St. Olaf News
Recent graduates work with refugees, share experience with students
January 18, 2016
On a single day at the beginning of December, Esmé Marie ’14 welcomed 17 Syrian refugees to Switzerland.
Among those selected for resettlement are mothers who have lost children, victims of torture, and people in need of medical attention.
For the next two years, Marie will help this group of refugees get the help they need and settle into their new environment as part of her work with the Immigrant Services of Baselland in Switzerland.
In neighboring Austria, Mirwais Wakil ’15 is doing similar work as a humanitarian advisor with the Austrian Red Cross. Each day he works to help hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Iran, and other countries with basic needs and legal problems.
The work is often overwhelming, the two recent St. Olaf College graduates told an audience of current students and faculty members during a video chat organized by Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies Katherine Tegtmeyer Pak. Yet, they noted, it’s also incredibly rewarding.
Marie and Wakil discussed the challenges they face in helping a small fraction of the more than one million immigrants and refugees currently in Europe, how they find hope in their work, and what Americans can do to help the refugee crisis in Europe and beyond.
Marie’s work with the Immigrant Services of Baselland is through a governmental pilot project created in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
So far, her work has focused on helping refugees with immediate needs like gaining access to health care. She is contacting health care providers, arranging and accompanying refugees to appointments, and dealing with insurance companies. Moving forward, her work will focus on helping this group of refugees learn the local language and integrate into the workforce.
Although many of the people she is working with have lost everything — often including family members — they persevere.
“I’ve seen refugees carry on with such great strength in a graceful way,” Marie says.
For Wakil, the work he is doing in Austria reflects his personal experience. He fled from Afghanistan to Austria at age 15 after six years of living under the Taliban regime.
Now he serves hundreds of refugees — many of whom fled the Taliban — living in a temporary housing unit in Vienna.
“Most importantly I ensure that it’s safe in the house and that people receive the dignity they are entitled to as human beings. It is somewhat difficult to say exactly what my typical day looks like because there is no typical day,” says Wakil.
A political science major at St. Olaf with a concentration in Middle East studies, Marie learned Arabic through the college’s Alternative Language Study Option program.
She uses those skills, which she honed through the U.S. State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship Program and the time abroad it supported in Jordan, on a daily basis to connect with refugees. She has found that language creates a sense of trust and familiarity between herself and the refugees she’s working with.
Wakil, who majored in political science, studio art, and economics at St. Olaf, wrote an extensive paper for the Immigration and Citizenship course taught by Tegtmeyer Pak on the reception mechanisms of unaccompanied minors in Austria compared to those in the United States. With his knowledge of this topic, he was able to find a number of jobs with nongovernmental organizations in Austria.
Despite being surrounded by such loss and history of fear and violence, Marie and Wakil are still optimistic about the future.
“There are many cases of Austrian families essentially adopting people in the house,” says Wakil, who notes that he finds hope in watching these refugees find new families.
Marie and Wakil say Americans who want to help with the refugee crisis can reach out to political leaders to advocate for policy changes in the United States, volunteer with marginalized refugees who are already in the country, and support national nonprofit organizations.
Wakil plans to continue his work with the Austrian Red Cross until next fall, when he will use a Rotary Global Grant Scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in international relations at the London School of Economics.
After completing his graduate program, he would like to work with the International Committee of the Red Cross or the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Marie will be working with the resettlement program in Switzerland until the end of 2017, after which she plans to resume her studies and complete a master’s degree program in a politics.
“My bottom line is sustainable institutional and societal progress,” she says.