Sarah Wayne Callies Raises Awareness For Refugees, Talks Motherhood

A strong advocate in raising awareness for worldwide refugees, Sarah Wayne Callies says she feels “privileged” to be a Voice for the International Rescue Committee‘s Wake Up Campaign.

The Walking Dead actress, 34, opens up to Celebrity Baby Scoop about being “pretty protective” of her nearly 5-year-old daughter Keala, balancing her career and charity work with home life, and the joys of motherhood. The Prison Break alum goes on to discuss the IRC’s Mother’s Day campaign and “bridging the gap” with impoverished mothers she hopes to empower.

CBS: Tell us about being a Voice for the International Rescue Committee‘s Wake Up Campaign and spokesperson for Mother’s Day Rescue Gifts. What is the campaign all about and what is your role?

SWC: “My work with the IRC is something that means so much to me; I feel privileged to be able to work with them. My grandfather came to this country as a refugee, and he had quite a terrible time with it. Being part of a group that reaches out to people in the refugee circumstance and helps them get to the United States is something that matters so much to me.

The Mother’s Day campaign is such a smart way of helping people get involved. Just through my experience, when it comes to refugee work, I think a lot of people see a huge overwhelming problem and feel like there is nothing they can do. I think that a lot of people who want to help end up looking away from the problem because they look at the magnitude of it and think, ‘How can I possibly make a difference?’ The IRC has been doing this since 1933—they know how to make a palpable difference.

To break it down, the Mother’s Day campaign sees how this amount of money can provide prenatal care for pregnant women. This amount of money can provide safe labor delivery services, etc. They break things down so that people can have a clearer sense of how they can help one step at a time instead of looking at the whole magnitude of the problem and saying, ‘Aggh this is too much, overwhelming!’ and tuning out.

For myself, Mother’s Day comes up and I think, ‘What can I possibly give my mother and my mother-in-law that I haven’t given them already?’ My mom doesn’t particularly like flowers, and my mother-in-law is trying to lose weight and doesn’t want chocolate. You think, ‘What can I do to make a difference?’ With the Mother’s Day campaign, you can go online to the website at and there is a list of different donation amounts and what they can provide. For example, I think it is $50 for prenatal care for pregnant women. It is very linked to motherhood.

We are in a time where we all recognize that there is so much need in the world, but so many of us are not financially in a position to be as generous as we want to be because of the negative economy. This campaign allows us all to participate in generosity in the name of Mother’s Day.

In my experiences of telling people about the IRC, everybody wants to help and get involved, but, as I said, it can be overwhelming to figure out how to do that. I have a friend from Baghdad who really wants to reach out to people who are fleeing Iraq right now, but he doesn’t know how to do that. So he contacted me and I put him in touch with the people on the ground in Jordan running the IRC refugee camps for the Iraqi refugees. It is a way to plug into an organization that really knows what it is doing. Whatever it is that we can do, whether it is time, services, donations, or whatever, it is a way of plugging that into an organization you know is going to do the most good and reach people.

My role as a Voice is to brag about the IRC because they are so modest that they don’t brag about themselves. I worked with them as a donor and a volunteer for about ten years before they even had a program that asks a few celebrities to speak about them a little more. It is huge! Their operating budget is enormous and they work in over forty countries around the world and in over twenty two U.S. cities, and yet, I think they are the best-kept secret in the non-profit world.

They are not out there at the forefront saying, ‘Look at me, look at me, look at me!’ I really respect that modesty, but at the same time, I know people need to talk about them more. People can’t get involved if they don’t know the organization exists. I think a lot of people really want to get involved! It was kind of interesting that they came to me when I just started working on The Walking Dead. It pairs with that show really well, because the story of The Walking Dead is essentially a refugee story. So it all kind of came together.”

CBS: You also just returned from visiting Thai camps and assisting Burmese refugees with the International Rescue Committee. Can you tell us about the experience?

SWC: “It was completely unlike anything I had been expecting. Often when you think of refugee camps, you get these images of squalor, disease, flies buzzing around open sewers and malnourished children. That absolutely exists in the world, and the IRC is working in those areas too. I went to one of the oldest refugee camps in the world, which is around twenty years old. I saw what twenty years of the IRC’s investment and work there has done; I basically saw a small city of 14,000 people. Yet, there were no problems with infectious diseases…in a place that could easily be ravaged by malaria, typhoid, and everything else. People were in very good health. I don’t think they had lost a baby in six months.

I saw that what the IRC has been doing and what the donors have been contributing for are working, which was amazing! There were still big problems with alcoholism, domestic violence, and rape. It is not the perfect place, but it is being run with an efficiency, cleanliness, and great attention to the refugees. This made me so proud to be a part of the organization.”

CBS: Last summer you also volunteered as a mentor for a family from one Burmese minority ethnic group, the Karen. Can you tell us about it?

SWC: “That was an amazing experience. The family had been resettled in January of last year, around fifteen months ago. The IRC services last for a few months, and once the services are over, the organization looks for a family to pair them with. We volunteered to be paired with the family. We just basically hung out on Saturdays…it was interesting to me, because it didn’t feel like we were doing anything. It didn’t feel like we were doing this great service and expending a huge amount of time and exhausting ourselves for this family; we were literally just hanging out on Saturday mornings.

What I realized was that the mother and father had spent fifteen years in a refugee camp. They had never lived in the United States, driven a car, or worn shoes with laces, and all of a sudden they show up in the U.S. and everything is new. It was great to sit around and work with them on English language skills, help them figure out the bus system, and teach the mom how to cook American food because she couldn’t find all of the ingredients for the traditional food she was used to cooking.

The simplest and most basic things made such a huge difference to them, because everything was brand-new. I think that just extending the welcome was important; there are hundreds of thousands of people all over the world who are dying for the opportunity, some literally dying, to be American. We have the great luxury of taking that for granted everyday. They were so grateful to be here, and I was glad to open the door, welcome them, and say, ‘Hey, you have friends here. Count us among your friends, and if you need something, let us know.’ ”

CBS: Tell us about your daughter, Keala. How old is she, and what is she in to?

SWC: “To be honest, I don’t talk too much about her because I am pretty protective of her. She is four going on five, and she is not in my business. I want to protect her from it as much as I can for as long as I can [laughs].”

CBS: Do you have any favorite memories with your daughter that you would like to share?

SWC: “I will tell you one fond memory that occurred when we were with the refugee family. I brought over stuff to make cookies; the easiest cookie recipe in the world that has three ingredients. You have to take graham crackers and bash them into crumbs. The refugee family has a bunch of young kids, and kids just love bashing the living daylights out of a bunch of crackers [laughs]. I was going through the kitchen with the mom, trying to figure out which tools we had for the activity. She had this big metal bowl and a wooden bamboo tool that was like a pestle; I guess it was traditional and she brought it with her from Thailand.

I had my version on how to make the cookies, but the kids took one look at the bowl, dumped the crackers into it, and squatted down with their feet on the floor and their butts on the ground in a circle around the bowl on the kitchen floor. They started bashing the crackers exactly the way I saw people doing it in the refugee camp. My daughter took one look at them and decided that way was much more fun than how we used to make cookies. She got on the floor with them and they were all passing this pestle around, bashing the crackers. The next time we made cookies at home, she was like, ‘Mommy! Can we do it on the floor?!’ I was like, ‘Sure!’ We mopped the floor first and we sat on the floor, bashing our crackers into cookies.”

CBS: How does being a mother shape your experiences of what you have seen and learned while visiting the International Rescue Committee’s programs?

SWC: “I think that being a mom closes the gaps between me and a lot of people, especially the women and mothers, that I met in the refugee camps. It is easy to think that we are so different. We are really different in a lot of ways, but I think there is something very fundamental that unites all parents. We are all trying to create good people, keep them safe, keep them healthy, and help them grow.

Rather than spending time in each refugee camp feeling separate or like I was visiting a zoo, seeing these exotic people in their exotic locations, I felt right at home, especially in the first day. We were visiting the maternity ward. Women were coming in and out of prenatal care, and women were coming in to weigh their brand-new babies, just the way my midwife weighed my baby. There is an immediate sense of recognition in one another.

Often when I am talking to people, whether it is through an interpreter or in the English language classes, one of the first questions they would ask me is, ‘Do you have kids?’ As soon as I replied with ‘Yes,’ they would light up and we’d have something to talk about. ‘How old is your daughter?’ ‘She is four.’ ‘Oh, my son is three years old and I can’t keep up with him!’ ‘I know…it’s exhausting!’ It is the same conversation that you have with a mom you meet on the playground. It bridges the gap.”

CBS: How do you balance motherhood, your career, and your work with the International Rescue Committee?

SWC: “Honestly, I don’t feel like I do [laughs]. I feel like I am usually out of balance. My high school and grandfather really emphasized service, and I want my daughter to grow up with that component of her life from the beginning. I guess it feels like something that you naturally make room for. I think that my work with the IRC and parenting are really good for me as an actor; they put things in perspective. I love what I do for a living, but if I am not careful I can take it too seriously.

No matter how overwhelming, frustrating, or scary my day is as an actor, at the end of the day working with refugees is really a reminder that it is just television. I think that story telling is sacred; I believe in acting and think it is an important part of every culture, but it is just make-believe.

My daughter can’t believe that my job is to dress up and pretend. She was about three when I broke down to her what I do for a living. She looked at me and went, ‘You mean what we’re doing right now?!’ She was into The Princess Bride at the time, and we were pretending to be Wesley and Buttercup. She was Wesley and saving me, Buttercup…doing that whole thing. She kind of looked at me like, ‘You have got to be joking! You do this for a living?!’ It cracked me up, because I had to agree to it; I said, ‘Yeah, I get paid for dressing up and doing make-believe all day.’ It is a great perspective, because you can’t take that too seriously due to what you have on your hands at home. You are trying to raise a human being at home and trying to work with the refugee situation to the best of your ability. It is a lot.”

CBS: What do you like most about being a mother?

SWC: “I think the creativity; I get bored easily, and there is no boredom in taking care of a four-year-old [laughs]. A huge part of my job is finding things to feed her brain and creativity. That is so much fun! I remember the day I realized that she was old enough to bake with me. I thought, this is a whole new world! Now we do that probably once a week.

We started working on fractions together naturally out of ½ of a teaspoon, ¼ of a teaspoon, and 1/8 of a teaspoon. It makes things so much fun. I think that motherhood is one of the most creative jobs I have ever had. It is amazing to take a look at where my daughter’s brain and spirit are and try to stay a few steps ahead of that so I am always pushing her and exposing her to something new. It is remarkable…no two days are the same.”

CBS: What are your plans for Mother’s Day?

SWC: “When is Mother’s Day? I haven’t even thought about it [laughs]. Oh it’s in May…I will be working [laughs]. I will be in Atlanta, so I guess I will get together with Andy Lincoln, who plays my husband on the show; his wife is a great friend of mine and our daughters play together. I will probably grab her and a couple of the other mom friends that I’ve made in town and play with our kids in the morning and then let their fathers take care of them and drink mimosas and sit in the sunshine for a while [laughs]. Have some ‘Mom Time’. Thanks for the reminder…I should probably get on making cards for my mom and that kind of thing with my daughter.

I miss those holidays; I am one of those people that won’t remember it is Valentine’s Day until 12:30 p.m. the day of. I miss them. I [had] a huge Easter egg hunt…Easter is a holiday that I love. I just love chocolate and I love the woods. We’ve got ten acres behind the house, and we [had] a few dozen people over. We’ll just go crazy with eggs, chocolate, dogs, hiking, and children [laughs].”

CBS: What are your favorite memories of summer vacation as a child? What do you plan to do with your family this summer?

SWC: “I lived in Hawaii, so it would have to be the beach. We had a fun tradition where we would try to watch the sun rise over the water and then drive to the other side of the island and watch the sun set. My hair was constantly a mess of salt, seaweed, and sand [laughs]. Gosh, I loved summers and lived for them as a kid. My parents were professors at a university, so they had summers off too. We were constantly outside; I think we went inside just to sleep and to raid the fridge for food to take outside. We would do a lot of kayaking and other fun summer activities. I have a lot of memories of kayaking with my dad and seeing sea turtles all around. Just incredible.

That is another thing about being a mom—at a certain point, especially in the summers here, we are constantly in the water. There is this beautiful lake with rivers, and we lived on an island in the pacific northwest with water everywhere. My daughter, husband, and I all love swimming; we are water people. At a certain point you look over and realize that these are going to be the memories that you have when you are in college and get homesick—this is going to be what you are homesick for; this is going to be what sustains you. Realizing that you are providing the spine of someone’s memories, identity, and joy is incredible.

In regard to this year’s summer plans with the family, we shoot The Walking Dead in the summer. There will be a lot of work for me, but we are going to do a lot of camping. My daughter is old enough now to get up in the woods in Georgia. I am a big fan of the truck, the dog, the tent, and the hiking. My husband is intent on teaching our daughter fishing, and they started fishing a little last year. She will be five in the summer and will be a little older. With luck we can put her to work, get her fishing, build a fire, and have her catch dinner for us [laughs].

Summertime is outside-time, so I imagine that this summer will be spent mostly outside. I also believe her grandmother promised her her first trip to Disneyland. I’m not sure I want to be anywhere near when it happens, but I think she will get that [laughs].”


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