VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
OASIS PEÑA, IRC Program Officer in Miami
October 10, 2007 by The IRC
|Photo: the IRC|
|Oct. 10, 2007 - For more than half of her life, Oasis has helped the IRC resettle refugees.
Originally from Havana, Oasis left Cuba with her family in 1982 and settled temporarily in Madrid, Spain, where she gained her first IRC experience. Her mother, Modesta Peña, performed database entry for the IRC in Madrid from 1982 to 1984. As a child, Oasis volunteered for the IRC in 1982, while her family waited to be granted asylum in the U.S. In 1984 with the help of the IRC, the Peña family resettled in Los Angeles. In 1987 Oasis moved with her family to Miami.
Nine months later and still in high school, Oasis discovered a volunteer opportunity with the IRC. When she first volunteered, she had no idea it was a career decision. She volunteered for one year, and after graduating high school in 1989, she was offered a six-month contract at the age of 18 to help as a caseworker to resettle an influx of incoming Nicaraguan refugees. She accepted and has been with the IRC ever since. She was soon hired full time to resettle ex-political prisoners from Cuba who were classified as “free cases,” meaning they were not being resettled with relatives already in this country. With free cases, the IRC takes a greater role in resettlement by helping refugees with finding apartments, jobs, schools, healthcare and a little bit of everything else. Handling free cases, Oasis says, often means more than a full day’s work.
While going to college, Oasis continued to work for the IRC full time. She initially studied business administration at Miami-Dade Community College, but after three years and the influence of her work with the IRC, she decided to major in Psychology. However, her heavy IRC workload kept her from completing her studies and graduating until 1999.
For example in 1994, 35,000 Cuban refugees were sent to Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. military outpost in Cuba. Oasis went with an IRC team to Guantanamo to interview and process people to determine if they qualified for refugee status and resettlement in the U.S. The team planned to stay for five days, but stayed for 30; working tirelessly seven days a week in 12-hour shifts. This meant Oasis had to drop her college classes for the semester. But Oasis says she learned so much from that intense experience. She saw many of the people she helped process when she welcomed them to the U.S in 1996 and later when she continued to help them adjust to life in America.
After working as a caseworker, Oasis was promoted to case manager in 1991. In 1993 she took the position of matching grant coordinator. In 2002 she received the Sarlo Humanitarian Award, which recognizes IRC staff who have rendered outstanding service to refugees and displaced people. Earlier this year, she became the IRC’s program officer in Miami.
Her work today entails a little bit of everything, but is particularly focused on "selling" the IRC in the community. Oasis often participates in television and newspaper interviews, and jokes that she has become a local celebrity. She also coordinates volunteers and works with the resource development team. Another aspect of her job is attracting funds from private donors and organizing events to raise awareness in the community about the IRC, such as the Candlelight Vigil held on World Refugee Day, June 20, to honor refugees.
Outside of work her family comes first. She enjoys taking her two sons, Alejandro, 9, and Adrian, 3, to the beach and the movies. Alejandro has started volunteering off and on at the IRC, which Oasis thinks offers a valuable life lesson those less fortunate. Perhaps Alejandro will be a third generation IRC employee one day.
Oasis loves the cause of the IRC and has witnessed the IRC helping thousands of people and families and she has had so many people come up and thank her and the IRC for being there for them when no one else was. Oasis has helped refugees all parts of the world resettle, including, Cubans, Russians, Bosnians, Iraqis, Congolese and Burmese.
Because of her strong beliefs in the IRC’s mission, she says it makes selling the cause in much easier. In every position she has held with the IRC, Oasis says she has enjoyed their unique challenges and had many opportunities to grow as a person.
After 18 plus years, she says her work remains unpredictable, which she enjoys, and that she still learns something new all the time. People depend on you so much, she says, that they become the priority.