An Interview with Emily E. Arnold-Fernández

Asylum Access founder and executive director Emily Arnold-Fernández, a social entrepreneur and pioneering international refugee rights activist, was interviewed recently for a book to be produced in conjunction with Unsung Heroes of Compassion, an event at which the Dalai Lama will laud the efforts of 50 “unsung heroes” from around the world, including Ms. Arnold-Fernández. Following is the text of the interview. 

1)    Where were you born and raised?

            I was born in 1977 in Falls Church, Virginia to parents originally from the southwestern US.  When I was just over a year old, we moved back to California, to San Juan Capistrano, where my three siblings were born.  When I was 10, we moved to Lafayette, California, just outside of San Francisco. 

2)    Who or what were the major influences on you as a child (can you describe a pivotal moment at which you decided to pursue your current work)?

            My parents were major influences: My mother was relentless in fighting for her children to have the best opportunities available, and we were expected to take advantage of these opportunities by striving to become the best we could be.  My father always took my intellect and opinions seriously, from the time I was a very young child – I believe this was tremendously important for me as a girl child, to be treated as an intellectual equal by an adult man, and set the foundation for my future successes in what unfortunately often remains a male-dominated world. 

            Other strong, caring adults in my life also influenced me, in particular those who taught me how to prepare for and execute a professional performance – whether a choral performance, mock trial competition or cross-country race – through hard work, attention to detail, and the ability to achieve your best when it counts most.  And my professors at Pomona College completed the picture with their absolute conviction that I could achieve anything at all that I determined to do. 

            I don’t recall a specific moment when I realized that, because I had such a wealth of support and encouragement, I also had a corresponding obligation to share this wealth with the rest of the world.  I do know that I was influenced in college by the work of John Rawls, who talks about the redistribution of resources – not just material wealth but also advantages such as education, nutrition, even emotional support – as an important part of creating a just world.  Perhaps as one of four children, I was more prone to think about fairness – how often do you hear one sibling say of another’s benefit, “But that’s not fair?!”  In any case, at some point I realized that part of what I conceived as being a good or ethical person was striving for justice – which meant giving back the fruits of the vast resources of support, education, and love which were lavished on me as a child. 

3)    How did you come to find your current way of working in the world?

            I was always passionate about human rights, but my real commitment to refugee rights began when I represented refugees in legal status proceedings in Cairo in 2002. My first client was a young Liberian who fled to Egypt to avoid being abducted and forced to fight as a child soldier. He was initially denied legal status as a refugee and was at constant risk of arrest and deportation by Egyptian authorities, so he came to us. I was his only chance to get the decision reversed.

            I had one year of law school and some counseling experience under my belt. I had never before represented a client in a legal proceeding – and here I was, taking a case that meant life or death for a Mandingo boy the same age as my little sister. Not only that, but my “orientation” for this job was 2 hours of training from the project director and some tips from a volunteer who started 2 weeks before I did.

            I sweat blood over that first client. In the end, he got refugee status, and safety. But I took away more than our success: I took away a profound appreciation of how volunteer legal help can alter the lives of refugees in the global south, and a recognition that my work in Cairo, despite its dearth of training and supervision, was the seed of a legal aid model that could be revolutionary if properly developed.

4)    Please describe the work you do and who you help. Be as detailed as you wish.

            I envision a world where refugees are seen as people with rights, not just people with needs.  I believe that by empowering refugees to assert their human rights, we can create effective, lasting solutions for refugees around the world — so I founded Asylum Access to make this vision a reality.

            Asylum Access is a young, innovative US-based nonprofit that helps refugees in Africa, Asia and Latin America assert their rights to work, put their kids in school, and rebuild their lives in their first countries of refuge. 

            Imagine fleeing from a government that threatens to torture or kill you, only to arrive in a foreign country without travel papers, without money, without access to your bank account.  Imagine you don’t even speak the local language. Could you go into a courtroom, alone, and convince a judge that you shouldn’t be deported?  Could you stand up for your rights to find work, enroll your children in the local school, or access medical assistance if you were injured?

            In today’s world, most refugees fleeing persecution or civil war seek refuge in a country near their own — in Africa, Asia or Latin America.  Less than one-half of one percent will be able to resettle in the US. 

            Traumatized by what they have already endured, refugees are especially vulnerable to violations of their legal rights in their countries of refuge.  Without legal assistance, many face immediate deportation directly into the hands of a government that threatens to torture, imprison or kill them.  Many more are “warehoused” for years or generations in refugee camps on the margins of society, unable to work, move freely, or re-establish a permanent home. 

            The international community has spent billions to provide these refugees with humanitarian handouts for years or generations. But it has done virtually nothing to address their confinement in camps, or other measures that treat refugees as criminals, denying them the right to a normal life — until now.

            Asylum Access is the only US organization that gives refugees abroad the tools to assert their fundamental human rights, written into international law in 1951 but virtually ignored in practice.  Using volunteer lawyers, we provide on-the-ground legal counsel and representation in Africa, Asia and Latin America to help refugees obtain legal status in their first countries of refuge, so they can assert their rights to work, put kids in school and access healthcare and social services.  We also advocate for practical implementation of these rights in countries around the world.

            Asylum Access aims high.  Not only are we implementing a just, innovative, and cost-effective method that empowers the 14 million refugees in the world to assert and enjoy their rights; we are also developing a model that will turn all of the world’s human rights conventions from paper promises into real rights in individuals’ daily lives.  If we can make the rights in the Refugee Convention meaningful to refugees on the ground, we’ll have a blueprint for the implementation of human rights laws for all vulnerable people, everywhere in the world.

            You’ve probably heard the story of the poor man who approached two fishermen and said, “I’m hungry — can you help me?”  The first fisherman gives him a fish, and, as we’ve all heard, the second says, “I’ll teach you how to fish.”

            But in my story, the poor man is a refugee who fled persecution or civil war to seek asylum in a neighboring country in Africa, Asia or Latin America.  He says, “Oh, I know how to fish.  I’m just not allowed to.”

            Asylum Access is changing this – so that all people, everywhere, have the power to choose their own destinies. 

5)    What do you most enjoy about your work?

            I love the challenge – the incredible opportunity – to radically improve an unjust, ineffective international institution. When I realized that we could eliminate the whole system of endless, grudgingly-given handouts for which refugees are supposed to be abjectly grateful – and replace it with a system that puts dignity and power back in the hands of refugees themselves – I felt like the first person to discover the wheel: “Why didn’t anyone think of this before?!” Now we’re on two continents and we’ll launch in a third next year; the wheel turns! 

            I also enjoy knowing that if we build this model right, it will go far beyond the limits of my imagination.  I see the wheel and envision chariots on the horizon – but I know there will be carriages and waterwheels and automobiles, there will be movements for justice and human dignity of which I have not yet dreamed.  I just feel privileged to be a part of this new beginning.

6)    Can you share 2-3 quotes that are especially meaningful to you?

“Each is given a bag of tools, a shapeless mass, a book of rules.  And each must make, ‘ere life is flown, a stumbling block or stepping stone.” – R.L. Sharpe

“We are the ones we have been waiting for.” – June Jordan

“Do you use your powers for good, or for awesome?” – Strongbad, HomeStar Runner

7)    Can you share a brief story about someone you have helped and how that interaction helped you as well?

Everyone I have helped has given me something – I’m continually learning and gaining from the work I do. 

One early experience that has stayed with me happened on my 16th birthday.  I got to talking with a friend after school, in what started as a casual conversation.  My friend came from a relatively affluent family, got good grades, played on the football team, was the object of many high school crushes, and generally seemed to have a perfect life. 

As we talked, my friend shared that he was seriously depressed and said he was contemplating suicide.  I spent the next few hours in intense conversation with him, talking about why he felt this way and what might change his feelings.  (At that point in my life, I wasn’t even aware of resources like suicide hotlines.) 

Although all I could offer was my friendship and support, my friend told me later that having someone listen and care at that moment had been very important to him.  As for me, I learned that many people need help in many different ways, and that I shouldn’t make assumptions based on outward appearances.  This has helped me approach my social justice efforts with greater humility, and in particular to listen more closely to what others say they need, rather than assuming I know best.  It was a valuable lesson to learn at an early age, and one that has stayed with me. 

8)    How do you handle setbacks/disappointment?

            My mother says the only time she remembers me throwing a real, honest-to-goodness, kicking and screaming, red-in-the-face tantrum was when I was a year and a half old and couldn’t tie my shoes.  At that point I didn’t yet have any brothers or sisters.  Everyone in my world – all adults – could tie their shoes.  I found it entirely unacceptable that I, at one-and-a-half, couldn’t. 

            So I had a complete meltdown. And then I made Mom show me about a dozen times, practiced every day, and refused to give up.  A week later, although I was barely walking, I could tie my shoes. 

            Luckily I’ve moved beyond the tantrum phase (at least in front of others!).  But I’ve never outgrown my conviction that anything is possible with enough determination.  There’s always a way around or through an obstacle.  When I face a setback or disappointment, I face my feelings, and then I figure out a solution. 

9)    What feelings come up for you in regards to receiving this award?

            I am so honored to be in the company of so many others who are doing such incredible work, and to be a symbol at this event for all of the refugees, interpreters, advocates and others with whom I personally have shared the journey toward a more just world.

10)  In one or two sentences, please describe why you do the work you do.

            I do this work because we cannot sit back and wait for someone else to save our consciences, our world, our humanity.  As June Jordan said in her incredible Poem for South African Women, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

11)  Can you tell us briefly how you feel others can make a difference for those less fortunate?

            Think about the change you want to see in the world, find the people working toward that change, and back them to the hilt.  It is important to remember that your intellect and your ideas are not necessarily any better than those of people who have less material wealth – and that most problems stem from lack of resources, not lack of ideas.  Often, the most meaningful way to build a better world is to contribute your resources to people with the experience and training to address a problem most effectively. 

            If you have money, give generously. If you have time, volunteer to help with the basic administrative tasks that are tedious but so necessary.  Invest your time, money and connections to build the world you want to live in.

12)  What do you think causes some people to hesitate to help others? Did you ever hesitate to help? If you did, what helped you overcome your hesitation?

I think fear is almost always the root cause of a hesitation to help – not just fear that if you share your resources now, you might find yourself short sometime in the future, but also fear that by helping others you might find yourself changed. 

I think many people are afraid that if they help others, they will discover that the differences they believe in, the differences they think will protect them, actually won’t.  Most of us live our lives believing that bad things we see others experience won’t happen to us because we are different in some way.  If we acknowledge that our own lives are not meaningfully different from the lives of people who are suffering, the world becomes a very scary place. 

I can’t claim to acknowledge this most of the time.  I am continually surprised, although I shouldn’t be, when I hear refugees tell me about their lives before the political party changed or the war broke out – their lives “before” are very like my own.  I hear these stories, and for a few minutes I feel how tenuous my fortunate life is – and then I push that knowledge to the back of my mind and go on with my work.  I haven’t overcome the fear.  I’ve just ignored it. 

I also think many people have a fear of leading someone to rely upon them and then, in the end, failing that person.  There’s a famous quote that captures this: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”  Living up to our potential places demands on us that may be uncomfortable.  Living up to our potential requires striving toward goals that we may not reach.  I’m not immune to that fear either.  I don’t always succeed in ignoring it.  But stubbornness is a family trait, and being pushed by someone or something else – including my own fear – tends to make me dig in my heels and resist.  So the times that I’m most afraid of failing are the times I push forward despite my fears. 

13)  What are some of your upcoming projects?

My organization, Asylum Access, is planning to launch its third refugee legal aid project in Tanzania in 2009. 

14)  How would you like to be remembered?

            I want to be remembered as an ordinary person.  Of course I would like to be remembered as a person of vision and courage, but I don’t want my vision and courage to be seen as extraordinary.  I believe vision and courage lie within all human beings – and I don’t want anyone ever to say, “I can’t do what she did, because I’m ordinary.” 

            If anything, I want to be remembered for my determination.  A vision is only as worthy as the effort you put in to making it real. We are all ordinary – but if we choose to live with determination, to work toward our vision of a better world, each one of us can achieve extraordinary things. 

15)  What is your proudest accomplishment?

Founding Asylum Access is definitely my proudest accomplishment.  I saw a problem and envisioned a solution, then brought that solution into being through determination and hard work.