Working with Refugees has Changed my Life
Khristina Rhead will graduate this month from University of Maryland Baltimore County with a degree in Anthropology. She will spend the summer interning with the International Rescue Committee’s Headquarters in New York City.
Photo: Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff
As I sat in the audience at Towson University listening to Senai share his most personal experience of fleeing persecution in Ethiopia, it was hard to believe my ears. While recounting the traumatic events of his recent past with the audience, Senai paused to add another heartbreaking detail. In the midst of fleeing Ethiopia, seeking refuge in Sudan, and finally making it to some sort of safety in a refugee camp, he lost contact with his mother. As one can imagine, this was a very difficult part of his story to share and telling it brought up some strong emotions for him. But the audience had his back. They cheered him on with supportive claps, which helped him keep going.
Senai’s story began in a region of Ethiopia that was once the Anuak Kingdom. In 2003, according to Senai, the Ethiopian government began purposely targeting the Anuak people with violence in order to move them off land rich in oil. Therefore, Senai decided to flee to southern Sudan with other members of his community to seek refuge. However, after making it across the border they found out that they could not stay, which meant he had to think of another plan. Since he could not go back to Ethiopia, he contemplated continuing onto Kenya in order to seek safety. Yet he knew this plan would not be an easy one because Bushmen living along the border of Kenya and Sudan were known to kill people who tried to cross. However, since Senai feared certain death if he returned to Ethiopia, he decided to take his chances by trying to cross the border into Kenya.
After being caught and questioned by policemen who wanted to know why he came to Kenya, he made it into the country safely. Luckily, the policemen believed his story and made arrangements for him to go to the Dadaab refugee camp in the North Eastern province of Kenya. Once relocating to the camp, Senai became an important part of the community. He worked to bring together youth from Somalia and other countries -- Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Uganda – who were having problems prior to his arrival. He helped them to resolve their religious and culture differences and share important resources between national groups. He also worked with humanitarian organizations within the camp by helping them fix water pumps.
Hearing Senai share these details for the first time after having known him for several months, I began reflecting on my own journey as an intern with the IRC in Baltimore. I began that internship without knowing exactly what I would be doing. I was a bit nervous at first because this would only be my second experience working with people whose first language is not English. Nonetheless, I was excited about the opportunity! I felt that I was finally getting the chance to work in an area related to international relations, which is something I have always been interested in and passionate about. Adding to my nervousness was the fact that I knew very little about the resettlement process. The only introduction I had prior to interning with the organization was through watching the film God Grew Tired of Us, which tells the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Once I began working with the refugee clients, though, my anxiety went away pretty quickly.
Developing close friendships with refugees such as Senai made the work much more important and meaningful to me. Ultimately, I am very happy I decided to intern with the IRC and I am sad my time is ending at the Baltimore office. I can wholeheartedly say that every day I am in awe of the bravery, perseverance, adaptability, determination, and kindness of our cliets. I cannot image going through what they have experienced and coming out as well adjusted as they have. In my mind, they are true role models. As a result of working with refugees my life has literally changed. I hope in the future I can continue to work with displaced people whether it is by resolving the conflicts and human rights abuses that cause people to become refugees or by helping them resettle in the United States. I guarantee this is not the last time the IRC will see me.