The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Interview with Linda Hartke, President and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

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Linda Hartke, President and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, met with students for a coffee hour on Friday, September 25, to discuss the refugee crisis and immigration issues. Before this discussion, Linda sat down with Niki Bakhru ’17 for an interview.

Linda Hartke discusses immigration and her work at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services with students.

Ms. Hartke’s passion led her on a path from Smith College in Massachusetts to Washington DC, overseas to Cambodia and Geneva, and finally to where she works today in New York. Her journey began when she found her first job on a commuter train to Boston, where she met Chester Atkins, her state senator and chairman of the Democratic Party by chance. He invited her to volunteer at the Democratic Convention in 1980 and, shortly after, she was offered a job to work for her state’s party.

Linda helped run Chester Atkin’s campaign for Congress and later became his chief of staff in DC While working there, Linda encountered many Cambodian refugees, separated from their families, thousands of miles away from their home countries. Much of her work led her to travel to refugee camps in places such as Vietnam and Laos.

“I went to the camps, knowing I would see the separated mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers of constituents in my district,” says Linda. “I would take video footage of these family members to their home countries. Once, an elderly woman who saw her granddaughter on camera for the first time became so overwhelmed that she fell on the dirt floor, crying and cradling the monitor.”

During her seven years working on Capitol Hill, Linda grew to realize that her passion resided in approaching these migrants’ issues from a service and policy side, leading her to the next step in her path: tenure with Church World Service (CWS) in Cambodia.

Linda worked initially as the CWS country director, responsible for returning and reintegrating refugees, and later as director of programs and operations at the CWS New York Headquarters. Over time, her pursuits led her to her current position as President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, where she today spends her time traveling and speaking to community groups, churches, partner organizations, and refugees themselves.

“A lot of my work is supporting those who reach out to me, having conversations about priorities, and discovering where I can be helpful in moving things ahead,” says Linda.

Linda’s hopes for the future include a nation in which all refugees and migrants will be embraced, protected and empowered. To achieve this, communities themselves must be transformed. Linda promotes integration as a necessary process not only for immigrants new to the country, but also for the community that receives them.

“There are not enough places of safety in the world at the moment for those who flee violence and persecution,” says Linda. “These people need to begin to be able to rebuild their lives in a new community and new country. In the end, the key principle is keeping families together.”
-Written by Niki Bakhru '17, Student Program Assistant

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences