Starting a career in human rights takes a lot of courage. The work itself requires a genuine belief in humanity and is often emotionally difficult to cope with. At the same time, the international human rights job market is rather competitive, with an increasing number of extraordinary talented and qualified people becoming interested in humanitarian affairs and human rights. The job search might begin with enrolling at an university, but it certainly does not end with a diploma, at least not for most people. In order to decrease the feelings of despair among many current human rights students and recent graduates, we conducted several interviews with successful young professionals who work in a variety of sectors: international organizations, non-governmental organizations and academia. What binds all of them is the fact that they are all under 30, from non-EU countries and they are all women.
Here is what Thaís Penalber, a Reporting Associate (consultant) at the UNHCR in Geneva, Dora Bojanovska-Popovska, a PhD candidate at Central European University in Budapest working on freedom of religion, and Njomza Haxhibeqiri, a project coordinator at the Humanitarian Law Center in Kosovo have to say about education, challenges and motivation.
Choosing the right degree
Very few people study human rights at the Bachelor’s level and not many of those who currently work in the human rights field in different capacities are more narrowly educated in human rights. How decisive is the degree when it comes to carving one’s career path in the direction of human rights?
Thaís, who is the only one of the three who has a Master’s-level LLM degree specifically in Humanitarian Law and Human Rights from the Geneva Academy of Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, says that writing her Bachelor’s thesis on Refugee Law under the general Bachelor of Laws (LLB) program “has prepared” her “for the current job”.
Dora, who has consistently pursued degrees in Constitutional Law, says that her studies at home and abroad prepared her immensely for the PhD program. “However, I do believe that a more diverse educational background can also be more of an asset than a disadvantage”, she adds.
Njomza, who holds a degree in Law, disagrees. She believes that public education in Kosovo remains rather weak, and that she had to build her skills in a non-formal way. In fact, she is now coordinating a project on non-formal education on dealing with the past, and works with students of different ages to fill in the gaps that exist in formal education.
While Thaís followed her interest in refugee law in all aspects of her professional life, Dora believes that her diverse work experience of being a legal advisor for the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Skopje, as well as in a financial consulting company in fact all equipped her with skills that she can now comfortably use in her PhD studies. “Every work experience has something to bring to the table in terms of professional growth”.
Challenges and obstacles
We wanted to know what these amazing young women think were the biggest challenges they faced as young professionals. While Dora applied for PhD positions two years in a row before being accepted, Thaís sent more than 70 applications during the four months before she became a consultant at the UNHCR, receiving only about four interview invitations. “Entry level positions usually require years of experience”, Thaís reminds us. Years of unpaid work as an intern and volunteer might not suffice for certain international organizations. To this, Dora adds, that “every interim position does not pay at all, or it pays poorly”. Besides the financial aspect, Njomza raises an important concern about not having one’s voice heard as a young professional. “One of the challenges is that sometimes you are not taken seriously even when you have a valid argument”, she adds.
What further complicates things is the fact that these young professionals are non-EU citizens. “As a non-European living in Switzerland, I felt that my chances of getting a job here were close to zero”, Thaís says, explaining how the Swiss law requires organizations to first consider Swiss applications, then EU applications, and only then non-EU applications as the last resort. While she admits that female young professionals “must fight twice as hard to prove they deserve to sit at the table”, Dora also agrees that being a non-EU citizen represents a bigger challenge. “At the end of the day, I think quality, excellence and competence should be the only bases of how we are valued, and if they are not, we should fight fiercely to stand up to that”, she suggests. Njomza, who works at the local level, says the biggest obstacles arise when young professionals from NGOs have to deal with public institutions. “They do not trust young people and young women in particular, especially when it comes to advocacy”. She explains public officials will often only accept invitations or requests from people whose names sound “famous”, which further complicates the work of young professionals who are just beginning to work in the non-governmental sector.
What made Dora, Thaís and Njomza different from other candidates? Thaís says, for a consultancy in the United Nations, “personal connections” are crucial. This, however, does not mean that knowing the right people will suffice, but that academic and work experience will “nonetheless be assessed”. For academia, educational background and work experiences are key factors, yet “originality, quality and sustainability of the research idea” will also be decisive, Dora claims. On a similar note, Njomza believes that the fact that she had great interest in the very specific topics her NGO deals with and extensive “knowledge about dealing with the past process in the Balkans” got her the job and the opportunity to coordinate an entire project at such young age.
The work itself
Chatting with these three young professionals was also a great opportunity to find out what working at these positions actually feels like. Before becoming a consultant, Thaís worked as an intern for the UNHCR in the USA in 2015, where she was responsible for assessing asylum requests for the Central American region, and had to deal with some urgent cases of people facing deportation. “I was surprised with the impact that my work could have in the lives of so many people and for me that was very rewarding”, she says. Her current position in the Headquarters is more administrative and offers “a great opportunity to learn about the organization as a whole”, but also offers a myriad of networking opportunities. “I do miss working with real cases of refugee status determination”, Thaís concludes. Being involved in a PhD program is “a rather lonely journey”, Dora explains, that is why daily interactions with other PhD students are above valuable. Having volunteered prior to becoming a project coordinator, Njomza says there were no surprises regarding her responsibilities and duties at work. Yet, after two years of such work, she is in fact surprised by the amount of work NGOs do vis-à-vis public institutions. “If public institutions worked just a half of what NGOs do, Kosovo would be a better place”, Njomza concludes.
To end on a positive note, we asked our three participants to elaborate on what motivates them to do what they do and what advice they might have for any young human rights professional who aspires to hold similar positions.
“Never think you know everything”, Njomza says in a very straightforward manner. It is important to keep in mind that there is always something new to learn so that “you can be more efficient at what you do”. For Thaís, passion in your specific field is the key, buttressed by concrete relevant experiences in your CV, including your thesis and research papers. “I am passionate about refugee law so my previous academic writings were always about that field, and I have also always pursued professional experiences that could give me practical knowledge in the area, even if it was volunteering”, she explains. For a PhD program, finding a proper mentor who is an expert in your field of interest is a priority. The easiest way to do that is by looking at their previous publications and their CVs. “The decision to focus on human rights in a PhD dissertation is extremely welcome in these uncertain times”, she concludes.
What has kept them engaged despite the above-mentioned obstacles? Thaís says, it is all about setting some higher goals. “Working at the UNHCR is a great way to learn the skills that I would need to pursue a career as a refugee rights advocate”, including having the opportunity to work with some world’s most experienced professionals in the area. The overarching motivation to protect refugees is the resilience they develop “in overcoming so many predicaments and leaving everything behind to rebuild their lives”. For Dora, it is the values she holds dear that she wishes to augment through academia. “Those are the ones that prompted an open, liberal society based on constitutionalism and human rights” that motivate her to continue her work.
If you are looking for motivation to push through your studies and/or job search, or courage to firmly decide that human rights will be your career path, Dora, Thaís and Njomza’s stories show that there is always a way forward, despite any challenge you might face. Hopefully their insights might prepare you a bit better for what is about to come and help you chose in what capacity you would like to contribute to the ever-growing and most effective network of young human rights professionals.