Zaid Hydari ’09, founder of the Refugee Solidarity Network, shared with Stein Center News how his nonprofit seeks to protect refugee rights and conditions in Turkey and Bulgaria.
What does the Refugee Solidarity Network do?
Refugee Solidarity Network (RSN) is a U.S.-based nonprofit that seeks to protect the rights of refugees, which are clearly established and articulated under international human rights law but increasingly under attack. The reality is that despite a number of recent executive actions to limit refugee resettlement to the U.S., the U.S. refugee admissions program, even at its best, was never an adequate, durable solution for the more than 20 million refugees around the world. That is why RSN focuses on protecting refugee rights and improving conditions for refugees overseas. We focus primarily on Turkey, the world’s largest host country of refugees. RSN has also begun to lend similar efforts in neighboring Bulgaria. We go about this mission not by dispatching staff to the field to deliver services; instead we partner with national legal organizations that have expertise about the local context. RSN provides financial, operational, and technical assistance to its partners, which is what we mean by capacity building, to enable them to carry out services and interventions at the local level, and sometimes strategic litigation in regional courts. RSN also carries out research and engages in advocacy in global forums, in coordination with our partners and drawing on the experience and observations of programming in the field. Finally, we also seek to raise awareness on this issue in the U.S., as we observe sustained misinformation on this issue and xenophobia toward this population.
In Turkey, we work together with Refugee Rights Turkey to operate a Legal Community Center that offers free-of-charge legal information, counseling, and representation to refugees. These services are intended to ensure that people have status, remain free of arbitrary deprivation of liberty and have access to the asylum system (deportation defense), and can access basic rights and entitlements. The Center also provides training and reference materials for lawyers to become more involved in refugee matters, through the state-funded legal aid system. We work with a smaller organization in Bulgaria that plays a similar role there. We’re working to promote more pro bono partnerships in all such host countries grappling with less developed legal systems, a shortage of resources, and refugees in need of assistance.
How did you wind up founding your own organization?
It was a very organic idea to establish an organization of this kind. In 2010, I received a James E. Tolan Human Rights Fellowship through the Leitner Center, which afforded me the opportunity to spend a year in Turkey with a national NGO providing legal advice to asylum-seekers that were going through a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) status determination procedure. My host NGO was doing incredible work but, as is common, was under-resourced. A colleague and I developed an idea to mobilize resources from the U.S., which included more legal fellows. We also saw the opportunity for joint advocacy. The continuing increase in refugee arrivals to Turkey, and indeed the surge in forced displacement around the world, made the need for RSN ever more clear.
What are the most rewarding and most challenging aspects of leading a small nonprofit?
There are so many challenges in creating something from scratch, particularly in a nonprofit format. Our society places much more emphasis on for-profit ventures, and it reflects in almost every aspect of the nonprofit operation. Being small and new also makes it very difficult to secure resources, particularly because there is pretty fierce competition for scarce resources. However, there is another side to that and there are also tremendous rewards. Having the flexibility to make adjustments based on developments in the field and assessments of the most strategic and effective interventions are among the most beneficial aspects of having a small organization.
What do you see as the biggest challenge(s) facing refugees and advocates right now? Has the current political situation opened up any new opportunities?
There are several major challenges. Refugees have been maligned in the media and in political discourse around the world. Instead of recognizing the immense opportunities associated with a mostly young population looking to adapt and start productive lives in new locations, governments have been engaged in a race to the bottom of finding ways to skirt their obligations under international law. We’re witnessing states restricting access to territory and asylum procedures; increasingly relying on detention and limiting freedom of movement; curtailing family reunification programs; limiting educational opportunities and the right to work. Basically, refugees face fewer and fewer options on where they can resume a sense of normalcy to their lives, if and when they leave their home countries.
We as advocates are seeing a shortage of resources to continue our work, particularly long-term development work that goes beyond emergency relief. As a result of the xenophobia and narrow political lens that views migration only as a security issue, we are seeing a shrinking space for civil society to operate and contribute to relief and development efforts in many places around the world.
It is important to note that many people are trying to resist these very troubling developments. That has generated interest, participation, and generous contributions from many actors who were not necessarily as involved on this issue before. We now have more opportunity to engage with the private sector and develop new partnerships as a result. I hope that interest and energy will not fade away.
How did the Stein Scholars Program prepare you for your career since law school?
The Stein Scholars Program helped shape my understanding of the legal field and the opportunities I had to pursue within public interest law. That is extremely important, because I went to law school committed to using my degree to effectuate change, but not knowing how exactly I was going to do that. I don’t think I am different than many people in that regard. Stein exposes students to the practical reality of life after Fordham. And it does so through individuals. The network that I built through Stein remains critical to me today, whether that be in soliciting advice, feedback, support, or as potential interns, fellows, and future hires for RSN.
What advice do you have for current Stein Scholars?
I think as a Stein you should gain as much practical experience as you can outside of FLS in order to help determine what you want to do with your career. Don’t limit yourself to the traditional opportunities. Take advantage of the varied expertise and backgrounds at FLS; reach out to faculty and staff for feedback and guidance and push the Law School to embrace new trends and ideas about what the law can do and what a law degree can provide you. Remember that you can do whatever you want with your education and career—you have to make the effort to get what you want out of the three-year investment in a J.D.