As co-founder and executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, Becca Heller provides legal assistance to refugees trying to emigrate to the United States. Her organization directly fought the Trump administration’s travel ban with a federal lawsuit that has saved thousands of people from discriminatory travel restrictions. We talked to Heller about her path to founding IRAP, how she runs it day to day, and her problem with following drawn-out processes.
Location: New York, NY
Current gig: Co-Founder and Executive Director of the International Refugee Assistance Project
Current computer: MacBook Air
Current mobile device: iPhone
One word that best describes how you work: Multitasking
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
In the summer of 2008, between my first and second years at Yale Law School, I was fortunate enough to go to Jordan and meet with six Iraqi refugee families. I felt that as a U.S. citizen, I bore some responsibility for the humanitarian fallout of the Iraq War. I wanted to see the refugee crisis for myself.
To my surprise, one of the biggest challenges facing most of the families was legal: They couldn’t go back to Iraq because something terrible would happen to them, they couldn’t remain in Jordan because it was unlivable for refugees, and their only hope was to get resettled to a safe third country (such as the U.S., Canada or Australia). But in order to do that, they had to go through an incredibly complex, arduous and ultimately arbitrary bureaucratic legal process.
I thought to myself, if I were to go through a legal trial and my life depended on the outcome, the thing I would want the most would be a good lawyer. So I went back to school and, along with a group of other students, started IRAP to provide legal aid to refugees all over the world trying to find secure, legal ways to get their families to safety. Today, we have impacted over 200,000 displaced people.
Take us through a recent work day.
Today, I spent a lot of time preparing for our first ever major fundraising event, on May 7 at Jazz at Lincoln Center, hosted by John Oliver. I worked on the script and run of show.
I also spent time planning out a possible pilot with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help unaccompanied children in Northern Africa reunite with their parents in Europe. We hope to launch a pilot in a couple of months.
I prepared my notes to our board, because our board meeting is the same day as the event, so there’s a lot of prep to do for that meeting. I reviewed a bunch of budget documents and asked my assistant a lot of stupid questions about technology.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
It’s basic, but Spotify and headphones. I like to have a soundtrack all the time, especially in New York City where you walk everywhere.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I have a desk, but I use it for my feet while I type on my laptop in my lap. We’re going to set up a couch. I just ordered a globe mobile for the ceiling, which I am excited about. There’s a big window with a view of a community garden, which I gaze at longingly while I wish I were less alienated from the products of my labor.
What’s your favorite shortcut or hack?
Black pajamas as business attire. This may not actually be a hack. Maybe people are just being polite to me when I look sloppy.
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.
I’m pretty bad at processes. I’ve managed to hire people who are really good at them and they keep me in line. I’m the person who’s always like, why do we have to follow this process? Can’t we just do the thing? And as we’ve grown bigger over the years, I’ve realize the value of processes. But I’m still not great at following them.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
IRAP is a team sport. Our staff is amazing. I rely on pretty much everyone to go way above and beyond whatever would ordinarily be expected of them. We all rely on each other for moral support, because this is really hard work to do in very challenging times. We do a lot of work in teams to make sure we get a variety of opinions and inputs, and I think it makes the product better (as long as you can manage the meetings individually and not waste peoples’ time).
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
A combination of Sticky Notes, Google Calendar, never having more than 29 emails in my inbox, and a lot of obsessive compulsive/neurotic behavior. I also have a really, really good team behind me sending me reminders and making sure I never need to be reminded to do something twice.
How do you recharge or take a break?
I am really bad at that. It is a problem. It tends to be pretty binary—I work and then go home and play with my kid and with my husband, and then every once in a while I take a week or two and flee the country for some place really different and adventurous to me and get lost in all the newness. This is probably not sustainable, but it keeps things interesting. The last place I went to was Sri Lanka and it was beautiful and fascinating. What is going on there now is devastating.
What’s your favorite side project?
Encouraging my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter to be her most tenacious, badass, curious and kind self.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. It’s a riveting page-turner, the writing is beautiful, and it’s one of the best representations of the refugee resettlement experience I’ve come across.
Can you share a music playlist you’ve made, whether for working or elsewhere?
Becca Heller’s playlist 2019 [featuring Prince, Kendrick Lamar, and Beach House.]
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Know when to be patient and when to be impatient.
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
The ongoing scapegoating of refugees and migrants by our administration and alt-right governments around the world for economic problems that have nothing to do with migration. Until we can change the overall narrative, these hateful and xenophobic policies will continue. I desperately hope that putting children in cages is the end and not the beginning.