Interning at UNHCR Ecuador: Julia Tomaso

I am a Political Science and World Islamic Studies student. I am hoping to pursue a Masters in Refugees, Forced Migration, and Displacement as I believe that the issue of refugees today has turned into a critical, socio-political and internationally-charged phenomenon. Therefore, I am extremely grateful for the Susan Casey Brown Fund for McGill, McGill International Experience Awards which has given me the amazing opportunity to pursue an internship at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Quito, Ecuador.

My objectives

To rewind a few steps back, I have always been interested in the domain of human rights advocacy and forced migration, and more specifically the protection of refugee rights in the Middle East. Why the Middle East? The complex history of refugees in Iran sparked my interest since I began studying the Middle East at McGill. ​Given this trajectory, applying for the UNHCR seemed only right.

The UNHCR in Ecuador

Ecuador has historically been a refugee-hosting country possessing some of the most progressive migration and asylum laws in the region. The UNHCR in Ecuador is dedicated to ensuring the protection of refugees, ​forcibly displaced communities and stateless people as well as assisting them in seeking permanent solutions. In its efforts to achieve this objective, UNHCR Ecuador works in partnership with governments, regional organizations, international and non-governmental organizations.

A few years ago, the majority of refugees seeking help from the UNHCR in Ecuador were Colombians, fleeing their country´s enduring civil war with the FARC. However, the trend recently changed with Venezuela’s tremendous human-made humanitarian crisis. The country’s woes have indeed caused a mass exodus of its people; today regarded as the largest exodus in the recent history of Latin America. Thus neighboring Ecuador bore the brunt of the exodus with almost 1 million refugees admitted to the country in 2018.

A Protection and Livelihoods Intern

My internship started off within the Protection unit, identifying potential cases for resettlement, guaranteeing the protection of the refugees’ rights and working alongside UN partners to help their local integration in Ecuador. The position entailed conducting “protection interviews” in order to identify the refugees’ needs and help them with the legal procedure to obtain a visa in Ecuador. I was responsible for collecting and transcribing information into weekly reports to the UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva. As a Protection intern, I gained both eye-opening experience and valuable insight by working directly with refugees.

After a few weeks, I was asked to assume another position on top of the Protection one: Livelihoods intern within the Protection team. The Livelihoods position truly gave me a better economic insight into the local integration of refugees in Quito as well as more opportunity for field experience. I was also in charge of the project “Coursera for Refugees,” allowing refugees to follow free online courses in order to facilitate their integration in the labor market. Working in two different units was definitely challenging but one completed the other.

My Experience

The main highlight of my internship was definitely engaging in the program A GANAR dedicated to the entrepreneurship of young refugees. ​The program was eye-opening in terms of pedagogy and efficiency. Indeed, it combined university classes (​management, sales, finance) ​with life lessons and soft skills taught through the medium of sports. A GANAR was offered to refugees and local Ecuadorians aged 15-25 for 3 months. I helped in raising awareness about the UNHCR’s action, monitored some activities, and independently presented the program to an NGO, ​providing feedback and recommendations for the next year’s A GANAR.

I believe my experience within the UNHCR enabled me to take initiative but also how to manage pressure to work efficiently. Working within the Protection unit was challenging and stressful as I was in direct contact with refugees. Yet I was inspired daily by both the resilience and dedication of those with whom I worked. Listening​ to the refugees’ lives every day is difficult emotionally; some cases are harder than others. However, throughout the internship, I was able to develop a “thick skin” and accept the frustration of sometimes not being able to do anything.

More generally, I broadened my knowledge and understanding of human rights issues. As part of the organization, I was also more aware of communication and advocacy campaigns and how it is coordinated from a local to a global level. 

I left this experience with a deeper understanding of the refugee crisis in Latin America and a more specific idea of what I want to study for my Masters. Again, this opportunity would not have been possible for me without the generous funding from Mr. Garvin Brown.

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