What were your initial steps following graduation from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and what drove you to work as an advocate for women, children and refugees?
After graduating from law school I began working in a large corporate law firm in Toronto. I soon realized that this was not for me, but had no idea what to do next. So I took a leave of absence from the firm, spent the summer learning to sail, winter backpacking and sailing in Asia and South America, and never looked back.
My incredible experiences during my travels opened up the world for me and a desire to work in the field of human rights, but I was unsure how to get there. So, after returning to Toronto, I went to see the then Dean of the Law School, Rob Pritchard, for advice. He encouraged me to take my LL.M at the Faculty of Law, which had just initiated a new international human rights programme the previous year.
As an LL.M student at the Faculty of Law, you were an IHRP fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Human Rights in Oslo, Norway. How would you describe that experience?
Working at the Norwegian Institute for Human Rights was a wonderful opportunity, as it enabled me to combine academic work on children’s rights with hands-on experience at the United Nations in Geneva. I assisted the Director of the Institute with his work as Chairman of the United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which was looking at the issue of child exploitation and abuse. I also had the privilege to meet a number of leading human right scholars and activists in Oslo and Geneva.
How did your IHRP summer fellowship shape your academic and professional interests as well as the course of your career?
My internship happened at a very opportune time, as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was in the process of being adopted. I became a member of an NGO group which was participating in the drafting of the Convention, and this then led to a position as a research fellow at the Institute of Women’s Rights at the Law Faculty of the University of Oslo, where I carried out research and field work in Zimbabwe on children’s rights.
The work of the NGOs in Zimbabwe left an enormous impression on me, and I realized I would prefer field work rather than academia. However, at that time, most NGOs and UN agencies were not interested in hiring lawyers; they were looking for specialists in health, education, water and sanitation. UNHCR was the exception and I was sent to work as a protection officer in the refugee camps in North-East Kenya, where I lived in a small tent in the desert, battled scorpions and snakes, and was at risk of attack by outlaws while travelling to and from the camps!! But the work with refugees made it all worthwhile!
You’ve worked extensively for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees both at its Headquarters in Geneva as well as in the field, in places such as Cambodia, Nepal, Sudan, Tanzania and Rwanda, during your career. What do you find the most challenging and rewarding in your work?
The most rewarding is always working with refugees, and in particular refugee women. I have held many different positions with UNHCR, from a protection officer in the refugee camps in Ngara, Tanzania, which hosted thousands of refugees fleeing the genocide in Rwanda, to Deputy Representative in Nepal, where we resettled thousands of Bhutanese refugees from the camps to new homes in eight resettlement countries, including Canada. I know it sounds cliché, but it is always incredibly inspiring for me see the resilience and strength of refugees, after the unimaginable hardships they have suffered. And to be able, in my work, to improve their situation, even in a small way, is very rewarding. I also feel privileged to have worked with many incredible colleagues and lived in fascinating places.
This type of career is not without its challenges. The work can be risky and dangerous, there is great personal hardship, and it is difficult to combine with a family life. For example, the UNHCR has a rotation policy and staff are required to move every few years, often to places where you cannot bring your family. My family and I have been very fortunate in that we have always been able to stay together and live in some amazing places: Geneva, Khartoum and Kathmandu. But it has not always been easy and right now my husband — who also works for the UN — is in Haiti, our two children are at university in Canada, and I am in Geneva.
Could you tell us a bit about your work as Deputy Director of the Europe Bureau at the UNHCR? What are the biggest challenges that you’ve faced in that role?
These past few years have been extraordinary, as I assumed this position shortly before the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe began. At the onset of the emergency, when hundreds of thousands of refugees in search of safety began to arrive in Greece and move onwards, the European countries were completely unprepared. The then High Commissioner and now Secretary General appointed me as Head of Operations to oversee UNHCR’s enormous emergency response in 2015 and 2016. This was a huge challenge as we did not have large scale operations in Europe, and working to protect people on the move, including thousands of unaccompanied children, was unprecedented. The ramifications of this emergency will continue to be felt in the years to come, as we see an increase in right-wing anti-immigration Governments in the European Union, a rise in violence against refugees and migrants and in xenophobia, and the enactment of more restrictive asylum laws. On a more positive note, civil society has for the most part been very welcoming to refugees, and volunteers have played a critical role in supporting the refugees during the crisis.
Do you have any advice for students interested in following a similar path?
Oh it’s so difficult to give advice, and I began my career at a very different time. On the one hand, there are so many more opportunities now, but on the other hand it is a field where there is such great interest. But I guess I would say to students to follow their hearts and their instincts, speak and write to as many people as possible for ideas, guidance, advice and opportunities, be persistent, stay positive and confident, and remain open and flexible to the opportunities that arise, as you never know where they may lead!