Rachel Nusbaum is an “internal journalist.” As a communications specialist for HIAS – formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – the Long Island native writes blog posts and works with the media.
Nusbaum, 29, writes frequently about HIAS’s work protecting and advocating for refugees around the globe. We caught up with Nusbaum at the HIAS offices in Washington.
In a blog post, you wrote: “protecting refugees is part of who we are as Americans.” Would you care to explain that concept?
I remember writing that since that was when I first got to HIAS. When I took this job, I was really excited to be able to join HIAS, an organization that has been doing really great work for a long time. They’re the oldest refugee resettlement organization in the country, and when I told my family I was going to work here, they were all like, “HIAS! Everyone in the Jewish community has a family member or a story about that.”
A beautiful tradition in America has been welcoming refugees, whether they were fleeing the Soviet Union and anti-Semitism or unrest and violence in Vietnam. The fact that we have this reputation — like with the image of the Statue of Liberty — of being a place where you can come and find freedom, and you won’t be persecuted for your religion or political beliefs is especially important. I think it’s a really proud legacy for us.
What have you learned about refugees in your time working there?
Refugees are incredible. They’re resilient and they’re strong. Everyone I had a chance to speak [and work with] has been through challenging things that I can’t imagine ever having to go through. Then they’ve turned it around, and taken that opportunity and just run with it.
Do you have one subject who really touched you?
I met one young man who’s living in Pennsylvania now, and he was in D.C. for a conference, and he is not only in school but acclimating [well]. He’s also organizing his community, volunteering and tutoring.
Where’s he from?
Nepal. He’s just full of plans. He’s starting college now, so he’s 18. He came with his parents. I think he was born in a refugee camp, and from that challenging beginning, he’s really flourished.
So your role as a communications specialist makes you HIAS’s spokeswoman in a way.
Yeah. I think my boss likes to describe my position as being like an internal journalist. I get to poke around and talk to people, and to explore the whole breadth of the work that we do. I get to talk to so many people. I get to speak to a social counselor in Kenya, or somebody who’s working with asylum seekers in Israel, and the work that we’re doing all over the world with people that really need it is amazing.
What is the U.S. process for taking in refugees?
I’m really glad you brought it up because a lot of people don’t know about the vetting process, and they assume that there really isn’t one. Not only is there a vetting process, but there’s an extremely robust, multi-staged one that’s so much more intense than one could imagine. People are screened multiple times. They go through many different agencies. They go through the National Counterterrorism Center, through [the Department of Homeland Security], and the State Department. They’re vetted over and over again. It’s not the case that people are showing up and we have no idea who they are.
Your resume states that you speak various languages, like Korean and Czech. Why those languages?
When I finished college, I did a year teaching English in South Korea, and taught middle school over there, and picked up some Korean. I lived in Seoul, and loved it; it’s a fascinating city. I went and taught for a year in the Czech Republic, in a small town called Frýdek-Místek. I taught English, as part of a Fulbright ETA Program. During undergrad, I did a semester in Prague, and fell in love with it.
Do you think you incorporated a sense of a revolutionary spirit that may have been picked up while spending time in Central Europe?
I think so. I think [their revolution] really showed how much of a difference you can make. We read some texts from people at the time [of the 1989 Velvet Revolution] – right up until the moment that communism fell – who never thought it would happen. And then it happened.
In your opinion, how has the Jewish community been toward the idea of the resettlement of refugees?
I have to say that the Jewish community has been really fabulous, for as long as I’ve been here. There’s been so much attention being paid to the refugee crisis. I think Jews really are not sitting this one out. We get calls from Jews all over asking, ‘what can I do to help?’ Around the High Holidays, Rabbis ask us: ‘what can we tell people about this refugee crisis?’ People really care, and the Jewish community has really stepped up in a big way. And that’s made me really proud that this is the community I come from, and we’re doing something about this.
Do you think this is an important time to be at HIAS?
Yes. I think it is important from a policy perspective. I do think being in D.C., you get the political rhetoric, and it’s gotten very heated, and there’s been a lot of things that are being conflated that probably shouldn’t be. But when you get out of D.C., and you go into these communities, where we are resettling these folks, people are very welcoming. They are wonderful. You’ll see community members stepping in a big way. So I think it’s sometimes nice to get out of D.C., and remember that regular people are decent and helpful.
Anything you would like to share to those who may be skeptical about the resettlement of refugees?
I just think that you should really ‘do onto others what you would want done onto you,’ as they say. It’s really important to make a place for those who are trying to be resettled. It’s a small group, and it’s a group that really needs that sort of protection. These are the kinds of people we really need to help. Get to know HIAS; see what we’re doing, and see that there are more ways to make this a more welcoming country again. I think that if we all do something small to help make things better, then it will lead to a big change.