practices through the Good Food Now! campaign. Join us! Sign the petition and share with your friends, family, and networks today.

2.The Syrian Refugees and Us,” by Leon Wieseltier, via Emerson Collective

“We recognize that their appeal for our assistance is made not only on the basis of sentiments but also on the basis of rights. They have been dispossessed of many things, but not of their human rights. Nobody — not Assad, not ISIS, not Putin, not Khameini, not the fascists of Europe — can deprive them of their humanity. Indeed, in their courage, and in their devotion to their children, and in their dream of democracy, they are giving us all lessons in humanity.”

This moving reflection from the son of Holocaust survivors draws heartfelt parallels between the refugee crisis of World War II and today’s refugee crisis. If you have felt desensitized from ongoing news coverage, read this and allow it to sink into your consciousness. It will breathe new life into your commitment to showing up and taking action to support Syrian refugees.

3.Sajad, 15 — safe in Austria,” by UNICEF

“In 2015, more than 1 million people crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe. One in four of them was a child. Children on the move have specific vulnerabilities and protection needs, and their journeys — by sea or over land — pose significant risks for them and their families, as well as challenges for European countries where people are on the move and at final destinations.”

This powerful photo essay from UNICEF shares the story of Sajad, a young refugee living with disabilities whose family survived the harrowing trip from Iraq to Austria. It highlights the added difficulties that children and people with disabilities face when seeking safety and refuge in the midst of humanitarian crises. That’s why UUSC works with grassroots groups on the ground who are especially situated to meet the needs of people who are too often left out or overlooked by relief efforts.