Small progress for refugees motivates this lawyer’s work in Georgia

Darlene Lynch is director of external relations at the Center for Victims of Torture Georgia and co-chair of the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies (CRSA) in Georgia. She has worked with and advocated for refugees in the state for decades. As a trusted and passionate voice in Georgia, Darlene has played an important role in creating welcoming communities for refugees across the state.

What inspired you to pursue a career working with refugees?

I have worked as a lawyer my entire career and one of my very first cases involved an asylum seeker whose client was seeking asylum from both Egypt and Iraq. I was impressed by his resilience and courage and how he continued to overcome the challenges he faced.

His case gave me a start, but working on his case also made me think about how my own family came to the United States from Italy. Her journey was similar to many others I have seen throughout my career. My grandfather didn’t speak English and worked in manufacturing before opening a small hardware store. My dad was able to go to college and then I ended up going to college and studying law.

My and other families’ stories make the United States special and give me hope for our country’s future.

I’m now thinking, ‘Why wait a generation for these success stories?’ We have all these talented people coming into the country today and we have a labor shortage. So why should we make people wait a generation when they could be contributing to their communities and living more fulfilling lives now?

Can you tell me about the founding of the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies (CRSA) and its mission?

The Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies (CRSA) was founded in 2012 and initially consisted of the seven resettlement agencies then operating in Georgia. A decade later, the coalition includes more than two dozen organizations, including smaller ethnic groups and larger groups that work with refugees and other immigrants. Expanding this coalition has given us the opportunity to represent, strengthen and build on Georgia’s history of hospitality.

The Coalition’s vision is a future in which every person who calls Georgia home is valued, respected and able to build a successful life. Our mission is to build a broad coalition to highlight the diverse contributions that refugees and immigrants make to the state – be it economic, cultural or interpersonal – and to show that Georgia is better because of its history as a welcoming state is.

The coalition is so effective because we work cooperatively, not competitively. Every organization has a unique perspective that we can share, and together we can excel. The Coalition’s core way of working is that we engage community members, including refugees and others with lived experience, to advocate for what matters most to them.

What key policy and advocacy initiatives is CRSA working on today?

In 2018, CRSA launched an initiative called BIG Partnership – Business and Immigration for Georgia. Not only are everyday Georgians crucial to making Georgia a welcoming state, but the business community has also come on board very visibly and loudly to say, “We welcome everyone to work and contribute to Georgia “The business community and refugee and immigrant communities are working side by side to expand access to education, employment and entrepreneurship and build a more modern and inclusive Georgian economy.

BIG is leading a bipartisan, cross-industry campaign in Georgia to “maximize global talent.” The campaign advocates for professional licensing reform. All too often, first generation refugees have put their dreams for their children on hold. But so many were doctors, accountants or skilled tradesmen such as welders in their home countries and are unable to return to their profession due to professional licensing barriers here in Georgia. Through the work of the BIG Partnership and partners like the state’s three largest chambers of commerce, we are seeing a lot of reform movement.

Refugees are proud of their achievements in their home countries and would like to take part in meaningful work here too. This is something that Republicans, Democrats – everyone – can understand. I’m really proud of the work we’re doing with the BIG Partnership to help create these opportunities.

What makes Atlanta and Georgia in general a welcoming place for refugees?

I think Georgians are naturally hospitable. Georgia has been accepting refugees for more than 40 years, starting with refugees from Vietnam. Georgia’s deep faith traditions and spirit of hospitality have helped Georgia become one of the top ten states for refugees to make a fresh start. Each year, thousands of Georgians volunteer with CRSA organizations to welcome refugees into their new communities.

When I started volunteering years ago in Clarkston, Georgia, it was difficult to find volunteer opportunities because so many in the community were already helping. It’s good to have a problem.

It is a great privilege to work here and see how Georgians work together to welcome people and make them feel like they belong.

Is there a refugee story that you have worked with throughout your career that still inspires you?

I have been fortunate to work with so many inspiring people in my career, but a recent story that inspires me is that of a young woman from Afghanistan who was among a cohort of Afghan students who received a year of in-state tuition at Georgia State University . When it came time for the cohort to continue their second year, they were not offered in-state tuition and could not afford to continue their education.

This young woman was brave and went to the Georgia state capitol to tell her story. She stood in a crowded room full of all kinds of press and told the most compelling story I have ever heard. She said: “First the Taliban took away my dreams of education, and now it’s Georgia.” This experience hurt her to the core.

We have made great progress since her testimony, especially because this young student stood up and told her story. We are now talking to Georgia’s public colleges and technical schools to address the issue, and we have passed bipartisan legislation in Georgia’s General Assembly to expand in-state tuition, including for Afghan and Ukrainian humanitarian parolees.

Expanding access to higher education is a big part of our coalition’s work. It’s good for refugees seeking the American dream, and it’s good for Georgia too.

What gives you hope for the future of refugee resettlement in the United States?

I am a hopeful person. I think all people are fundamentally good. As a lawyer, I assume everyone has the best, and you’ll be surprised at the similarities you can find.

I think Americans are often open, welcoming and curious. Our work is not just about submitting a bill. It’s about educating people about other people’s experiences and building empathy. It’s about making people realize that refugees are people like me and you and that they are resilient and strong and have hopes and dreams of their own.

Weirdly, I’m also hopeful because we’re never “done” with anything. We continue to make small progress, but there is still so much to do. You have to have hope, otherwise you’ll never make it to the finish line.

How can you help

You can support refugees on their path to safety by becoming USA for UNHCR’s newest monthly donor. Your support will help increase humanitarian assistance and improve the daily living conditions of millions of people forced to leave their homes and safe havens.