Interning at UNHCR Guatemala: Dounia Al Jijakli

I am a third-year student at McGill University completing an Honour’s degree in political science. From 3 May to 22 July 2022, I interned remotely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Guatemala, in the Protection Field Unit of Izabal (FUIZ), located in the town of Puerto Barrios.

Working alongside the UNHCR Guatemala has been an incredible opportunity to acquire first-hand experience in humanitarian work related directly to asylum-seekers, refugees, and internally-displaced persons. UNHCR is the organization responsible for determining who qualifies as a refugee according to the 1951 Refugee Convention, its 1967 Protocol, and a number of other regional and national legal instruments. UNHCR’s primary purpose is to provide international protection to refugees, ensure their well-being and safeguard their rights. It aims to find long-term solutions for refugees by working closely with states themselves, and supervises third-country resettlement, local integration or voluntary repatriation.

The UNHCR branch I was part of, UNHCR Guatemala, deals with refugeehood and forced displacement in Central America, where asylum-seekers and refugees often flee from organized gang and criminal violence, sexual violence and persecution. More specifically, Guatemala has represented both an important crossing point for Honduran and Salvadorian refugees continuing the journey North to Mexico or the United States, and a place of settlement for a small number of them. FUIZ, like other UNHCR units, is responsible for determining who qualifies as a refugee according to the 1951 Convention and the 1984 Cartagena Convention. FUIZ members are also in charge of referring protection cases of Guatemalans at risk to the central government to ensure that they be resettled in a third country through Protection Transfer Arrangements (PTAs).

As an intern, I conducted research on asylum processes for Guatemalans at risk in the regions of Izabal and Alta Verapaz eligible for PTAs and for non-Guatemalans crossing into Guatemala. I updated the UNHCR’s activity sheet to reflect FUIZ’s recent protection effort, response to basic needs, and solutions to secure livelihoods for vulnerable populations in the region. I took part in assessing the eligibility for PTA of two asylum-seekers from Guatemala. I was also responsible for writing an informative note on the identification and establishment of community representatives for asylum seekers and refugees to promote their participation in Community Councils for Urban and Rural Development in Izabal. Moreover, on a weekly basis, I had to conduct weekly media monitoring of information related to persons of interest to the UNHCR in Izabal, Alta Verapaz and Honduras and would take minutes during FUIZ’ weekly meeting. Finally, I completed UNHCR mandatory training on refugees, internally displaced and stateless persons, protection operations, prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse; and completed optional training on protection in armed conflict, mixed movements, and human rights mechanisms.

Assessing cases of international protection was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my internship. I loved being able to reflect on whether the case I was presented with fell under the 1951 or 1984 Conventions. I also felt that my contribution could potentially change someone’s destiny, which meant that I was doing meaningful work. Another highlight of my internship was attending the meeting given by the High Commissioner himself, Filipo Grandi, to all UNHCR interns. During that meeting, I was lucky enough to ask him a question, which in spite of being very intimidating, was the opportunity of a lifetime to address a United Nations Senior Official of his stature.

A zoom meeting
Dounia Al Jijakli during her internship with UNHCR Guatemala

Finally, joining a team of incredibly devoted humanitarians was probably the greatest highlight of this internship and has represented a humbling learning experience. I learned from workers who have dedicated their entire careers to delivering protection in Central America and beyond. From the outset, all team members were extremely welcoming and did their best to make us feel integrated. I felt very touched when one day, the whole team had lunch in the office’s patio and the Head of the Field Unit, Nicolás, coordinated with a restaurant in Montréal to have food delivered to us interns, so that we could share the meal with them, even if remotely.

The greatest challenge I encountered was having to complete the entire internship remotely. Indeed, I would have loved being able to go to Guatemala and experience working there in person as protection is often carried out directly on the field. Doing this internship remotely has taken away some opportunities for us to have direct contact with persons of interest to the UNHCR or take part in the visits that took place with personnel from the national office or international UNHCR staff. To remedy that, FUIZ members constantly shared pictures and updates on field missions. I also always tried to remain involved as much as possible with my colleagues and offer them help or assistance with their tasks, which definitely improved my whole experience.

Overall, I feel extremely fortunate to have done this internship with the UNHCR. I had always wished to work in the humanitarian field but was not aware of what a job in the field would concretely entail. It has thus confirmed my desire to follow such a career path, and strive to gain more field experience in the future. Moreover, while representing a concrete experience, this internship has also allowed me to further my academic knowledge on migration and refugeehood and has represented a great addition to the theoretical content that some of the political science classes that I took at McGill have provided me with. This internship has thus represented a great addition to my university experience and even enhanced it. Finally, I did not receive any academic credit for the internship, but received funding. I benefitted from the RBC Internship Award. The award undoubtedly helped me maximize my experience as part of the UNHCR as it allowed to solely focus on my internship without having to work at the same time. I am very grateful for the RBC Internship Award.

To conclude, I feel extremely grateful for the opportunity I was given and would like to thank my incredible supervisors, Nicolás Rodríguez Serna and Raquel Casellato, who warmly welcomed and integrated me into the team, took the time to meet with me, and answered all of my questions on a regular basis, and for whom I have developed the utmost respect. I would also like to warmly thank the whole FUIZ team for their time, energy and support throughout these three months: Joel Antonio Cordon Suazo, Amalia Caal Coc, Marjorie Aldana, Jaqueline Recinos, Damaris Hernandez, Jorge Luis Salguero, Larry Quintana, Juan Manuel Bautista and Penelope Fernandez-Busto. Thank you FUIZ!

Dounia and Pénélope at a café
FUIZ interns, Penelope Fernandez-Busto and Dounia Al Jijakli

Back to top