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Lessons from a Refugee Lawyer in Cairo

Creating the Path to an International Career

Photo caption: Katie Flannery in Cairo, Egypt showing refugee legal work isn'’t all work, all the time.
Photo caption: Katie Flannery in Cairo, Egypt showing refugee legal work isn’’t all work, all the time.

Throughout the school year, Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights (Osgoode Chapter) has been working to highlight career possibilities for those interested in pursuing international human rights work. In this article, we interview Katie Flannery, the Team Leader for Refugee Status Determination and Durable Solutions at the Egyptian Foundation for Refugee Rights (EFRR) in Cairo, Egypt. In this interview, Katie draws on her own experiences and is answering in her personal capacity.

Sophie Chiasson: What is a typical day in the life of a refugee legal aid lawyer?

Katie Flannery: EFRR is an Egyptian-registered NGO that offers a variety of services to asylum seekers and refugees, and I run two teams focused on helping applicants get through certain types of processes. One is refugee status determination (RSD), the individual application process required to be recognized as a refugee and receive the protection of the UN Refugee Agency and Egyptian government. The other, durable solutions, focuses on identifying acutely vulnerable refugees who are in need of resettlement and referring those cases to UNHCR for consideration. There is no normal day in the office, but I do a combination of things every day: meeting with or liaising with UNHCR, meeting with clients, training staff, editing my officers’ work, and making decisions about cases.

SC: How did you start working in your previous role as a refugee legal aid lawyer with Asylum Access in Tanzania?

KF: In law school and my first job afterwards, I thought I wanted to focus on policy work and research. I had a little bit of exposure to direct client work, and I found it much more rewarding than the advocacy part of that first job, so I decided I needed to dive into something that would be all client work, all the time. Trial by fire, if you will: I wanted to find out if I was any good at it, and if I really wanted to do it full-time. I also realized that, as an American especially (and probably also as a Canadian), you need to spend a significant chunk of time living in the developing world to be taken seriously in the human rights legal field. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but many jobs have “significant time spent living in the developing world” as a desirable job qualification, at the very least. Unfortunately, very few organizations actually offer young lawyers field placements, so Asylum Access is unique in that regard. It was a pretty perfect fit for what I was looking for.

SC: What do you enjoy most about your current role with EFRR?

KF: I think the best part of this type of work is the human element. It’s not unique to refugee law, but I think it’s special about public interest and direct services work. Your clients are people, not companies, and they relate to you as human beings. That can be a real challenge, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. People come to you when they are at their most vulnerable, and sometimes (more often than I’d like) there’s nothing you can do. But the clients are almost always grateful just to have a safe space and someone to listen to them, someone to explain what’s happening to them and take time so that they really understand. I love being in the position to give a tiny bit of power back to my clients, even if there’s nothing else I can do. I can make sure that they feel less helpless than they did before they walked into my office. The resilience and vulnerability clients show is also a really excellent reminder of why it\s important to show up and do my best every day.

SC: What do you think are the most important skills needed for doing the type of work you do?

KF: Basically, you have to be comfortable talking to people. I realized recently how important it is to understand your own sense of authority to be a refugee lawyer. We have to ask people questions about the most intimate and terrible details of their lives — questions that we would never ask our friends, families, or coworkers — and we have to demand complete honesty from people who are, essentially, strangers. To do this well, you have to really understand your role as a lawyer, and believe that you are entitled to this information. Not gratuitously, and never to fulfill your own curiosity, but to do your job on behalf of the client. If you don’t ask invasive questions, you aren’t doing your job — and that’s an uncomfortable reality for some people, especially young lawyers who are just starting to settle into this role.

SC: Do you experience challenges working in a different cultural context? Also, because you work with individuals in vulnerable situations, is vicarious trauma a concern you think about?

KF: There is no easy or short answer for this. Every part of it is hard. For cross-cultural considerations, it helps if you also find those things fun. You inevitably end up turned around and feeling off-step, but if you can enjoy parts of it, it makes the really aggravating things easier to manage.

In terms of dealing with vicarious trauma and vulnerabilities, there is no silver bullet. You have to put up an emotional wall to protect yourself from the things you hear, and you have to make sure it isn’t too close to your heart (which lets too much trauma in), or too far away (which keeps you cold and unaffected). It’s a really hard balance to find, and it will depend on your personality how much adjusting you need to do. I worked really hard to bring my wall in closer — I started out much too cold and distant. I went too far at first, and I did end up pretty badly traumatized from one particularly tough case I handled in Tanzania, which was a major wake-up call.

SC: Do you think a lawyer can play a role in sharing in a client’s moral outrage of situation? What are the appropriate boundaries? 

KF: If you’re doing human rights work and you aren’t outraged, you need to think about why on earth not. That said, you do need to be careful about how much of that outrage you show to the client. It’s important that the client knows you’re on her side, but you also need to maintain your professionalism. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to express sympathy for the client’s feelings (anger, frustration), but you need to be careful about visibly sharing them during the client meeting. Rage all you want when the client is out of sight, but if the client sees that you’re also furious or upset, it’s likely to amplify their own feelings and may set off a spiral reaction that runs out of control. On the other hand, staying calm (but not tone deaf) can calm an angry client down.

In my line of work, I often encounter clients who are very aggravated with UNHCR — my organization’s most important partner, and an essential player in the refugee status determination field in Egypt. Although I also feel aggravated by UNHCR’s actions sometimes, if I let the client know that, the client may write UNHCR off entirely. In client meetings, I often defend UNHCR more than I may personally want to, because absolutely no good can come of alienating a client from the agency that is ultimately going to help them.

At the same time, if you let yourself get too emotionally invested in a client’s case, you lose your ability to make objective decisions — and that hurts the client too. This is a very fine line to walk, and no one gets it right every time.

SC: More generally, what advice do you have for young lawyers who are trying to decide on what type of career to pursue? 

KF: I started making my best decisions when I abandoned a long-term plan. I thought I knew what I was going to do, and when I started wanting to do different things, I felt like I was making bad choices. When I finally freed myself from the pressure of meeting some long-term goal, the decisions came much more easily and clearly. What worked well for me was identifying a comprehensive set of skills I wanted to develop, and thinking of each career move in terms of the skills I would get from it: field work, interviewing experience, language development, leadership, etc. Think of your career path as an onion: figure out which layer you want to unpeel first, and then reevaluate which layer to unpeel next. Eventually, you’ll have to come up with a long-term plan, but there’s no need to put that kind of pressure on yourself in the beginning. (Really. I promise.)

SC: Any last comments?

KF: Don’t try to be a lawyer you’ve seen someone else be. It’s important to learn from others, but you’ll be your kind of lawyer, and you’ll do things your way, and it’ll be great.

Thanks so much for all of these insights, Katie!