Community Spotlight Series: Refugee Women’s Alliance
July 13th, 2020
Susan Lee, Early Learning Center (ELC) Director of Operations and Volunteer Services for ReWA (center) & international visitors participating in the IVLP on “Refugee and Migration Issues in the Indo-Pacific” discuss the issues and challenges that refugee women face in the course of resettlement & how ReWA maximizes its impact through the contributions of volunteers. Feb. 2020.
Since 1985, Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA) has helped thousands of immigrant and refugee women and children successfully navigate the resettlement process throughout the Puget Sound Region. From naturalization and legal services to behavioral health and domestic violence, ReWA is the only agency in King County dedicated solely to providing specialized services for refugee and immigrant women and their families. Celebrating 35 years of service, ReWA continues to provide vital support and solutions to the distinct barriers (i.e. human trafficking, sexual violence, language barriers, access to employment, etc.) many immigrant and refugee women and children face prior to and upon their arrival to the United States. With over 140 staff members and the capacity to offer programs and services in over 50 languages and dialects, this local nonprofit remains a positive and powerful presence in the community. ReWA continues to ensure safe and successful community integration and self-sufficiency; improve language proficiency; and increase employability for local and newly arrived immigrant and refugee residents, building a strong and welcoming community for all.
ReWA not only connects immigrant and refugee women and children with the tools and resources they need, but also partners with various local nonprofits, and national and international organizations to provide educational opportunities and expand the reach of their services. These partnerships have helped ReWA create additional opportunities for the people and families they serve, and they continue to engage the Seattle community in a larger conversation of diversity and inclusion and what it means to be an equitable and accessible organization. One of many partnerships ReWa has established throughout the years is with the World Affairs Council of Seattle. For many years, ReWa has supported the Council by attending community events and regularly interacting with global leaders participating in International Visitor Program (IVP) exchanges.
Susan Lee, Early Learning Centers (ELC) Director of Operations and Volunteer Services for ReWA (pictured left), has been an all-star professional speaker and mentor for both the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), the U.S. State Department’s premier professional exchange program currently celebrating its 80th Anniversary, and the Professional Fellows Program (PFP), where PFP Fellows are placed in intensive month-long fellowships in non-profit organizations, private sector businesses, and government offices across the United States for an individually tailored professional development experience. ReWA, under Susan’s mentorship, welcomed four PFP Fellows in 2015 and 2016, and through this, Susan was selected for a Reverse PFP exchange, where she traveled to Morocco and Tunisia to reconnect with the PFP Fellows she hosted in Seattle. Susan has led many meaningful discussions with international leaders on a wide array of topics ranging from Women in Politics and Civil Society to Human Rights Advocacy to English Language Teaching and Social Inclusion.
Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of connecting with Susan for a wonderfully in-depth, virtual interview to discuss her experience partnering with the World Affairs Council. She described her experiences meeting with and mentoring international leaders from around the world, highlighting the most recent group of international visitors she met participating in a IVLP on Regional Responses to Refugee and Migration Issues in the Indo-Pacific in February 2020. She also provided thoughtful insight into how mentoring Professional Fellows and participating in the reverse exchange for this program impacted her personally, and how international exchange has further ignited her passion for creating lasting connections with people from all over the world. What follows is an excerpt from our conversation.
Tell me about your experience meeting with visiting global leaders through the International Visitor Program at the World Affairs Council?
My experience with the IVLP has always been extremely positive and a joy. I have been very fortunate and honored to have represented our agency, ReWA, and to have the opportunity to speak to these wonderful people from all over the world. Being able to speak and engage with fellows in person brings a much more personal and intimate connection, as well as an atmosphere of trust. In addition, I think it is helpful for me to put a perspective on who is coming, who is asking me these questions, and in turn, I learn from them as well.
Is there a specific program, meeting, or experience that stood out to you the most, and why?
On our very last session... there were a lot of questions that had come up [regarding domestic violence]...I listened to how an international visitor, as an individual, was tackling domestic violence and how he wanted to gather more information on supporting the migrants and refugees of domestic violence. I shared with him how [ReWA] is working with survivors, as well as our city and state, to improve their resources and access to support. I believe this was really helpful for him to hear in order to drive forward advocacy in his country. In turn, it was an opportunity for me to go back in time and recognize that there are these wonderful people and organizations in other countries that are feeling the same way, with the passion and dedication to make a difference in their communities. So it's very invigorating and inspiring to work with the IVLP.
Susan Lee & International visitors participating in the IVLP on Human Rights Advocacy at ReWA’s main office. Nov. 2018.
With regards to my experience in the [Professional Fellows] program, I’ve worked very closely with Professional Fellows. I’ve been the point of contact at ReWA for many, many years. The program that really resonated with me was the last one where I had three [Professional Fellows] – one from Morocco, another from Tunisia, and one from Egypt. Each Fellow brought such a unique skillset and knowledge. Their thirst to understand and learn the American way of operations, particularly among the nonprofit sector, was breathtaking because they were absorbing all of the information like sponges! It was amazing to see how dedicated they were.
It was as culturally exchanging as you could possibly get; we explored different cultures, languages and food. We cooked together in our Early Learning Center’s kitchen with my entire program team from various countries. [The Fellows] were really able to have that opportunity to work with our diverse staff from backgrounds and countries such as Somalia, Eritrea, South America, China, Vietnam, etc. Because of our programming and the diversity of our staff, they were able to learn more than just about our operations, human resources, and finances; they were able to connect with members of our community. This experience really resonated with me a lot. To this day, I am still in contact with your Fellows through Facebook, WhatsApp, and exchanges.
Susan Lee & her PFP Fellows learn more about each other over conversation & great food at a local Seattle restaurant.
Have you kept in contact with international visitors you’ve met with or mentored after they left Seattle?
I was very blessed and fortunate to have been an exchange [participant] in Morocco and Tunisia. It’s important because that opened my world up in a way that I never would have dreamed of. Prior to that experience, I never would have had the opportunity to visit other countries, let alone Morocco or Tunisia. My PFP Fellows were adamant that I apply for the exchange to visit them so that they could, in return, showcase their countries and cultures to me. I am grateful for this exchange experience.
They now call me their sister. And I regard them as my brothers and sisters. I absolutely love them and I think why the exchange program is so important is because it's not just an appointment, it really is a friendship for life. I’m learning new food, their customs, their cultures, and seeing firsthand non-profits that are grassroots, working on domestic violence, workforce training for their communities, etc. One memorable experience was when I went to a school that was working with children with special needs. I literally just cried. I couldn’t handle it anymore because I saw so many opportunities that we had here in the States that they don’t have. The information that we brought in just a 30-40 minute visit in regards to the curriculum and how to make improvements on child/adult interactions, I believe, made a huge difference in the way they look at things. It provided them the tools to be more intentional in the ways they can support children and in particular, children with special needs.
I strongly believe this is a truly valuable program because it allows us to get to know one another better and share our perspectives and knowledge from across the world and different customs. This kind of cross-cultural exchange is what is going to help us as individuals and society grow to be united, informed, and stronger. By having these interactions, we break down barriers and stereotypes to minimize misunderstandings. We gain a better grasp, insight, and respect for who we are as individuals and who our community is around the world.
What would you say to someone in the Seattle community who isn't sure why they should participate in this opportunity to meet with international visitors participating in a World Affairs Council exchange?
I love working with all of you and I think it's truly, truly an honor to be asked time and again to host Fellows and meet with extraordinary IVLP visitors. This is such a valuable program and partnership so I will absolutely ensure that I have the time to participate in the future. It’s important to make it an obligation of mine because there are not a lot of women in leadership, period, and rarely minority women like me. For an hour and a half, I get to speak with your wonderful and diverse international visitors. It’s like the United Nations around our oval table. It's a really powerful experience.
Thank you, Susan, for always making the time to meet with our international visitors. Your meaningful words and partnership have shown us that the work we do is truly making a difference and we are so happy to know that our programs and international exchange have had a positive impact on you and the work you are doing in our community!
In my conversation with Susan, it became clear that her advocacy and commitment to inclusiveness within ReWA truly embodies the value of equity and diversity in developing lasting relationships and building strong communities. The World Affairs Council sends a big thank you to Susan Lee and ReWA for sharing their expertise and building genuine and lasting friendships with our international visitors. We can’t wait to connect with you soon!
- Due to COVID-19, ReWA’s volunteer program has been temporarily placed on hold. For alternative ways you can support refugees and immigrants in our community during this time, please click here.
- ReWA has also partnered with Census 2020. Click here to complete your questionnaire.
New to the Community Spotlight Series? Check out our previous Community Spotlights recognizing our amazing community partners and the lasting impact of exchanges!
By Julianna Patterson, Program Coordinator, International Visitor Program