Becca Heller was a student at Yale Law School in 2008 when she and some classmates decided to help Iraqi refugees resettle in the United States and other western countries. From that informal student project grew the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a leading refugee rights organization that leverages law schools and volunteer law firms to help displaced people resettle. The group was on the front lines pushing against President Donald Trump’s travel ban in 2017.
The efforts of Heller, IRAP’s director, have not gone unnoticed. Last week she was named one of 25 MacArthur fellows. Recipients of the so-called MacArthur genius grants receive $625,000. Law.com spoke with Heller about winning the prize, the challenges IRAP faces in today’s political climate, and how law students can pursue their passions to make a difference. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations. What was your reaction when you heard you were selected for the MacArthur Fellowship?
Lots of crying. Amazed, happy tears.
How does the process work? Did you know you were in the running?
No, you don’t know. Everything is totally secret. You get nominated in secret and you get considered in secret. You know nothing about it until you receive a phone call one day telling you you got it. I definitely knew the MacArthur existed. I knew people who had gotten it, so it was on my radar in that sense, but I wasn’t like, “Oh, I might get a MacArthur.”
Did you ever imagine your student project would become a major player in the refugee rights arena?
Not at all. We didn’t even think we were starting our own organization. We just wanted to try and help Iraqi refugees. Even in the first few years of doing IRAP, I didn’t have a long-term vision of what we were doing. I didn’t know how to fundraise. I didn’t know how to run an organization. We were just trying to help as many people as we could. Over time, we realized there was this huge need, and no organization was really out there filling that need. So we took a stab at trying to meet that need.
What’s the single biggest challenge IRAP faces right now?
Definitely geopolitics. The world has, unfortunately, turned against refugees. I think refugees have been politicized by xenophobic governments, both in America and across Europe. The impact on the willingness of the global north to assist refugees either though aid, resettlement or other means has really been hindered. Trying to find what people call “durable solutions” is incredibly challenging right now. The problem of refugees is something that a lot of resource-rich countries don’t want to concern themselves with right now. I think for largely political reasons, because refugees and migrants are convenient scapegoats for failing economics, or a lack of job growth. That’s very difficult to contend with.
What will you spend the $625,000 prize money on?
Really boring things. I have a kid, and my husband also works in public interest law. So child care, mortgage payments. Law school student debt. I just feel like I’m already pursuing my goals at IRAP. I hope I can leverage the attention of the prize into the growth of IRAP as much as possible. This is my goal. I don’t want to leave and write a book. I don’t want to go and start something new. I want to keep doing this.
What advice do you have for law students who are passionate about an issue and want to make a difference?
Just do it. Don’t let anyone stop you. Jump in and do it. You have no idea what you’re capable of until you try. I never would have thought I could do this. It’s still absurd to me that this is what I’m doing. And the recognition is absurd. But I love it. I feel like we’ve been able to help a ton of people and if I hadn’t been crazy enough to think I could do something about it, then nothing would have happened. You just have to jump. You’ll learn as you go. Find smart people and ask for their advice all the time. Know when to be patient and when to be impatient. And thank everyone for everything.