Emily Arnold-Fernandez of Access Asylum on helping refugees 

Emily Arnold-Fernandez is a lawyer and the founder and the executive director of Asylum Access, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated toward granting people refugee status around the world. She has done everything from studying abroad in Zimbabwe and Spain to granting a Liberian child soldier refugee status in Egypt. With offices in Ecuador, Thailand and Tanzania, the organization has directly helped more than 6,500 people since its start in 2008.

What is your background?

I was on the board of Amnesty International at my high school, and it kind of grew from there. I grew up here in the Bay Area, in the East Bay, and then went down to Pomona College. While I was there, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Zimbabwe, which, really, I think, sharpened my understanding of international issues and really brought home to me that problems always look simpler to solve when you’re farther away from them.

How did you get started in standing up for the rights of refugees?

Georgetown (where I also went to school) provided me with the opportunity to work in Egypt representing refugees that were seeking refugee status from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. So I did that the summer after my first year of law school and it was quite an experience. I kinda felt like I was getting thrown into the fire. But it also really woke me up to how our system for addressing international refugee issues is broken and needs an overhaul. That was the seed for Asylum Access for me.

What or who is your greatest inspiration?

One of the refugees that I met in Cairo is kind of a perfect example of why I say our clients inspire me. He was maybe about 20 years old and was a refugee [from Liberia] about half of his life. He was teaching English at this school set up for Liberian refugee children, and he was interpreting for other refugees who couldn’t speak English, and a few other things. So I asked him, “Why are you doing this?” I thought I knew the answer. But no, he looked at me and said, “Someday, I’m going to get out of here. I’m going to get to a place where I’m allowed to work. And I need a resume.” And I was floored.

What is Asylum Access all about?

Asylum Access is about making refugee rights a reality. Refugees all over the world have the right under international law to work, send their kids to school, to rent an apartment, open a bank account, have a job and rebuild their lives. Yet in most countries that most refugees flee to, those rights are summarily denied.

What is the goal for the July 14 fundraising event?

We are in the very early stages of doing the research and building the capacity to launch three new offices. We want to double our capacity around the world within the next year. We don’t know where they are, but this event is designed to raise awareness, to generate the community and to bring in some of those resources that we’ll need to launch those three new offices.

You are clearly passionate about what you do, but how many more years do you have in this industry?

My husband always jokes whenever I’m asked this question. From the time we were founded five years ago ’til now, every time I’m asked this question I say, “Well, at least five more years.” But it’s always five more years. It never gets any shorter. I want Asylum Access to be the strongest organization that it can be. It’s about building a movement ... and I want it to succeed.

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