Sarah Wayne Callies Lends Her Voice and Time to the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people to survive and rebuild their lives. Founded in 1933 at the suggestion of Albert Einstein, the IRC offers lifesaving care and life-changing assistance to refugees forced to flee from war or disaster. Restoring safety, dignity and hope to millions who are uprooted and struggling to endure, the IRC leads the way from harm to home. The IRC has global reach and local impact— the only international humanitarian organization that operates international and domestic U.S. programs that help at each stage of a refugee’s journey from crisis to stability. As a longtime supporter of the IRC, Sarah Wayne Callies is proud to take action and be the voice behind the incredible cause. We talked to the actress and mother about her involvement at a recent charity lunch for the amazing organization…

So how did you get involved in this organization?
My husband discovered them about 10 years ago. I think he was looking for a summer job – he was teaching in New York, and there was an ad in The Village Voice, and he looked into the organization. The job wasn’t the right fit, but he said ‘we’ve got to support them – they’re doing amazing work.’ I think that first year we were able to donate enough for them to buy a pizza, but ever since then we’ve tried to support them as much as we could. My grandfather was a refugee, so it was a pretty personal thing for me to feel that I was able to extend the hand because my grandfather didn’t have any help. He came here before the IRC existed. He did not land on his feet. So an opportunity to make things easier for people struck me as the sane thing to do… It’s an honor to do something that has such a practical real-world importance to it. Television’s great, but television isn’t necessarily making the world a better place.

What has been the most inspiring moment for you?
When I was in Atlanta last week, at the relocation center there, I was talking with a bunch of the kids at the after-school program and asking them what they wanted to do for a living. A lot of them are juniors and seniors thinking about college, and I was struck by how many of them wanted to get into a service profession, whether it was “I want to be a nurse” or “ I want to be a translator” or “I want to work for the IRC.” One of the amazing things is I’ve now been to three out of the relocation centers throughout the United States, and they’re all between 50 to 70% staffed by former refugees who have relocated themselves. What’s been really eye opening to me is the refugees I’ve met aren’t coming here to take what they can – they’re not coming here to take a job and to take money. They’re coming because they desperately want to give. They want to pay taxes. They want their kids to go to the public school or private schools and raise the standard of testing. They are so fired up to contribute and to pour themselves into this country culturally, emotionally, spiritually, and financially. That was a big paradigm shift for me. When you think about a refugee situation, you think you can help them out, and that’s true for about the first six months. And then they turn around and spend the rest of their lives enriching the country.

What are your goals for long-term involvement?
I think there are two things: I think the first thing I can do is to just let people know that the IRC exists. They’ve been doing this for so long, over 70 years; they’ve been doing it so well with such incredible success. And they’ve also been very modest, and they’ve been very humble, and I really respect the good breeding and the class and the taste involved in that. My job is to stand up and say, “Look over here. Please be a part of this” because there’s so much that’s already being done. And the more people that join and support that effort, the more we can do. So I think step one for me is to just say, “Hey! There’s some brilliant people over here doing work that makes us all better people.” And then the next step I think is trying to engage people at a level that they’re comfortable with… What I love about the organization is that they’ve structured it so that people can plug in at any level. My husband’s going to be volunteering to teach English a few hours a week at the Atlanta center. There are people who volunteer with one family and they’re just a contact person for that one family. There are people who come in and work five hours a month in the summer when they’re not teaching. You don’t need to be able to dedicate your life. As someone who’s a working mother, there’s still a place for me to be able to give what time and resources I can without feeling completely overwhelmed. It’s just nice – it’s one person at a time.

How does it feel to be a mother and also immerse yourself in a situation where there are children being brutalized?
As we were sitting at this lunch here, there was a part of me that just had to put my head down. There’s a lot of horror, there’s a lot of grief, and there’s a lot of hideous treatment of children. To be honest, there’s just times when I just have to take a step back and put myself back together. But just to be able to say my drop goes into the ocean, and that’s a help. The need is bigger than I can even conceive of. I hope to God the IRC can close its doors and say “Woo hoo! Refugees are all dealt with!” Until then, I’m glad I’m able to stand behind them because the work that they are doing blows my mind.

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