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On the Frontlines: First Contact

Photo of Shereen Russell

After graduating from Northeastern with a degree in international affairs, Shereen Russell earned her master’s in public affairs and has since devoted her career to providing language, cultural, and employment training to help refugees begin productive lives in their new home.

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve cried at work,” says Shereen Russell, while describing the horrifying stories she hears from refugees who have fled the most troubled places on earth.

For seven years, Russell, AS’00, worked as a case worker, language instructor, and job training developer at the International Institute of Boston. But rather than run from the trauma of others, she accepted a new job with greater responsibility at Jewish Vocational Services of Boston, where she continues to work with refugees on a daily basis.

“I was talking to a young man from South Sudan recently, and when I asked him to tell me something about his family, he hesitated.”

It was one of the many standard questions she asked all new arrivals as part of the English language proficiency evaluation at the International Institute. But as Russell points out,
there are no innocuous questions for someone who has been through brutal trauma.

“He hesitated, then told me that when the militia raided his village, he had to watch while they raped and killed his 13-year-old sister and shot his father in the head. The next question I had to ask the man was, ‘Do you like shopping?’”

Although the daily parade of tragedy can be daunting at times, that only makes the successes even more satisfying for Russell. One Iraqi family immediately comes to mind.

“I was a case manager at the time, and they were in a desperate situation,” she recalls.

Shortly before they came to America, the father died unexpectedly, leaving the mother on her own to make the journey with her five children. She had no job, spoke no English, and the entire family was distraught over the father’s death. Meanwhile, the oldest boy was overwhelmed by the responsibility of suddenly becoming the man of the house in a strange country.

“He struck me right away as someone who had great potential,” says Russell. “He was smart, outgoing, and had good English language skills.”

Russell bent the agency rules to enroll the young man in a training program he didn’t technically qualify for. Her efforts paid off when he graduated first in his class and landed a job at the front desk of a luxury Harvard Square hotel. He’s now taking college classes in finance and applying for management positions.

After graduating from Northeastern with a degree in international affairs, Russell earned her master’s in public affairs and has since devoted her career to providing language, cultural, and employment training to help refugees begin productive lives in their new home.

“These jobs are very rewarding,” she says. “You can help someone who is in a desperate position find a job or help someone who is earning $9 an hour advance to $18 an hour. It’s an opportunity to change a person’s life.”

The path from desperation to assimilation is one that carries special resonance for Russell, whose family emigrated from Jamaica. “They were an upper-middle-class family in Jamaica, but when they arrived here, my grandmother cleaned houses. Some of the refugees I work with were vice presidents and professionals in their home country. But when they get here and speak no English, they have to wash dishes. I understand how humbling that can be.”

By Bill Ibelle. This story was originally published in Northeastern Magazine. See more at: http://www.northeastern.edu/magazine/on-the-frontlines-first-contact/#sthash.Dpplb9y1.dpuf

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