Differences in refugee policy under the Obama and Trump administrations was the topic of a discussion on Sept. 26 with Anne C. Richard, the Sol M. Linowitz Professor of International Affairs, and Shelly Callahan, the executive director of The Center, a Utica-based organization that supports refugees. Both speakers have a deep background in refugee issues. Richard was the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration in the Obama administration from 2012 to 2017, and was a vice president of the International Rescue Committee. Through her work at The Center, Callahan has helped resettle hundreds of refugees and provide critical services.
“I have traveled the world to learn more about crises, pledge assistance, speak out on the need to do more for refugees, and negotiate with other governments and international organizations in an attempt to get better treatment of refugees and other conflict victims” said Richard. “This meant spending time on the edges of war zones and meeting people from prime ministers, royalty and celebrities to poor people who have lost everything.”
Richard opened the event by discussing her job under the Obama administration. She remarked that it was a demanding job, with too many conflicts and not enough peace. But the bright side was that President Obama was a critical ally for her work, as he pushed to increase the U.S. refugee quota. Now, she is troubled by the politicization of a once relatively non-partisan issue and expressed deep concern over the Trump administration’s moves to shrink the program she once led by dramatically reducing the refugee quota.
Callahan echoed Richard’s sentiments, noting that the relationship between her organization and the federal government has grown more antagonistic. With budget shortfalls caused by government policies, many organizations like hers are fighting to survive. But, on a positive note, she said The Center receives support from the state government. She also discussed how refugees are helping to revitalize Utica and have become an integral, welcome part of the community.
As for solutions going forward, “we need more leaders who will speak out to do more to help and we need the public to support them” said Richards. “Part of this is to do more to help through diplomacy and aid overseas. Part is to welcome more refugees to live in the United States.”
Callahan emphasized the importance of being kind and open as a critical way to help refugees in your community. But she also encouraged people to volunteer and advocate. She argued, quoting another, that “you need to deserve to have hope” by putting in the work to make the world better.
Richard is currently teaching the class “International Responses to Humanitarian Crises.” She said the class discusses “how the U.S. and other countries come together to respond to crises overseas. This involves U.N. humanitarian agencies, the Red Cross and top non-governmental organizations working alongside local communities.”
She challenges students in her class to consider ways to improve the operations of humanitarian organizations and to examine the root causes of crises and think of ways to address and resolve such crises.