2015 Summer Interns

The Schull Yang International Experience Award, supported by Joseph Schull (BA ‘82, MA ’85) and Anna Yang (BCL, LLB ’88), helps undergraduate and graduate students gain first hand international experience related to their fields of study. The award provides full or partial funding to assist students with tuition, travel, and other expenses related to their international experience. The Schull Yang International Experience Award is part of the McGill International Experience Awards. For more information, click here.

The Internship Offices Network is pleased to announce the selected McGill students for the 2015 summer internship at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Ecuador, and the recipient of the Schull Yang International Experience Award, Avrah Levitan-Cooper.

Avrah Levitan-Cooper, BCL/LLB

Avrah will be interning with the UNHCR in Quito, Ecuador. She will be working with monitoring the Comprehensive Solutions Initiative currently being implemented in the region. She is entering her second year at McGill Law in the fall, having completed her undergraduate at McGill in Political Science. She has an interest in policy and development in Latin America and this internship combines her knowledge of the region with her background in law.

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My name is Avrah Levitan-Cooper and I am entering my second year at McGill Law. I previously completed a degree in Political Science with a minor in Spanish at McGill. I worked in the summer of 2015 as an intern at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Quito, Ecuador. My main objective in applying for this internship was to blend my interest in international politics with law.

The UNHCR is an organ of the United Nations and has a mandate to protect refugees, returnees, internally displaced persons, stateless persons and asylum seekers, safeguard their rights, and ensure they have the protection of a state. It was established in 1950 in the wake of the Second World War by the United Nations General Assembly and in 2010, the organization celebrated its 60th birthday with a mandate to last until there are no more refugees. It won a Nobel peace prize in 1954 and is currently very active in 21st century conflict zones including Syria and Colombia.

As an intern I worked in the programmes section of the Field Office of Pichincha. Programmes works principally with local NGO partners in order to help with local integration, access to services such as legal services and health care, combating discrimination, working on strategies to alleviate extreme poverty and increasing opportunities of employment through seeking hiring partners and facilitating training programmes. My main project was to develop a report outlining the challenges to refugees in accessing legal resources for domestic violence survivors and health care for the HIV/AIDS population. I conducted interviews and surveys amongst the refugee population to determine which barriers they encounter when trying to gain access to state-provided resources. For example, people will be denied health care in the hospital due to ‘incorrect identification or immigration papers’ or simply due to discrimination. For example, there was one circumstance where a woman was on the point of giving birth, and a hospital refused to help her. She was forced to get into a taxi, go to the NGO who was assisting her, and have their legal representative come to the hospital and force them to attend to her. Another example, more generally, is that employers, regardless of an individual’s legal ability to work, refuse to hire refugees from misunderstanding, lack of education or stigma.

The hardest parts of my internship were also the most rewarding. My biggest challenges were the stories. I heard recounts of terrible abuse and suffering from children, from mothers as they cradled their babies, and from young women exactly my age. It struck me how fortunate I am. For example, a young girl and her mother escaped Colombia after the murder of her father. When they arrived in Ecuador, the mother fell victim to extreme domestic abuse and was beaten to death. The young girl, also severely beaten, was hospitalized. Once released, the newly orphaned eight year old was completely alone and was placed into foster care. She became a UNHCR emergency and, following an investigation into her family, they discovered a grandmother who had been resettled as a refugee in Quebec several years prior. Finally the girl was relocated to Canada to live with her grandmother. Now she attends school, has started to learn French and English, and is adjusting well to unbelievable and seemingly insurmountable circumstances. Simply put, I was struck beyond words at the strength, the kindness, the compassion and the courage of the people I met. I will be truly changed and inspired by them for the rest of my life. 

I am receiving academic credit for both my participation in the summer placement as well as for a paper I will write throughout the fall semester of 2015, supervised by François Crépeau. The topic of my paper will be access to state resources and discrimination for refugees living in Ecuador. This internship has taught me so much about the world of humanitarian law and I hope to do further work in it during my academic career.

This amazing experience would not have been possible without the McGill International Experience Award generously supported by Mr. Joseph Schull and Ms. Anna Yang. This experience was life-changing for me and I extend to them my warmest and most sincere gratitude for their generosity. You are truly changing the lives and paths of young people year after year, thank you.

Avrah and Jonathan at the United Nations building's main entrance.


Jonathan Lopez, BA International Development Studies and Political Science

Jonathan will be interning at the UNHCR in Ecuador, which hosts the largest refugee population in Latin America. Jonathan is passionate about international relations and diplomacy whereby he has been involved in Model United Nations both as delegate and committee director. He looks forward to contributing his administrative and public relations skills to the agency as well as getting the most out of this unique experience in order to keep building up his personal and professional development.

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Being born and raised in Medellin, Colombia allowed me to feel particularly interested in this internship opportunity since 98% of all refugees in Ecuador come from my country of origin. I moved to Canada in 2012 and went to Dawson College into General Social Sciences. There, I joined the Model United Nations team and participated in conferences in Canada and in the U.S. I am currently pursuing a double major in International Development Studies and Political Science at McGill University as I am passionate about international relations and diplomacy.

During my internship, I wanted to get an insight into the work environment at the United Nations. In addition, I wanted to help refugees improve their living conditions while learning about the different UNHCR projects and activities in the country.

The UNHCR in Ecuador hosts the largest refugee population in Latin America. It tries to find durable solutions to the constant number of asylum seekers entering the country. Local integration, resettlement, and repatriation are some of the most frequent ones—local integration the most preferred by the UNHCR as the agency funds and promotes financial education courses, entrepreneurship workshops, and the creation of associations and small businesses.

As an intern, I was in charge of two main projects. First, I was monitoring the development of the financial education modules being offered by a private financial institution. These courses were taught in different cities across Ecuador and both refugees and asylum seekers were welcomed to attend them. I personally attended one of these modules on family budget and found it very interesting and helpful. Furthermore, I surveyed the participants in order to find out their background, occupation, previous knowledge on the matter, and comments on the content of this course. Additionally, I asked for feedback from the facilitator who teaches the courses in several cities in order to have a more complete vision. Finally, I wrote a report with my recommendations and comments as to how to improve the material and the long-term impact of this project. Second, I assessed Public Policies in Ecuador regarding Housing, Health, and Education for refugees and migrants, finding some contradictions between what the Constitution of Ecuador says and what some public and private bodies do in reality. Additionally, I carried out another survey to a group of refugees and asylum seekers in order to find out their knowledge of such laws and policies. Unfortunately, their awareness of their rights is insufficient and that contributes to the violation of their rights and favorable policies at the national level. Lastly, I was able to interview a refugee who was successful in starting up his own business, and published his story on the UNHCR website.

The confidence my supervisor entrusted in me while delegating some tasks is definitely to be highlighted. I was trusted with important and interesting projects while managing my own time and agenda.

During my internship in Ecuador, I was challenged by some cultural differences that I overcame by observing local customs, interactions, manners, etc., so that I could get used to them promptly. Additionally, I had to undertake some safety measures like not wearing a watch, not taking out my phone on the street, and not taking the bus after 7pm in order to avoid becoming an easy target for potential thieves.

During the fall 2015 term, I will be receiving McGill credits for writing a research paper about my internship under the supervision of Professor Uli Locher from the Department of Sociology. As a tentative topic, we have talked about the diverse challenges of Latin American refugees in Ecuador.

This internship has helped me reinforce my vision of working with the United Nations in the near future since I was fascinated by the idea of having the means to cause a real impact in people’s lives at a scale that only large international organizations like the UN can afford to do. Additionally, I was able to strengthen my passion for international relations, diplomacy, and social work. I am already planning on doing a Masters in International Relations and Public Policy while getting involved in future internship, research, and job opportunities related to the UN.

I have to tremendously thank Mr. Joseph Schull and Ms. Anna Yang for partially funding the expenses related to flight tickets, accommodation, food, transportation, etc. during my internship at the UNHCR in Ecuador. This opportunity has been of great importance to my personal and professional development and it was possible thanks to your help.

Jonathan with some members of ASOPROTEXMUR, a local textile association conformed by women refugees, at their workplace.