Alumni Interview with Erin Edmiston

This interview was conducted over email with Erin Edmiston, Education Program Officer at CWS Durham, by Maria Alba, a first-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.

Erin began working with refugee and immigrant populations during her time as an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and loved the work so much that she eventually changed job paths from pursuing a PhD in social psychology to working in refugee resettlement full time. She has worked in this field for over a decade, in various capacities at local and state levels. Currently, Erin teaches and manages educational programs for newly arrived refugees and immigrants here in Durham.



How does your work with immigrants and refugees intersect with the advancement of human rights?

I think having the ability and understanding to access basic services such as education, healthcare, food, shelter and work is a human right. These are concepts that I get to discuss with newcomers in the US and to help them start their new lives in the US.

What reform/aid/policies do you feel are necessary for the improvement of the situation refugees and immigrants face when first arriving in the U.S.?

For the system as is, improvements that would greatly improve the situation of refugees when they first get here are first and foremost, more money. Refugee Resettlement Agencies receive very little money to spend on basic goods and services to support refugees for their initial days in the US. The program is designed for refugees to work super fast to financially support themselves. This model brings a lot of financial stress when folks are already under so much pressure to learn a new language, navigate their new community, culture, and often need to attend to physical and mental health needs. Policy reform that would benefit refugees and immigrants are policies that would benefit most people in the US- affordable or universal health care system, free or reduced adult education costs, higher minimum wages, better quality and affordable housing, and easier access to and expanded government public services. 


What do you feel needs to change in order to improve the situation/experiences of immigrant and refugee populations? What policies would help achieve this?

So many things, this is the question that could be a novel and have many volumes as laws, politics and culture changes. I have two overarching versions of policy changes--changing the system and within the system.  

  • System shift
    • Countries stop war profiteering
    • Economies don’t engage in economic systems that exploit people and the earth for profits and productivity
    • Open border policies
  • Within the system 
    • Higher funding levels for resettlement agencies and all segments of the immigration process in order to have adequate staffing levels to handle volume timely and to provide adequate staffing levels to handle volume timely and to provide adequate funding to immigrant populations
    • Expand immigration entry, access and facilities

In my ideal scenario, countries would stop making war to exploit people and the earth to advance their capitalist interests. If countries actually respected human rights, then most refugees as we understand them today, would not exist. 


What can people outside of the refugee community do to get involved and help the cause?

Be informed about issues of migration and immigration and think about why they are an "issue." Be kind and helpful. Donate money or time to refugee and immigration organizations and businesses.  


How did your time at Duke prepare you for a career in human rights?

Duke helped me professionally by expanding my technical and analytical skills, of course. But one of the biggest gifts my time at Duke gave me was peeling back the curtain of International Development, allowing me to understand where my work stands in the system and what needs to be changed for human rights to be actualized internationally.