Gina Starfield ’08

“Growing up as a first-generation American of South African parents, I have long been exposed to the politics and polemics of race, ethnic conflict, and migration. Yet the seeds of my interest in forced migration were first firmly sown at The Rashi School. At Rashi, I became aware of the global plight of refugees and began to recognize that I could make a difference. 

“Reading from Shemot and Ba Midbar in Jewish studies classes, I came to understand the Israelites as “refugees.” My ancestors fled persecution at the hands of Pharaoh and wandered for decades across the desert in search of a homeland. Through Stephanie Rotsky’s leadership of the Tamchui program, I met Francis Bok, a former child slave from Sudan. While I was disheartened by accounts of modern-day slavery, I was inspired by Francis’ intercontinental advocacy. In Glenda Speyer’s 5th grade class, I met Yoko Kawashima Watkins, author of So Far From the Bamboo Grove. Forced at age 11 to flee Korea and live as a refugee in Japan, Yoko demonstrated the immeasurable strength, courage, and resilience, of which a young girl is capable. Rashi nurtured my activism and provided models for positive change, such as Israel’s Yemin Orde Youth Village, initially a safe haven for Holocaust orphans, now a home to children who have survived trauma and forced displacement. 

“Since graduating from Rashi, I have continued to grapple with issues involving child refugees. Inspired by accounts of Yoko, Francis, and others I have met, I focused my senior thesis research on the deleterious practice of detaining unaccompanied Central American children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. 

“The passion ignited during my Rashi days has also informed the practical experience I have sought. Three years ago, I began working on refugee matters in Boston, assisting West African and Central Americans with their asylum applications at the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project. In 2014, I traveled to Kigali, Rwanda and lived with a host family. Immersing myself in Rwandan culture and traditions, I interviewed survivors of the 1994 Genocide and analyzed the justice and reconciliation model implemented by the Rwandan Government. Last summer, I spent ten weeks in Cape Town working one-on-one with asylum seekers and refugees at South Africa’s largest public interest human rights law clinic, the Legal Resources Centre. Through client-lawyer interactions, I learned of the continued struggle facing refugees who must fight to access the rights and services legally afforded them. In New Haven, I have volunteered at Lawyers Without Borders, examining human trafficking and other human rights abuses to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the refugee crisis. 

“These experiences provide a platform to work towards reengineering international refugee law and policy. This summer, I will address policy initiatives at the headquarters of International Organization for Migration in Geneva. In the fall, I will begin a Masters in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University as a Clarendon Scholar. 

“I am enormously grateful to my teachers at Rashi for instilling the value of tikkun olam and for encouraging me to embrace it. The Rashi School’s core principle of tzedek permeates every aspect of the curriculum. It has had a profound influence on me and continues to inspire generations of Rashi students.”

Gina is a Yale graduate. She has worked on human rights abuse and refugee concerns in Boston, New Haven, Kigali, Rwanda, and Cape Town, South Africa. She plans to continue this work, beginning with a position at the International Organization for Migration headquarters in Geneva and has just been accepted to do a Masters in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University starting in the fall.