COVID-19 / Missions / Student.Go

How Can I Make a Difference?

By Olivia Haynes Ansari

Hello! For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Olivia. I’m a Virginia girl who has been living in Austria for over 2 years working with a Baptist church. This fall, I was given an internship in advocacy for Freedom of Religion and Belief for refugees in Austria through Student.Go.

This isn’t my first experience with refugees. The church I work with has a whole congregation of Farsi-speaking refugees from Afghanistan and Iran. In fact, that’s what drew me to this church in the first place. Not only was I inspired by my church’s tangible, meaningful commitment to welcome and justice for people in crisis, but I also was seeking an opportunity to live and worship in a multi-ethnic community. I feel particularly called to communities like this; there is so much you can learn when you begin living with people who are different from you.

Two years later, I’ve even gotten married to a wonderful man who came to Austria as a refugee from Afghanistan.

Olivia and her husband, Ali, on their honeymoon in Salzburg.

But this internship is different from any of my previous experience with refugees. It isn’t so much about person-to-person interaction with refugees; instead, it’s about mobilizing people and organizations to change laws in order to protect the human rights of those refugees. It’s more high-level, big picture work in some ways, but also involves networking, connecting people, and educating and inspiring them so that they begin raising their voices about this issue, together. 

This is advocacy work.

So many of us in the world right now are asking about so many things, “How can I make a difference?” It’s been my privilege in the last weeks to start learning about how to do that with protecting religious freedom for refugees.

I want to briefly explain what we’re advocating for and why it’s important.

Many people come to Austria seeking asylum—protection and the right to remain here—on the grounds of religious persecution. They’ve converted to a religion that their home country does not support, and because of that, their life is in danger there.

This puts judges, who decide on these asylum cases, in the interesting position of assessing the asylum seeker’s religious conversion and commitment.

Imagine if you were in those positions. As the asylum seeker, you have to prove that you believe in a particular religion, that it is integral to your identity, and that your life would be in danger in your home country; as the judge, you have to determine the validity of those claims, despite the significant cultural and lingual barriers between you and the asylum seeker. (Imagine trying to talk about such important things in your life through a translator, too, when so much is at stake.)

In the current system, these cases are often not assessed fairly. This results in people being unfairly deported to their country of origin, even though their lives are in danger.

The courthouse where asylum interviews take place.

How does this happen, you ask? Well, the problems with the system are complicated, but a key issue is the lack of religious literacy training for judges. Here’s some reasons why it is needed:

  • The interviews often end up being more of a religious knowledge test (even though there was technically a court decision outlawing this in Austria). Rather than searching for the person’s authentic story, the judges base their decision too much on how much the asylum seeker knows about their faith.
  • The judges are not trained to consider the many aspects of a religious conversion: “personal, social, cognitive, cultural, historical, and emotional” (from a Dutch report on a similar context, “Credibility of Conversion”). Conversions do not happen for intellectual reasons alone, for example, and a sense of belonging to the faith community is a valid part of converting.
  • The judges assess religious conversion and commitment through a Western cultural lens, which tends to be very cerebral, and often do not understand a more emotional experience that can come from an Eastern perspective.
  • The judges think that religious conversion happens only a certain way—either at a specific moment, rather than over a long period of time, or the reverse.
  • The judges assess cases through their own religious biases. They may only know about Catholicism, the main religion in Austria, and ask questions of Protestants that don’t apply to them. Or, they may not believe in any kind of supernatural power themselves, which can lead to them dismissing key accounts of the supernatural in asylum seekers’ stories. (Translators can also be heavily swayed by their own religious biases, which is another huge problem.)

This lack of training creates tremendous injustice in the system. I can’t emphasize enough that improperly assessing someone’s case, giving them a negative decision—it can result in the person’s further persecution, or even death. These are the stakes.

Members of the church’s Farsi-speaking congregation. With their lives hanging in the balance much of the time, refugees have taught Olivia a lot about the value and power of prayer.

Again, you might ask: “How can I make a difference?” Where do you even start?

Let me tell you what my experience in advocacy has been like so far. My internship is split into three phases: educationplanning/contacting, and execution.

Education is where everything starts. You can’t start mobilizing others to create change without knowing the issues well yourself. For the first few weeks, I spent my time reading reports put together by Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB) researchers from the European Baptist Federation, one of the organizations through which my internship runs. I made notes and asked all of the questions I could to make sure I understood what was going on—and believe me, I had a lot of questions.

Right now, I’m in the planning/contacting phase. I’m putting together contact information for NGOs, faith organizations, politicians, and other stakeholders. Once that’s done, I will start contacting them to raise awareness of these human rights issues for refugees—and to ask them to take part in an online forum about it, which will make up the execution phase. Hopefully, this will create a space for these different groups to come together and talk about what steps to take to make real change.

Olivia and her husband at a demonstration for refugees.

This experience has been different from the picture of advocacy work that I have in my brain. If I think of advocacy, I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. I think of big protests. I think of impassioned speeches and monumental changes.

The reality has been very different. There’s been a lot more time spent alone reading or writing. Even the culminating event of my internship won’t be in person with others—that’s what happens when you intern in advocacy during a pandemic. I did actually get to go to one socially distanced protest for refugees (see above), which was very cool, but everything else has been virtual.

Even so, this has already been rewarding. I’ve learned a lot about what advocacy really is and how it works. After being invested in refugee work for so long, I finally have a clearer idea of how to be an advocate and mobilize others to be advocates, too. I’ve got a long way to go and a lot more to learn—but that’s part of what makes this process exciting.

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