2020 PFIG Recipient Blair Smith

Jessica Meyers

Journal Entry #1

Hi there! My name’s Blair, I’m a rising fourth year studying Spanish and Political & Social Thought, and I’m interning with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Charlottesville this summer. The IRC is a resettlement agency that supports refugees from countries all over the world with services like housing, language education, medical appointments, navigating benefit systems, youth support, and mental health counseling. My internship title is “Family Support Assistant,” which means that I work closely with the IRC’s Intensive Case Management (IMC) coordinator to provide weekly case management for 10-15 clients. ICM is a program that helps refugees who are particularly at-risk achieve self-sufficiency in around 12 months since they enroll. We check in with these clients individually once a week by phone, with the help of an interpreter, and assist them with scheduling appointments, navigating their public benefits, and other miscellaneous tasks.

This experience has given me a more immediate understanding of the challenges that refugees are facing in the midst of Covid-19. Many of our clients have lost their jobs and are unable to receive unemployment benefits because they did not file taxes last year. This has left several of them without the means to afford basic costs of living, like rent and groceries. Limited options for in-person medical appointments with live interpreters has made accessing care immensely more difficult, as several clients do not have the necessary technology for telehealth appointments. Offices like Social Services and the Department of Motor Vehicles now have substantially reduced hours and complicated protocols for appointments, making it difficult for refugees to access applications for Green Cards and Driver’s Licenses. If all this was complicated before, the public health crisis has added an extra level of difficulty to labyrinth that refugees must navigate to achieve and sustain self-sufficiency.

My day-to-day work in this position involves miscellaneous tasks to support clients. I take notes during our phone conversations to document the needs and progress of those enrolled in ICM. I search for affordable housing options, fill out tax-related documents, and I’m working on a research project to support clients who are parents of teenagers. All of this is done via the various ways that we’re able to stay connected virtually - lots of phone calls, text messages, emails, and video chats. I’ve also learned about the mechanisms of migration and resettlement through a virtual IRC conference that was held at the beginning of June. It has been fascinating to learn about the national and international organizations, policies, and procedures that make refugee resettlement possible. 

From an operations standpoint, it has been nice to be check in with my family when we all convene in the kitchen for lunch, and to have my two dachshund co-workers nearby for moral support. I hope that I will be able to have a bit more in person contact with my supervisor and our clients, but I’ve been pleased with the level of connection I’ve felt with everyone who interacts with the Charlottesville IRC since this experience began. I’m excited to continue working and learning with this community in the weeks to come.

Journal Entry #2

The first half of my summer internship with the International Rescue Committee in Charlottesville has flown by. I continue to work with the Intensive Case Management program’s clients by searching for housing, preparing funding request applications, and facilitating connections with community partners, among other activities. I’ve learned a lot about the experiences of Charlottesville’s refugee population, and how the lives of community members have become increasingly complicated under the constraints of Covid-19. I’ve also witnessed how drastically these experiences differ. The work has been challenging and immensely rewarding.

My day to day varies quite a bit, but I have a few weekly anchors. On Mondays, I begin the week by logging on to a Zoom meeting with the IRC’s direct service team, which is composed of various case managers and program specialists. We check in and give updates about individual clients and news from the broader IRC administration about resources and procedures. After, I check in with my supervisor about our goals for the week ahead and review the needs of our clients. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, we call each of our clients to follow up on things like their medical appointments and public benefits, and then we ask if there’s anything we can help with. At least part of the time we act as sounding boards and try to alleviate any anxieties they may be feeling. I’ve loved getting to know the people that she works with through these weekly calls.

When I’m not speaking with clients, I work on projects that my supervisor has assigned me. I recently finished the necessary paperwork for a few clients who had not previously submitted a tax return to receive stimulus payments established by the CARES Act. So far, two of the clients for whom I submitted this paperwork received this funding. I’ve also completed applications for a new grant that the International Rescue Committee created to support clients whose finances have been negatively impacted by Covid-19. Housing is another project area I’ve been working in, since several clients have leases that end in July and are seeking new living spaces. I’ve coordinated with several property managers and moving companies to facilitate the process. Aside from these projects, I’ve communicated with a doula, worked with the Charlottesville Department of Social Services, and sought legal counsel from the Legal Aid Justice Center to assist clients with their diverse needs.

I’m learning a lot about the complicated systems that refugees have to navigate in order to effectively adjust to living in the United States, and the particularities of each person’s situation that may further complicate this journey. This experience has made me appreciate the people who do the work to support these individuals, as well as the extraordinary lives that refugees lead. I’m grateful that I have a few more weeks to stand with and learn from the IRC’s staff and the people that they serve.

Journal Entry #3

My summer interning with the International Rescue Committee has been a whirlwind of experiences. Among the lessons I’ve learned, the most prominent is that effective caregivers practice patience. I was not surprised to learn that many of the refugees in the Intensive Case Management Program experience intense anxiety and frustration when they don’t know how to accomplish a goal. What I didn’t know was that the doctors, nurses, social workers, educators, caregivers, and so many others that assist them are often at a loss for answers themselves. These public servants shoulder staggering caseloads and often work in situations where multiple disconnected people have to work together to complete a task. These efforts time, even in the direst situations. Sometimes the best thing a public servant can do for the people they work with is sit and look with at the obstacles they face. Witnessing is a practice I will carry with me as I continue to pursue public service after graduation.

Most weeks during the internship I had to handle at least one crisis situation. There were times when a ride did not show up to take a client to their medical appointment and I was unable to do anything about this other than sit on the phone with them and validate their frustration. I worked with a family who was unable to move into an appropriately-sized home because the parents were furloughed from their jobs due to Covid-19. The best I could offer them was a listening ear and encouragements. I spoke with clients who did not know why they were not receiving Unemployment Insurance and the best I could do was listen with them to the terrible hold music while we waited on the phone to speak with someone at the Virginia Employment Commission. It doesn’t feel great to not have the ability to give people in trouble the things that they need, but it was certainly rewarding to provide comfort through listening and witnessing.

I also reveled in some particularly happy moments this summer. I successfully applied for grants on behalf of seven clients, for a total of $4,100 in financial assistance for people who have experienced hardship due to Covid-19. I also was able to help four clients receive CARE act stimulus payments, for a total of $4,800 in federal assistance. I assisted a family move into a new house and connected them with low-cost Wi-Fi. I facilitated meetings between a pregnant client and her doula; I recently learned that she gave birth to a healthy newborn. These moments were reminders that the effort is worth it.

I am immensely grateful to the Parents Fund for giving me the opportunity to learn with Charlottesville’s International Rescue Committee and refugee population. It is a gift to have had special relationships with several families from different countries. I learned about different cultures, countries, and conflicts during my weekly calls with the IRC’s Intensive Case Management Program. As I continue in my efforts to be a caregiver and an educator, I will have this concrete experience to reflect on. I have learned to be present as a witness to all kinds of experiences and practice patience so that I can best support others in their quests to flourishing.