2017 PFIG Recipient Hannah Litkowski
Journal Entry #1
Hello from Washington, DC! I've just finished my first week at my internship with the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, and I can hardly believe the week is already over. PRM advises the US government on refugee policy, handles refugee admissions, and supports various international organizations, referred to as IOs, as well as a handful of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, who do smaller projects that fill programming gaps. As a result, a lot of the day-to-day work involves NGO and IO monitoring- conference calls with organization representatives to discuss progress on projects, for example, to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent responsibly- and doing research about current events around the world in migration and refugees. I'm working with the European desk inside the bureau, which as of right now deals mainly with the Balkans, Ukraine, and the Caucuses, and have already learned so much! This is an absolute dream job for me- when I was offered the position, my first thought was that it had to be a joke. I spent the summer after my first year volunteering in a refugee resettlement center as a means to practice my Arabic, and quickly realized it was the field I wanted to work in. Since then, I have volunteered with the IRC in Charlottesville and provided support for both the State Department and UNICEF's refugee efforts as a member of the No Lost Generation initiative, but this summer's internship is by far the most high-level and exciting opportunity I've had yet.
I'd describe a typical day, but my schedule varies so much day-to-day that no one day is "typical." Most are a balance of meetings, research, writing, and filling any staffing gaps by picking up odd jobs for members of my office. This week, I got to sit in on some really interesting meetings- most notably, one with the International Red Cross about their efforts in Ukraine- and have already met so many interesting, passionate people. We're nearing the end of the fiscal year, which means that a lot of time is dedicated to evaluating grant proposals from different NGOs to conduct projects. These vary widely, and although the proposals themselves are often a bit dry to read, I've really enjoyed being involved in the evaluation and approval process. It's a bit detached from the actual work being done, but it's a cool feeling knowing that I play even a small part in these projects, which have the potential to improve the lives of so many refugees. In addition to meetings and proposals, I've also spent a lot of time sifting through news articles related to my region to help report to the "Front Office" (PRM's administration) and trying, often in vain, to stay on top of the large number of emails sent out in a day. I'm definitely looking forward to the remaining weeks and the variety of experiences and learning opportunities they'll bring!
Journal Entry #2
It's hard to believe I'm more than halfway done with my ten weeks here! In the past six weeks, I've gotten to be a part of so many interesting events, meetings, and projects. I've gone to think tank events relevant to my portfolio, read probably hundreds of pages of proposals and policy papers and proposed memos for members of the administration, and sat in on meetings with people from all over the government, civil society, and the NGO community. The project I'm probably the most proud of, though, is the Julia Taft Fund- it's a series of $25,000 grants given to US embassies around the world to support refugee programming. The embassies select NGOs in the host country, who work with them to design a project. It works great for pretty much everyone involved- the NGOs get funding and establish a better relationship with the US embassy, embassies get to increase their positive footprint in their host countries, and PRM gets to increase engagement and interest in our portfolio issues around the world. This year, the fund is dedicated to combating gender-based violence (GBV). The prevalence of sexual assault among refugee women, girls, and young boys is heartbreaking, and it's almost a refugee crisis within a crisis, one that doesn't get addressed very often. Although the negotiation process from the initial proposals was really lengthy (I organized a review panel with people from all over PRM, who raised questions, which we emailed to the embassies, who then emailed the NGOs, who then emailed us... but occasionally in a language none of us understood... and then in some cases even those answers weren't thorough enough to satisfy the initial questions...) we chose to fund 16 different projects in total, all over Europe. They range from a gardening skills class for refugee women and local survivors of GBV designed to provide agricultural skills and a safe environment to discuss coping mechanisms, to a GBV survivor sensitivity training program for a REALLY COOL order of nuns who combat human trafficking around the world, to building a lab adjacent to an existing clinic for refugees and IDPs that will make processing perk kits and several other women's health procedures easier and more accessible for the community. I'm genuinely excited about each of the projects that we chose to fund and am thrilled to have played a part in their implementation.
The hardest thing about my job so far, besides how intimidatingly intelligent so many people at State are (I was in a meeting last week, for example, where a guest only spoke Russian and no interpreter was provided because everyone but me in the room spoke Russian!!) is how deeply upsetting so many of the issues PRM works with can be. I was asked to review a report a few days ago about conditions unaccompanied minors face in detention and reception centers across Europe that left me in a funk for most of the day. Detention conditions are abysmal to begin with, and little protection or accomodation is rarely if ever provided for these kids. When I mentioned how moved I was by these descriptions, my boss pulled out a book of letters written by unaccompanied minors detailing their hopes, dreams, and aspirations, none of which were too different from those I had as a kid. They wrote about wanting to be doctors, lawyers, soccer players, to be able to send food home to their families, to build houses by the sea. They drew pictures of their families, of their houses, and more dismally of shipwrecks and war zones. (This only caused the funk to deepen.) When I mentioned how upset I was to my boss, she recommended I draft a write-up to include in our existing advocacy points. Hopefully as a result, by the end of my time here, PRM will advocate specifically for improved conditions for unaccompanied minors in meetings with IOs, NGOs, and foreign governments. It's easy, though, to feel that even despite all the work that all the qualified people in the bureau are doing that the problems are too big and heartbreaking to be solved. In talking to other people around the bureau it seems that this is a dilemma that is felt throughout the humanitarian sector, which I never expected coming into this internship. I suppose I assumed that getting to work on issues that need changing and fixing every day would be its own sort of empowering, but I underestimated the emotional impact that constant exposure to information about the world's problems would have. I'm definitely still interested in public service, and the humanitarian sector, but I now see and appreciate it in a different light.
In my remaining four weeks, I can't wait to keep learning more about the portfolio my office covers! It's remarkable how much you can absorb from just being immersed in one particular subject for 50 hours a week. Working in policy, in particular, is such a unique opportunity to be constantly reading and discussing and writing on a topic that provides a really deep and comprehensive insight. I'm also looking forward to touring the diplomatic reception rooms and sitting in on a press conference in the coming weeks. It's surreal that I'm already 6 weeks in- I hope the remaining 4 don't fly by quite as quickly.
Journal Entry #3
I can't believe my 10 weeks are already over! Today was my last day in the office and I turned in all of my badges and packed up my desk. Looking back on this summer, I'm so thankful for all of the people I got the chance to meet & the many projects I was able to help with. This summer was such a wonderful opportunity and has absolutely cemented my desire to work in the humanitarian sector, despite the downsides that come with working in an often depressing and disheartening field.
In the past few weeks, I've finished up projects I started earlier in the summer, including two different funding projects to strengthen GBV prevention resources in refugee camps in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Ukraine, as well as along common migration routes. Work has been slowing down as the fiscal year comes to a close- now that the last of this year's funding actions have been passed through, the day-to-day work is shifting more towards other projects. My office has been helping prep speeches and meet-and-greet lists for the administration during the upcoming UN General Assembly meetings in New York this coming September, and continuing to prepare materials for outgoing congressional delegations and other events that need input on migration issues. I'm really going to miss getting to work with the people in my office every day- they are some of the most intelligent and hardworking people I've ever met and I've learned so much from them.
I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity to spend a summer surrounded by such passionate people, immersed in the issues I'm passionate about, and to have learned so much. Looking back, this has been 3 of the most rewarding and amazing months of my life, and without the Parents' Fund Internship Grant, it would not have been possible. This internship gave me both a deepened understanding of refugee issues and policy, but also of how the State Department and US bureaucracy work more broadly, an understanding that I know will help me in the future.