In Support of Refugees Worldwide: An Exclusive Interview with the International Rescue Committee’s Emily Sernaker

by YPFP Staff

As a result of war, famine, and disease, the world is experiencing an unprecedented level of refugees. The influx of migrants will have tremendous lasting repercussions for the entire world. YPFP sat down with Emily Sernaker, development coordinator for the International Rescue Committee's (IRC) affiliate in Silver Spring, to discuss the issue.


With 16.7 million refugees and a total of 51.2 million displaced people as of mid-2014, the world is facing the largest number of displaced people since World War II. The United States can only resettle a total of 70,000 refugees in a given year and Europe is in the process of reassessing its refugee policies after about 1,200 people drowned in the Mediterranean. Not only does the large number of refugees have immediate effects on world politics, it also has repercussions that will last into the foreseeable future.


One such repercussion includes the change in sizes and ethnic makeups of populations. Turkey, for example, is already dealing with the political and cultural tensions of hosting almost two million Syrian refugees on its border. Those tensions will grow as the seemingly endless civil war in Syria drags on. Another important repercussion involves the loss of identity for native populations, and the increased prospect for domestic conflict as a result of the influx of refugees.

To better understand refugees and how they affect not only U.S. policy, but also international affairs generally, YPFP interviewed Emily Sernaker, development coordinator for the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) affiliate in Silver Spring. The IRC is one of the nine resettlement agencies in the United States and works closely with the State Department to help refugees come to the United States.

Can you please give us a brief history of IRC and talk a little about its mission statement? 

The International Rescue Committee was founded at the request of Albert Einstein, in 1933. In the years since, the organization has responded to the world’s worst crises, helping millions of people whose lives and livelihoods were shattered by conflict and disaster. We help them to survive, recover, and gain control of their future. In Silver Spring, the IRC works with 1,000 individuals who have been given permission by the U.S. government to rebuild their lives in our community.

Can you talk a little about the resettling refugee process?

Our IRC location specializes in helping refugees in their first eight months in the United States, but legally can help up to five years. We provide services in cultural orientation, economic empowerment, health, resettlement, immigration and more. Our goal is to help our clients become self-sufficient and have the tools they need to successfully start their next chapter in the United States.

Can you share some experiences refugees have shared with you or your coworkers?

Here is a link to a write-up I did recently about gathering newsletter stories and projects I have really enjoyed. Family reunifications are also very special. I feel honored to get to interview clients and think of thoughtful ways to share their stories. I also have tremendous respect for my coworkers and learn a great deal each time I shadow them for a piece.

Can you give a brief overview of the June 4th event that will raise awareness for World Refugee Day?

The June 4th event will take place at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, from 3:00-8:00pm. It is a day refugees, IRC staff, community members, or volunteers to come together and celebrate refugee resilience. The event will include an art exhibit, community art project, and the opportunity to learn more about the IRC's work.

There will be refugee artwork for sale at the event. Can you talk about some of the artists and how creating art has helped them adjust to a new lifestyle and overcome some of the challenges involved with being a refugee? Could you also talk a little about IRC’s Refugee Youth program, which will be highlighted during the event?

For refugee youth, the integration into a new country and school system can be complex. Learning a new language and culture, completing homework, making friends, and successfully integrating is a lot for any young person to attempt, especially one coming from some of the world’s worst war zones. With this in mind, the IRC in Silver Spring has launched a new expressive arts program, to support refugee youth in their transition. Through the program, youth are given academic support and creative outlets to share their experiences.

The expressive arts program is an expansion of the IRC’s existing Maryland program entitled, the Global Refugee Youth Team (GRYT). Students from Afghanistan, Congo, Malawi, Eritrea, Rwanda and more come together for homework help and weekly leadership development. With the implementation of expressive arts and nutrition education funding—generously offered by the University of Maryland, the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, and CSX—students from the GRYT have begun to use photography and videography as a tool to work through their past experiences and current challenges. The program is new, but students are already finding this new medium helpful for opening doors to larger conversations regarding emotions and transitions. 

IRC’s Vision not Victim Photo Exhibit will be displayed during the event. Can you talk a little about how important it is for refugees to not be viewed as victims?     

Refugees are strong, resilient people who have tremendous strength and dignity. We emphasize that message in this exhibit and in all of the IRC’s materials. Vision not Victim is particularly powerful because the project highlights young girls in the Congo, and allows them to share their hopes and dreams with the global community.

What are some of the ways people can become involved in helping refugees?

They can learn more, raise awareness, volunteer, and donate at the IRC’s Silver Spring website.

This month, we are asking community members to attend the June 4th event, spread the word, and consider donating to the IRC in honor of World Refugee Day.

Samantha Amenn is the Director of Publications for Charged Affairs. She is a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and is a Business Analyst at the Refugee Processing Center.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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