This is the story of Geneviève LaSalle, who grew up in a small town in France. We met in Bogota, Colombia where she was an intern at the UNHCR. Shortly after, she left Bogota to return to France to complete her Master’s degree. She now works as a UNHCR Associate Protection Officer in the Great Lakes Region. Here, she shares the story of her path to employment at the UNHCR, and advice for anyone looking to join the world’s premier refugee humanitarian agency.
Due to the politically-sensitive nature of her work, her real name and exact location have been left out of this article.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a village in the countryside in France; my entire family, including cousins, aunts, and uncles, lives within sixty kilometres of my parent’s home. My dream, at that time, was to one day open an old folks home, because I loved working with people, so I went to trade school for social work. But I was also interested in working with foreigners; there was very little diversity in my hometown, and because of that, working with other cultures attracted me.
How did you get started working in development cooperation?
The city where I did my studies was twinned with a city in Mali. So I signed up for an exchange program, and like that, at the age of 20, I found myself volunteering in Bamako.
You know, there are loads of people in the U.N. system who have been travelling since they were five years old. Me, I first put my feet outside Europe only after my 20th birthday, to go for a month to Bamako. But I loved it, especially the intercultural exchange, and I wanted to dig deeper.
When did you first become interested in working with refugees?
Before graduating from my social work programme, I volunteered with Caritas, helping organise cultural activities for asylum seekers. Once I got my degree, I knew I wanted to work on asylum rights in France, and,
at the age 21, I began working at France terre d’asile, a reception centre for asylum seekers, supporting asylum seekers with their legal, medical, and social needs.
How did you decide what to study?
After two years at France terre d’asile, they offered me a permanent contract. I didn’t take it; I wanted to go abroad, to still work with refugees, from a perspective other than France. But, at that time, the social work degree in France wasn’t a full Bachelor’s degree, so I went back to school: to a one-year Professional Bachelor’s degree in Coordination of international solidarity projects.
On getting your feet wet in international development work:
The Professional Bachelor’s was actually six months of coursework, and six months of practical experience. So when classes ended, I went to Chiapas, to intern with a Mexican NGO working with indigenous communities – the former Zapatistas.
In the Chiapas region, many emigrate, either to northern Mexico, where there is a lot of agricultural work, or to the United States. The NGO worked with those who returned, helping them reintegrate into Chiapas life, while joining an economic project with other members from their community of origin. I helped them form community associations, create a small local credit system, build their skills in purchasing hens and growing vegetables, and apply for funds from Regional authorities.
On getting slapped in the face:
I came to Chiapas with the idea that I’m going to help the indigenous communities. But everything I’d learnt I had to set aside, and simply immerse myself in their culture. I had to start from the beginning to try and understand, how does it work here? Rather than unleashing all of my theories.
On formative experiences:
I found myself in Mexico (having never before been to Latin America) giving workshops in Spanish (though it had been ages since I’d studied it in high school). For me, this was a key experience.
This was the kind of experience that you don’t get at the United Nations. Because at the UN, we operate within a global system, and we use tools developed at a global level presumed to be applicable more or less everywhere, with a little bit of adaptation, but they are not developed from within a particular context.
The experience motivated me to go to other countries and encounter other cultures.
On what to do when you don’t know what to do:
After my Chiapas internship, I went back to France, thinking, I’ll find another job abroad. But very quickly, I was confronted with a key problem: I didn’t have a Master’s degree, required by many positions, even at small NGOs. Nor had I worked in an English-speaking country, so I couldn’t demonstrate that I had a good level of English.
I couldn’t stay at my parent’s house, doing an unpaid internship while looking for a job. So I took a job with a short-term contract as at an asylum rights organisation in France. Towards the end of those four months, a friend sent me the posting for an unpaid internship at UNHCR Colombia.
How did you decide to do an unpaid internship?
I asked myself, does it make sense to go to an unpaid internship abroad, when I already have a paid job here in France? At the same time, I won’t have any other way to get into the UNHCR system, to see how it works, to see what’s required in the world of the UN. At the same, it wasn’t my goal to work at the UN, but I still wanted to see what it was like to work inside a large organisation, to have an international experience, to understand the prerequisites and profiles of the people already working within the system.
What made them choose you for the UNHCR internship? What made you stand out?
The UN is a job with a title, full of civil servants. It’s not a vocation. Your profession, or vocation, is the field in which you’ll work and the kind of work you’ll do, and not the status and pay you’ll receive – those are just ingredients.
It’s not just about having prestigious names on your CV – it’s also about the activities that you’ve done and the expertise you’ve developed. I had already worked with refugees before, and I was very surprised, when I arrived in Bogota, to meet lots of interns who never worked with refugees before, working at the UNHCR straight out of university.
On needing a law background:
Very quickly, I realized that nearly everyone at UNHCR Bogota was a lawyer – no one really had a social work background. And even though I had work experience with the refugees, I felt I had no choice but to get a proper law degree, preferably in human rights law.
I was accepted to a Master’s program in NGO and Humanitarian Law at the University of Strasbourg (Institut des Hautes Etudes Europeenes). Because I had already been working for a couple of years, I was allowed to skip the first year and go straight into the second year. But it was still a tough program, especially at first.
On studying human rights law:
Law was a total unknown for me. I was surrounded by people who had all done four years of law in undergrad, and for the first few weeks, I often felt like the class dummy.
But then, it was only the vocabulary that was particular to the field of law. The case studies, on the other hand, were full of familiar examples I recognized and related to. The other students knew the vocabulary, they had a human rights background on paper, but they didn’t have any idea of how it was all applied.
On using key words in your application:
You have to use the key words of the positions and organisations to which you’re applying. I believe that’s what swung the ball in my favour: I was extremely specific in my CV about the populations with which I had worked (e.g., Congolese and Sudanese refugees) and the tasks I had done (like organising events, conducting interviews).
The UNV job descriptions are written at the UNV headquarters in Bonn (Germany). When shortlisting candidates, they look for a match to the job description, and they find it using keywords. So the more specific you are on your CV, the higher your chance of being matched to a job opening.
When they contacted me, they said, we’re recruiting someone for this position in this location, and you’re on the shortlist, and are you available at the moment? I said, oui, yes.
On second chances:
They then send the shortlist of candidates to the country office of the position, who then select three individuals to interview. I was one of these three, but after the interview, they told me they wouldn’t be choosing me: I was their number two choice. So I abandoned the idea, and prepared instead to set off to Chad, where I had a paid internship with a French NGO. This was not ideal: Chad is an extremely challenging context, and this NGO did not seem to have the best reputation.
But three weeks later, they contacted me again, to ask if I was still available. They said, “Are you still interested?”
And I said, YALLAH, I’m coming!”
On killing two birds with one stone:
To complete my Master’s degree (in France), I needed to do an internship (stage de fin d’etudes), and then write a report about it (rapport de stage).
I told them, look, I’ve been offered a UNV position with the UNHCR, and could I count it for my internship, and write a report on it?
“Not a problem,” they said, and I completed my Master’s degree after already arriving here. It helped me better understand my work, because I was doing research for my report at the same time.
On UNHCR’s resettlement program:
In the Great Lakes region, there are loads of Congolese refugees – victims of the war, and the political insecurity that continues, particularly in Eastern Congo – and we know that it’s already been 15-20 years since they’ve left their home country. They can’t go home, and the neighboring countries are too poor to support the thousands of refugees fleeing DR Congo.
The USA, Canada, UK, etc. have agreed to receive a certain number of Congolese, but before they accept them, UNHCR has to check that they fit the refugee definition, they cannot go back to their country of origin, they are not guilty of any serious crimes, and then they’ll be accepted into a new country, where they may stay for the rest of their lives.
What did you do, as Associate Resettlement Officer?
Resettlement is a protection measure giving asylum in a third country for those who are refugees and can’t stay in the country in which they are, and can’t go home, either. You have this example in Ecuador: Colombian refugees cross the border into Ecuador to escape the narcotics drug lords, but the drug lords often come to Ecuador to find them. So we try to send them elsewhere: the U.S.A., Canada, UK.
When I arrived, my job was to interview the refugees, verify that they fit the status of a refugee, assess their specific needs and prepare their case to be submitted to a Resettlement country. It was a lot of reporting and a bit repetitive; not what I loved. I wanted to be out in the field, working on urgent cases, on other themes of protection.
On waiting for your dream job:
Six months after I arrived in country, the Associate Protection Officer left, and they needed someone to quickly replace her. The UNV contract offers a lot of flexibility within UN agencies. The job description can be changed during assignment to respond to the operational needs, in collaboration with the UNV headquarters in Bonn. . So that’s how I changed my position, and was able to do what I was really interested in at UNHCR.
What does an Associate Protection Officer do?
I’m now Associate Protection Officer; I work with the national government on monitoring of Refugee Status Determination activities. I support the government in undertaking this work, and improving the quality of their decision-making on refugee statuses. I also represent UNHCR as an official observer during commissions where representatives from different ministries take a final decision on cases.
On having an interesting job:
They also refer to me all of the individuals who may have committed war crimes, or crimes against humanity, and if that’s the case, we cannot refer them to another country for resettlement elsewhere. I’m in charge of these more complex cases.
I love this challenging work. There’s a lot of variety, and not too much routine.
What’s the easiest way to get into UNHCR?
Getting in to the UN, in general, is not easy. I think it’s far easier to work with NGOs first, get some experience and expertise, and then enter the UN, through one of the routes described above.
You won’t get a UN position straight out of university; that wouldn’t make any sense, because you don’t yet have any experience. Then again, I started working at UNHCR at the age of 26, and I was the youngest international UNV here.
One of my fellow UNVs had done a six-month internship with UNHCR, then worked with a NGO in France, and became a UNV one year after graduating from her studies.
Another finished her Master’s degree, then did a six-month internship with UNHCR , and was thereafter recruited by an American NGO that works with refugees. After a year and a half with them, she joined UNHCR as a UNV.
We are among the youngest here; the majority are 30-32 years old. Among the muzungus, UNVs range from 26 to 35 years old; the UNV colleagues from West Africa tend to be slightly older, on average.
People say you need to know someone to get into the U.N. Is it true?
That’s what they say. Certainly, connections help.
Having connections means you can be in the loop about what’s going on, which posts are vacant, and therefore submit your application for those open positions.
What do I do if I don’t have any connections? How do I get in?
The UN is its own world. If you don’t know how it works, especially how the UN hiring process works, its difficult to get in.
Before interning at UNHCR in Colombia, I was very far away from ever having a position here because I had absolutely no idea how the UN system worked. I didn’t know how to market myself to the recruitment process, I didn’t know what they looked for… It helps a lot to do an internship within the organisation, to understand how the system works.
Thank you so much, Geneviève !