Can you please tell us what you’ve been up to since the Fellowship? 

María: In the last half of 2020, I focused on adapting to my new school –– Hood College, where I transferred to at the end of the spring semester. It was a whole new experience to start school at a different place while being online. I also got the chance to help organize the 2021 Maryland Collegiate Honors Council Conference. The communication skills I learned during the Fellowship came in handy!

I participated in Montgomery College’s social science expo as an MC alumna. On this panel, I shared the opportunities of professional and personal growth I had as an MC student. My most recent and current project is a team project funded by the Davis Project for Peace Foundation. I teamed up with two other MC alumni and current Hood College students, Sainabou Jallow and Maryam Iftikhar (who is also a Karel alumna!). 

Our project focuses on aiding immigrant people, especially undocumented, asylum seekers, and refugees who either do not have access to resources or are ineligible to receive help. We wanted to address the lack of accessible resources that the immigrant community face by researching and connecting with immigrant-friendly agencies and providing emergency financial assistance.  

Maryam: After my Fellowship experience in 2019, where I interned with Families USA, I graduated from Montgomery College and transferred to Hood College to continue my Bachelor’s degree! Before transferring, I was the Karel Fellowship Program Coordinator in 2020. I am now a senior at Hood College, majoring in global studies and pursuing a minor in nonprofit and civic engagement! My time at Hood College has been exciting so far. This past summer, I had the opportunity to work on a Davis Peace Project with two peers! 

Can you please tell us a little bit about your work this summer at RAICES? What is the Davis Peace Project? How does it all come together? 

María: We partnered with RAICES, a non-profit organization based in Texas, as part of our Davis Peace project. The Davis Peace project is an initiative for college students to create a grassroots peace project. If the proposal is accepted, the project is awarded $10,000 to get started. My team’s project focused on immigration issues at our borders. As immigrants ourselves, we were really concerned not only with the cruelty the immigrant community faces at detention centers but we also realized there is a lack of accessibility to basic necessities for immigrants to live. Therefore, we wanted to use the funds that we received from the Davis Peace project to help an organization that would directly help the immigrant community –– RAICES.

We decided to help them expand their recently launched hotline, Canopy, aimed to connect migrants, refugees, undocumented individuals, and asylum seekers to social services in their local areas.

My role included vetting organizations in the DMV area that provide social services to immigrants. I had to assess whether the services some provided were immigrant-friendly and understand the registration process (including requirements) to access the services. I created informational visual designs in Spanish (a majority of calls received are from Spanish-speaking individuals) so that Canopy staff could easily share the information when needed. Lastly, we created a financial assistance fund that mainly fulfilled grocery orders and rent assistance requests to individuals who were ineligible to receive the aforementioned from other agencies. As we learned, one of the biggest worries of this population is accessing hygiene and cleaning products. That is why we believe our funds helped provide the aid they needed at the time.  

Maryam: The Davis Project for Peace initiative is for undergraduate students to design grassroots projects for the summer which serve to promote peace and address the causes of conflict among parties. The Foundation encourages recipients to utilize innovative techniques in ways that focus on conflict resolution, reconciliation, building understanding, and finding solutions for resolving conflict and maintaining peace. Selected projects receive $10,000 in funding and typically work in collaboration with an established organization to carry out their work. This is how we discovered RAICES and worked with their new social program, the Canopy Hotline, to carry out our project!

Over the summer, Canopy helped us launch a fund for their callers who were unable to access essential resources or services due to their ineligibility because of their residence status or work documentation. Through the fund, we were able to provide callers with financial assistance, so that they weren’t falling through the “gaps” and could still be able to access the resources they need. 

What inspired you to get involved in immigration work? What does immigration mean to you? 

María: After moving to the United States, there was a time where I felt lost in terms of who I was. It was difficult to adjust to a different culture even though I was ready to start my life here. This conflict came to an end when I rediscovered and accepted myself as part of the immigrant community and started to get involved in learning more about my community here in Montgomery County and in the United States at large.

The first grain of inspiration came from one of my favorite anthropology classes, where I got to meet people who migrated to Montgomery County in the 50s and 60s. I connected with their stories and with their passion, pride for their cultures. Immigration is a great part of my identity, so I want to help the immigrant community showcase its resilience and willingness to contribute to the wellbeing and success of everyone involved. 

Maryam: As an immigrant myself, I feel very connected to issues that affect the immigrant and migrant community. People immigrate for a multitude of reasons, but the core variable is always wanting to improve their condition and quality of life, for themselves, their kids, and even their family back home. In a country that always prides itself as a haven for immigrants, it’s our responsibility to ensure that our nation’s policies are actually reflective of that promise.

Though I moved to the United States when I was one, and have since become a citizen, I have always been conscious of my immigrant identity. I carry it with me because it has provided me with an essential perspective and source of empathy and compassion when interacting with others around me. All immigrants deserve to be treated with respect, dignity, and understanding. They all are attempting to find their footing in a new, and often unwelcoming, land. Until all immigrants are able to feel safe and fairly protected in their new homes, I will continue to be involved with immigration work. 

How does this relate to your short- or long-term career and academic goals? 

María: As I mentioned before, one of my goals is to keep working on immigration topics. This recent internship helped me realized that the work is not nearly done to bridge the lack of accessible resources gap we discovered at the beginning of our project. Moreover, establishing communication with DMV agencies and learning about their work for the community reaffirms my motivation and resolution to work for the immigrant and minority communities.

To continue with this plan, I decided to apply to the United for Action on the Maryland Economy program, which connects people with similar ideas and goals across my state. I just received my acceptance letter a couple of days ago! I’m eager to represent the immigrant community by bringing the issues I discovered during my internship to the table. This time, I’ll be able to discuss them from an economic perspective which is informed by my major in Economics. 

Maryam: As a global studies major who is very passionate about human rights, I will likely find myself continuing to work in the fields of immigration, conflict resolution, and peace. My experiences with the Karel Fellowship and the Davis Peace Project have helped me achieve both short- and long-term career and academic goals. After graduation, I hope to work with a nonprofit that works on human rights in the scope of conflict resolution and equitable research and resource distribution. This summer has helped me solidify these aspirations and provided me with the opportunities to gain new skills to achieve those goals. 

How has the Karel Fellowship and/or your internships at your respective host organizations helped you with your current project(s)? 

María: The Karel Fellowship and NLC trained me to be a successful and empathic communicator. A lot of what I learned during that summer, I was able to put into practice at various moments in the last year. I know how to address different audiences, and I feel prepared to organize events and reach out to people. I’m happy that the Karel Fellowship Communications Bootcamp trained me in media and visual design because that is a skill I used a lot during the organization of the MD Honors conference, at RAICES, and at handling social media accounts of some clubs in which I’m a member. Most importantly, I’m not afraid of using my voice anymore. The Karel and NLC (shoutout to the whole DEMC Team) taught me by example. From them, I’ve learned to always trust taking the chance and speaking up about my ideas; and for that, I will always be thankful. 

Maryam: My experience this summer with RAICES and Canopy was a lot smoother thanks to my previous work with the Karel Fellowship and Families USA! Because I had already gained valuable experience on how nonprofits operate and how to be an effective communicator, I was able to hit the ground running on the work with Canopy and feel at home and confident in the skills I was bringing to the work. Additionally, working at Canopy helped me hone my communications skills from my time with the Karel Fellowship, as we promoted the hotline to social service agencies in the DMV and developed communications strategies to interact with Canopy’s callers. This summer helped renew my gratitude to the Karel Fellowship because all of the skills and lessons I learned were utilized during my experience with the Davis Peace Project and RAICES, making the 2021 summer extremely valuable, productive, and inspiring. 

What is your advice for other Karel Fellows and Alums who want to get involved in working on immigration issues? 

María: We are the force to create change. This project has taught me that there are a lot of layers that we do not see but are creating barriers for immigrants to adapt. We need your voice and your skills. If you have the chance, take time to listen to their stories, to listen to their perspective, and also keep up with the policies around this issue. Keep in touch with the network you have created while at Karel and at your host organization. That organization might want to be allies and a source of advice on the different projects you take. 

Maryam: I think the biggest piece of advice I can give to Fellows and Alums interested in getting involved with immigration issues is to come into the field with a broad perspective and lots of empathy. Immigration issues look very different depending on the person, and many times migrants and refugees have experienced intense amounts of trauma, things that we could never imagine, and hopefully never have to. Despite these scars, most, if not all, migrants are immensely resilient and determined to work hard in order to make a better life for themselves and their families. It’s essential to recognize their autonomy and acknowledge that immigrants are more than capable of achieving success. They just need equitable access to resources and services that citizens have. Rather than speaking for them, speak with them in order to help them gain the tools they need so that they have the footing to speak for themselves.