State Department team honored for resettling Afghan refugees

Holly Herrera, Hilary Ingraham and Kiera Berdinner posing together, smiling (© Joshua Roberts)
Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal winners Holly Herrera, Hilary Ingraham and Kiera Berdinner (© Joshua Roberts)

Three State Department employees helped to give more than 72,000 Afghans a chance to build new lives in the United States as part of the largest U.S. resettlement effort in decades.

Hilary Ingraham, Holly Herrera and Kiera Berdinner helped connect Afghan families with safe housing, food, clothing and medical care in cities across America following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021.

In recognition of their efforts, the three received the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal in the Safety, Security and International Affairs category. The awards, also known as the Sammies, honor excellence in the U.S. federal government workforce and are known as the “Oscars” of government service.

The trio work in the department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

‘Enormous effort’

The Afghans were forced to flee their homes because they faced death or imprisonment by the Taliban. Many were interpreters, guides, cooks and civil employees who had risked their lives to help American forces.

“This was an enormous effort, stretching across 331 cities and 49 states,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. “Despite the many challenges thrown their way, from dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic to finding affordable housing at a time when it is in short supply in many places, our team carried out their mission with creativity and compassion.”

Graphic about Sammie award winners that includes photo of three smiling women (© Partnership for Public Service)
(© Partnership for Public Service)

Their work began in August 2021 when Afghan families were staying in temporary facilities hosted by the U.S. military.

Ingraham said there was no template to follow so the trio acted as social workers, refugee advocates and logisticians while leveraging support from businesses and partnering with nonprofit agencies to meet the needs of each family.

As a result of the team’s efforts, more than 72,000 Afghans were resettled into communities across the United States in under five months.

Blinken acknowledged that the stakes were high. “At a moment when the eyes of the world were on you, you stepped up and delivered again and again,” he said.