I write this piece very nearly at the midpoint of our time here in Dublin, with about 27 days behind and 28 ahead. The present writing process then serves cleanly as a time for reflection, a time to step back from the busy, everyday down-in-the-weeds sort of work that can easily run the hours and days together if not broken by a disruptive step back for perspective—from up above the weeds, I suppose. It gives me a time to think about how I have directed my efforts here in the first half of the program, and to refocus on what is most important for me to accomplish in the bigger picture, so that I can feel by the end that I have been successful in my placement.

In a group conversation, we discussed how considering our organization’s theory of change—how it views the way it enacts change in the world—can help us hone in on how we can best contribute. Some organizations have a broad theory of change, one centered around policy or economics. Others have a theory of change with a smaller scope, focused primarily on the needs of individual people.

The Social Work Team for Separated Children Seeking Asylum certainly has the latter. As a result, the team faces the difficulties inherent in working towards change on the micro level, which essentially stem from the individuality of each person. While there are standard regulations that the team must follow, its cases cannot be handled the same way every time, because each young person is different, with a unique set of experiences and needs. A win for the team is meeting the needs of the young person, whatever they may be. Efforts to make change at the macro level, like policy-making, are not complicated by individual differences, as this sort of change is inherently rooted in the perception of issues common to many.

Despite its difficulties, efforts on the level of individual people is distinctly rewarding. Given its focus, it allows you to interact directly with the person you are fighting for and see all the little things that make them who they are. With macro level change, it is hard to know who has been affected, and how.

In line with this observation, my greatest joys (and my greatest challenges) on this trip have come from the people. I know that I can work with numbers and computers, and I know that I can compose documents, but people are much more dynamic than these constants. Two and two make four no matter who does the math. But no two people are the same, and that’s what makes being around people special.

Some of the moments that will stick with me most have come from seeing my Duke peers explain their tasks and difficulties in their placements animatedly, or having discussions with them that challenge the way I think. Others have come from joking with my coworkers, or hearing them talk passionately about issues they face in their efforts to help the young people who have arrived here in Ireland. Others still have come from being with the young people themselves. One prepared for lunch a meal that he used to eat back in his home country and enthusiastically shared it with me as we talked together. Another chatted casually about all the places he has seen and all the languages he knows; it later struck me that these were the countries he had passed through and the languages he was exposed to in his journey from his country to Ireland. Another always comes up to me with a big grin on his face, and it never fails to brighten my day.

All of these little wonders stand out in my mind, each of them because of the people I shared the moment with.


I have just completed my third day at my placement, the Social Work Team for Separated Children, a small group that deals with all minors who arrive in Ireland without an appropriate guardian. This is a formidable task considering that typically upward of 100 of these separated children arrive in the country each year. For each and every child, the team finds a place to live, either a house with other separated children or a foster family, helps to prepare them for schooling in Irish schools, and facilitates the process of application for refugee status.

The team is guided by the principles that each young person is a child first and a migrant second, and that the young people deserve care and opportunity equal to that of Irish children. Already in my first few days with the group, I have seen that the social workers stick to these principles unwaveringly. They do this not because they are always reminding themselves of these principles, but rather because they genuinely care about each young person, and so putting the child first comes naturally. Already I have seen several social workers moved by powerful emotion as they fight to give the young people they work with the best that they can.

One social worker I have spent time with, Rick, told me about the Calais refugee encampment in France. When this encampment, sometimes called the Calais Jungle, was dismantled in 2016, it was discovered that more than a thousand unaccompanied minors had been living there. Ireland generously committed to help, but as of yet the team has been able to take in just over 40 of these separated children.

This reflects Ireland’s role during the European refugee crisis in general. It is a small country with limited resources, so although it can alleviate some pressure, it is not able to take in as many refugees as other European countries, some of which have needed to accept many thousands.

It could be instinctive to conclude, then, that Ireland is not making much of a difference in the grand scheme of the crisis. This is not the only way to look at the situation, though. Rick, referring to Calais, made a comment that stands out in my mind. He noted that while Ireland may not be able to take a large percentage of the separated children from the camp, to each young person taken in it means everything.

Herein lies an issue of magnitude. We tend to think that big impact must be statistical, relating to many individuals’ lives. However, a single person’s life is everything to them. So, when one person’s life is completely altered, how can we call this change small? This is one of those fascinating ideas that is totally obvious even as it is hard to comprehend. There is a critical tension between doing some for a large number of people and doing a great deal for a few, and it is for us to decide whether one of these doesn’t devote greater respect to the complexity of each person’s needs. This is not to say that we need not strive to change many people’s lives, but rather to emphasize the power of focusing our energy on doing good for individuals.

Doing individual good is exactly what this team is best at. In accordance with the team’s guiding principles, each young person is treated as an individual human with unique needs. Bit by bit, this individual good accumulates to something truly special, and through its child-first and equitable approach, the Irish program has been recognized across Europe for its quality.

I look forward eagerly to the weeks ahead with this team.