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Q&A: Emily Arnold-Fernandez

Emily Arnold-Fernandez, the Founder and Executive Director of Asylum Access. Photo by Aaron Juarez
Emily Arnold-Fernandez, the Founder and Executive Director of Asylum Access. Photo by Aaron Juarez

Emily Arnold-Fernandez is the Founder and Executive Director of Asylum Access, an organization that advocates for refugee rights in the countries of first arrival. Asylum Access employs a multi-pronged approach to solving issues of refugee rights including legal aid, community legal empowerment, policy advocacy, strategic litigation and movement-building. Arnold-Fernandez was one of two  winners to be awarded the Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize. The S&B’s Mariam Asaad sat down for an interview with Arnold-Fernandez.

What does Asylum Access do and how is that different from other organizations serving refugees?

There are a wide range of international organizations that work in multiple countries assisting refugees, but almost all of these focus on refugees’ immediate needs the minute that they cross the border. … The problem is that refugees are staying for longer and longer periods of time in the first countries that they reach—in countries generally in Africa, Asia and Latin America. … Asylum Access is the only organization that works across all three continents—Africa, Asia and Latin America, with the sole mandate of making human rights a reality for refugees … we’re building a refugee rights toolkit which is a combination of our office in a box—so every form we use, every manual we use, every lesson we’ve learned, getting that down in writing in a way that someone else can learn from it. …

We would eventually like to couple the toolkit with a little bit of seed funding to help emerging social entrepreneurs start a refugee rights organization in their country that replicates the asylum access model, that builds off the lessons we’ve learned. And we hope that we’ll also feed lessons back into the toolkit, so that we can make this not just about learning from AA but about learning from the entire movement.

Do you find it easy to share those lessons across countries and continents or does every place have its own unique challenges?

Context is really important and so each location does have its own unique challenges, its own unique context and culture and environment, but there are things that are universal. For example, one of the lessons that we’ve learned across borders is that we found in Ecuador that refugees were much more likely to give us honest feedback on our services when we convened focus groups and asked people to speak in a group of their peers, rather than putting them in a situation where they’re responding one-on-one—either through a survey or a questionnaire. … Another example is that we hear common concerns from our clients all over the world. You hear some different concerns from those communities, but we found that we were hearing from refugees all over the world … refugees were continually telling us, ‘If I could only work, everything would be better.’ And that’s why we’ve made refugee work rights a focal point of our policy advocacy on a global level. … To move toward refugee work rights and what that looks like is going to depend on where each country is starting from, but also advocating for the U.S, government, which is the largest donor government on refugee issues, advocating with the UN Refugee Agency to prioritize refugee work rights, advocating with our peers, encouraging our peers and providing support to them to advocate within their own countries to change the laws, to change the practical barriers to refugee employment, so that refugees can work and provide for their families and have control over building a new life.

What prompted you to start the organization and what was the process of starting something new and dealing with everything—from people’s skepticism to dealing with the bureaucratic stuff associated with it?

So, Steve Jobs has a famous Stanford graduation address and he talks about the fact that you can only connect the dots when you look backwards. When you’re in the midst of the glorious chaos of starting something up you don’t necessarily see how things fit together, but when you look back you can trace a clear line. I really think that’s been the case for AA and for the start-up period.

AA started with my experiences in Egypt, representing refugees there. It continued in the form of an email conversation that some of us who had worked in Egypt and others who had worked in Uganda doing similar refugee legal aid work started to have. We were talking over email about how we could support refugee legal aid both in the places that we’d been and also in the many more places where it did not yet exists. At some point we said ‘we need to [do] something more than just talk about this over email. We need to actually do something.’

I was in a position to take on the role of Executive Director, and the rest of this startup team became the founding board of directors. Our initial idea was that we would fund the development of new refugee legal aid projects in the global south. Then we figured out that very few people really understood what refugee legal aid was … and that we really didn’t have a very strong ability to raise money … so our initial model was pretty unrealistic and, so, it fell apart.

We said ‘Okay, so what we really have to offer is expertise about how you can build refugee legal aid at low-cost, using primarily volunteer lawyers.’ We had a few other things to bring to the table given the expertise of our various members. We essentially identified that refugee legal aid, plus policy change, were the two things that we wanted to develop, ideally in partnership with existing local organizations. We often say that we see refugees as people with rights, not just needs. And when you have rights, you’re entitled to them. You can demand them. You should demand them. They’re not something you have to be thankful for or grateful for.

When did you guys have a breakthrough in terms of having Asylum Access come into the limelight?

In some ways, I’m still waiting for someone to come up and say ‘here’s a million dollars’ [laughs]. That said, fundraising has gotten easier. When we started, Asylum Access was operating out of my house. I wasn’t getting paid. It took about two years from the time that we first incorporated to the time that I got a salary and, even then, Asylum Access was operating out of my house. … It was very challenging not to have an income from Asylum Access and I was working part-time at another job; my other job was a civil rights litigator, which is not particularly highly paid and not exactly a half-time job … I just worked all the time. It was insane. …

We had several small breakthroughs and the first was being selected for an Echoing Green fellowship. Echoing Green is a seed funder for social change. They’re really the premiere social entrepreneurship startup organization and they provide two years of funding that’s kind of a small salary. They require that you work full-time on the project and at that time I quit my other job.

Maybe another big breakthrough in sustainability, as we got more funding, was being able to bring on staff not only in Ecuador, Thailand and Tanzania … but being able to bring on more staff at headquarters to support the work … It’s still hard, we’re still always raising money always trying to make sure that we’ll make ends meet, but the fundraising core gets larger. The number of people you’re helping increases … in some ways its easier because we … have a little bit more reliable funding streams. On the other hand, if we don’t meet our budget, the number of people who stand to lose from that is much bigger. I’m not sure it ever gets easier, the problems just change.

I think in terms of sustainability … we’d really like, for the long term, to build an endowment that would provide the bedrock of support for what we do.

To people who are looking to get involved in nonprofit work, it can seem like a daunting prospect—things like low salaries, etc., what would you say to that?

We were trying to support existing organizations first and we ended up finding that wasn’t possible, simply because there was no one doing what we were doing at the international level, but I advise people all the time ‘don’t start your own organization.’ It can be a huge waste of resources and entail huge duplication… And there are jobs in nonprofits that may not pay as much as corporate finance, but they pay decently and you can provide for your needs … you just have to think ‘what do I need to live and to be happy in my life’ and that may not be all that much.

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