10 questions with Draper Hills Summer Fellow and AALA Director Karina Sarmiento

This summer, AALA Director Karina Sarmiento attended Stanford University’s Draper Hills Summer Fellows Program on Democracy and Development. The three-week executive education program provides emerging leaders with the opportunity to connect, exchange experiences, and receive academic training to enrich their knowledge and advance their work. Following the program, we asked Karina to tell us more about her experience.

1. How did you first hear about the Draper Hills Summer Fellows Program at Stanford?

I first heard about the program through Emily Arnold-Fernandez who had been a fellow at another Stanford program. She recommended the program so I decided to apply. It was quite competitive—there were more than 500 applications — so I was really happy to be selected!

2. What made you want to attend?

One of the things that motivated me to attend was the possibility of having a space to reflect on what we have been building all these years at Asylum Access. I’ve been with Asylum Access for 7 years now and it’s always good to pause and think about the work being carried out, to have a more academic reflection on what we’re doing, and to learn about the experiences and theories of others.

3. How would you say refugee rights and refugee law reform fit into the themes of the program: democracy, good governance, and rule of law?

Asylum Access’s model is based on the concept that all refugees are people with rights. Unfortunately, refugees are not always visible in the construction of democracy. Our system offers a new avenue to supporting democracy through advancing the rights of refugees so that they become a part of its construction. There is also the theme of refugee work rights which, when respected and implemented, supports refugees in becoming vital actors for the construction of democracy. We can currently find a great example of this potential in Europe. The reality of this closed system is not good for the development of democratic society. Instead, we should be seeing this new influx of refugees as an opportunity for inclusion and growth.

4. What were the other participants like and what kinds of issues did they represent?

One of the best aspects of the Stanford program was the diversity among fellow participants. From Latin America, there were participants from Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, and Ecuador. There were also participants from Thailand, India, Mauritius, Tunisia, Georgia, Egypt, and many other countries. Not only were we diverse in terms of nationality, but we also all came from different backgrounds and experiences. There were business leaders, political actors, human rights defenders, journalists, and people with other focuses. That layered diversity really added to the program’s richness.

5. What highlights about Asylum Access’s work this past year were you excited to share with other participants?

There were two important themes I was really looking forward to sharing. The first was presenting our model as a way to support the construction of democracy. The second was to explain the most accurate profile of refugees: people with rights.

6. What are some of the shared challenges or goals you and other participants face in your/their work?

All of us, in one form or another, are working in our own countries or regions to support democracy and citizen participation. All of us are social leaders in that respect and so share the overall goal of sustainable democratic development, and the challenges that come with trying to achieve this goal.

Stanford Drapers Fellow7. During the program, you were asked to prepare a TED-style talk. How was that experience and what did you learn from it? (Watch Karina’s presentation here.)

The TED-style talks allowed us to familiarize ourselves with the work of each participant and learn from each other, a key value of the program. It allowed us to share our background, our passions, and our inspirations.

One of the most interesting things I learned from the talks came in hearing from the participants that had been refugees at some point in their lives. But even those that have been refugees who are now constructing public policy forget to include the population they once belonged to. It’s really important to treat refugees as an integral part of democratic development, not just as an afterthought.

8. What were the main lessons you took away from the Program?

First, the instructors of the program were excellent! Various professors from Stanford presented theoretical topics on democracy and rule of law through debates, reflections and discussions. We learned many new strategies and forms of analysis for building public policy, which are really applicable to our work, not only in Ecuador, but also in Latin America as a whole.

9. What is a common myth about refugees in South and Central America that you would like to dispel, based on your work at AALA and the discussions that took place with other program participants?

First, many people think the process of getting recognition as a refugee from the state is simple and fast – it just isn’t.

Another huge misconception is the idea that refugees are all political refugees. It’s important to demonstrate the different profiles of refugees: refugees are children, women, survivors of sexual violence, people who have experienced forced labor. Right now, though, the most common profile in the public’s imagery is a political refugee and that’s only one part of the story.

10. As Regional Director of AALA, why is participation in these types of programs important to the work of Asylum Access?

Participation in these programs is especially important as a means to strengthening our model and accomplishing our objectives of working at a regional level. Attending programs like this gives us a space to share strategies and build networks with diverse groups of social leaders. It helps us improve the effectiveness and reach of our model to continue on the path of building a global movement for realizing refugee rights.

Written by AALA Leadership Associate Caroline Asiala