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September 19, 2023

Small Steps of Progress for Refugees Motivate this Advocate’s Work in Georgia

Darlene Lynch is the Head of External Relations at The Center for Victims of Torture Georgia and is the Co-Chair of the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies (CRSA) in Georgia. She has been working with and advocating on behalf of refugees in the state for decades. As a trusted and passionate voice in Georgia, Darlene has played an important role in helping create welcoming communities for refugees across the state.

What inspired you to pursue a career working with refugees?

I’ve worked as an attorney my entire career and one of my very first cases was with an asylum seeker where the client was seeking asylum from both Egypt and Iraq. I was awed by his resilience and courage and how he time and again overcame the challenges he faced. 

His case is what got me started but working on his case also made me reflect on how my own family arrived in the United States from Italy. Their journey was similar to so many I’ve seen throughout my career. My grandfather arrived speaking no English and worked in manufacturing before opening up a little hardware store. My dad was able to go to college and then I eventually went to college and law school.

My family’s story, and others like it, are what make the United States so special and what gives me hope about our country’s future. 

I now think ‘Why wait a generation for these stories of success?’ We have all these talented people coming to the country today and we have workforce shortages so why make people wait a generation when they could be contributing to their communities and living fuller 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) started in 2012 and initially was comprised of the seven resettlement agencies that were operating in Georgia at the time. A decade later, the Coalition includes more than two dozen organizations including smaller ethnic community-based groups and larger groups that work with refugees and other immigrants. Growing this coalition has given us the ability to advocate, strengthen and build on Georgia’s history of welcoming.

The vision of the Coalition is a future where every person who calls Georgia home is valued, respected and able to build a successful life. Our mission is to engage a broad coalition to highlight the different contributions refugees and immigrants are making to the state — whether it is economic, cultural or interpersonal connections — and to show that Georgia is better because of its history of being a welcoming state. 

The Coalition is so effective because we work collaboratively, not competitively. Each organization has a unique perspective to share and collectively we are persuasive. The most critical way the Coalition operates is that we engage community members, including refugees and others with lived experience, in advocating for what matters most to them. 

What are the critical policy and advocacy initiatives CRSA is working on today?

In 2018, CRSA launched an initiative called the BIG Partnership — Business and Immigration for Georgia. Not only are everyday Georgians critical to making Georgia a welcoming state but the business community has come on board in a very visible and vocal way to say, “We welcome anyone who wants to work and contribute to Georgia.” The business community and the 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 and multi-sector campaign in Georgia to ‘Maximize Global Talent.’ The campaign advocates for professional licensing reform. Too often the first generation of refugees put their dreams on hold for their children. But so many were doctors, accountants or skilled tradespersons, like welders, back in their home countries and they can’t get back into their professions 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’re seeing a lot of movement toward reform.

Refugees are proud of their accomplishments in their home countries and would love to participate in meaningful work here, as well. This is something that Republicans, Democrats — anyone – 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 by nature, Georgians are welcoming. Georgia has been resettling refugees for more than 40 years starting with refugees from Vietnam. Georgia’s deep faith traditions and spirit of hospitality have helped make Georgia a top ten state for refugees to start again. Every year thousands of Georgians volunteer with CRSA organizations to welcome refugees to their new communities.

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

It’s quite a privilege to work here and see Georgians working together to welcome and help people feel they belong. 

Is there a story of a refugee that you’ve worked with during your career that continues to inspire you?

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

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

Since her testimony, we’ve made huge progress in large part because this young student stood up and shared her story. We’re now talking with Georgia’s public colleges and technical schools to address the issue and we have 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 is good for refugees seeking the American Dream and it’s good for Georgia, too.

What gives you hope about the future of refugee resettlement in the U.S.?

I am a hopeful person. I think all people are basically good. My view as an advocate is to assume the best in everybody and you’ll be surprised by the common ground you can find.

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

Strangely, I’m also hopeful because we’re never ‘done’ with anything. We keep making small steps of progress but there’s so much more still to do. You’ve got to have hope or you’ll never make it to the finish line. 

How can you help

You can support refugees in their journey to safety by becoming USA for UNHCR’s newest monthly donor. Your support will help increase humanitarian aid and improve daily living conditions for millions of individuals who have been forced to flee their homes and safe havens.