June 20 is World Refugee Day where we recognize the courage, strength, and contributions of the millions of people around the globe who have been forced from their homes by conflict, persecution, or a fear of future harm. USCIS refugee officers play an important role in assisting those in genuine need of refugee protection.
USCIS’s Fiona Lassiter is a refugee officer whose interest in working with refugees began during her third year in college. Fiona’s father, also a refugee officer, encouraged her to take a job conducting interviews with refugees fleeing the Kosovo conflict during the 1990s. Interacting with people from another part of the world was both interesting and enriching. “It gave me a sense of responsibility and discipline. At first it was overwhelming, but I discovered I was a natural at interviewing people.”
During her final semester as an undergrad, Fiona worked with a family from Togo. “I was responsible for helping them with things like learning to speak English, opening a bank account, going to the grocery store and generally living in America.” Working with the family and watching them progress convinced her that she wanted to pursue a career working with refugees.
When she joined USCIS, Fiona began working around the world interviewing refugees. “The most challenging part of my job is listening to all the sad stories. There is a lot of violence in certain regions, and some of the claims are quite detailed and gruesome.” Having to hear about the cruelty people have been subjected to is challenging for all officers.
A memorable experience was a visit to Nepal in 2009. “Typically, refugee officers do not get to visit the camps where refugees live. Our only interaction with them is from behind a desk and they are nervously sitting in front of us. On my first circuit ride as a refugee officer in 2009, we visited a camp in Nepal and were greeted by one or two refugees.
Officer Lassiter in Kathmandu, Nepal, on her way to Damak, Nepal where she and her team interviewed Bhutanese refugees in 2009.
Word quickly spread that guests were at the camp and all the refugees started coming out of their small homes. Along the tour, a 16-year-old boy befriended me. He wanted to practice his English and said he was happy because he was going to America. He was the youngest of three kids and his father had mental disabilities. We talked about the weather, sports and food. At the end of our tour, I told him he was going to be a superstar and make his parents proud.”
Fiona summarizes her work this way: “My experiences taught me that refugees are simply people, and none of them woke up one morning wishing to become a refugee.” She believes that the most important part of her job is helping others whose lives have been torn apart by forces beyond their control. “We as an agency, we as Americans, can help so many people turn things around and begin a new life.”