Shortcut to P-3: how to join UNV

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Kimja Vanderheyden grew up in the Congo, Ecuador, and Belgium, and was selected for a position at UN Women in Morocco. We met in Quito, where she worked for the Belgian Development Agency. Here, she talks to us about finding your niche expertise, the politically-sensitive of her work, and how to join the United Nations.

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On moving around a lot:

I was born in the north of Congo, and it gave me my name, Kimja, which means ‘peace’ in Lingala. We lived there until I was 2 years old, then moved to Riobamba in Ecuador, where we lived for three years. My first memories are from Rio Bamba. Then we moved to Quito, and my dad worked on public health. I went to the French school, and spoke Spanish, French, and English. At the age of 12, we moved to Belgium, and I had to learn Flemish. I had the level of a six-year-old, and my parents put us in an elite school. It took me almost ten years to lose the French accent I had in Flemish !

On growing up in the field: I’m the typical expat child of the development worker – my dad is a medical doctor did his PhD in tropical diseases, worked at a hospital in the jungle in Congo, and later, for the Belgian Development Agency in Ecuador and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belgium. At first I didn’t want to work in this sector, because I grew up listening to conversations between older men who worked during the “golden years” of development… but I still ended up doing this work.

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When life gives you lemons…
I first did a year of physiotherapy, I failed because I was terrible at maths and biology, but it was a lot of fun to learn about the human body for a year. Then my dad told me, if I wanted to keep studying, I had to pay for it myself. So I decided to study business administration and marketing, because it seemed easy. There were a lot of languages, and I could work while studying. I spent my first year baking French fries to pay my fees; the other years I worked in restaurants 15 to 40 hours per week.

That first job in the field:

I did my internship in the south of Tanzania with a livelihoods project. My dad knew someone there; that’s the only time I used his network. That’s how I ended up there. A classmate and I worked with a local NGO to develop a marketing plan for milk farmers. It was so real – four months there in the middle of nowhere. Everyone should go through that kind of field experience. It helps you understand the reality on the ground.

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On choosing a niche expertise:

Communication always fascinated me: growing up in another culture, being a little blonde girl, being able to talk to people. Then, moving back to Belgium, my “supposed” country, and not being able to talk to people. I’m so fascinated by everything that is semantics, linguistics. And then if you’re talking about development, you have to work with the media. You can’t have development if people don’t talk and write about the issues and raise awareness.

On feeling old: I was 26 when I started my Master’s in Communication, specialised in journalism and press freedom; those that had started a normal master’s were three years younger than me and they were all amazed that I was so old. I got my Master’s degree at 28, “late” by Belgian standards.

Getting your foot in the door:

One day, one of the journalists who had taught a few of the classes in the Master’s programme came into the Pizza Hut where I was working and asked me if I was looking for a job.

“I know this lady,” he said, she’s a famous gynaecologist and politician in Belgium, looking for someone to help with communications her research centre. He gave her my number, she called me. During my interview, she was doing her rounds at the clinic; I followed her while she was talking to her patients. I was offered a consultancy, then a temporary job.

When your manager doesn’t understand your job:

The deputy director of the centre was a gynaecologist who had worked for ten years in Africa, and was suddenly responsible for managing a research centre. He wasn’t a manager, you know? He expected me to build websites, build an intranet, build servers – very technical communications stuff. I remember thinking, “Am I supposed to be able to do this?”

I didn’t want to continue there, I began looking for jobs. But it was 2009, the financial crisis was raging through Europe; it was really difficult to get a job in communications. I was so desperate that I was applying for jobs as an accountant, because I had an accounting degree. I have no idea how many letters I sent out. I decided to look beyond Belgium, didn’t know where to look; I was checking the websites for non-profit jobs in Belgium, and ended up finding a job with a Belgian NGO in Ecuador.

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On the “fine line” between volunteering and a real job:
It was 2009, the financial crisis was raging through Europe; I was dreaming of a real job with good pay, but ended up finding a volunteer position in Ecuador. I was receiving €550 per month; for Quito, it was okay. I managed like that for 20 months. At first, the Belgian NGO that hired me had me supporting a local NGO working on food sovereignty to build their website, make some videos, stuff like that. Then they switched me to supporting international communications for the World Social Forum on Migration, organising a 5000-person event. It was the first time I had a boss who knew about communications. All my previous jobs, I didn’t have real leadership. I managed the Facebook and Twitter accounts, ran the websites in French and English, made videos, took pictures, logistics, admin stuff. We were a really small team organising a big event. Anywhere they needed me, there I was. The second year, they sent me out again, they asked me to go back for 8 months, and they gave me €675 per month.

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On doing dangerous work:

I went back and worked with Acción Ecologica, a civil society movement trying to save the Yasuní (a nature preserve in the Amazon rainforest). It was an amazing experience, though a little crazy, cowboy style: taking a bus for 14 hours to the region where the FARC is present, being trapped in a little village, a blonde woman totally alone, five minutes from Lago Agrio… Never ever would I do that again, now.

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When things don’t go as planned:
After going back to Belgium and working odd jobs while applying  abroad, I was selected by the Belgian Development Agency (BTC) as a Junior Assistant, with a posting to Rwanda, supporting the Ministry of Agriculture to develop extensions materials (guides, manuals etc. for farmers). But Belgians and Rwandans don’t really get along; there was a big conflict between my manager and my Rwandan supervisor. I spent two months doing nothing, caught between them. The Rwandans would say: “You don’t talk to the Belgians anymore, you only talk to us.” But my contract was with the Belgians. I got on really well with my manager, my “coach” in BTC lingo. We made a manual on how to recognise if your banana plant is ill; now, when I see a banana plant, I can tell immediately if it’s healthy or not.

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On the effects of politically-sensitive work: After four months, the Rwandan government decided not to give me my residence permit; they never communicated it officially. They were nervous, maybe… I’ve never really understood why, but I heard they saw me as a threat to public opinion.

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On being kicked out of a country: There was an NGO worker who got kicked out of Israel, and in the Belgian press, it was a big deal, but when me and a few other Belgians were denied Rwandan residence permits, no one hears about it, because Rwanda is one of the darlings of the West. The government returned my passport with a visa for five more days without any official declaration. I had five days to leave the country. That’s a reality: you hear about people getting kicked out of countries, and it happens, even if you don’t do anything wrong.

I went back to Ecuador with BTC to work at a rural development programme; I had an amazing coach, spending 50% of my time in the field visiting projects in the Andes, Manabi, Esmeraldas, taking boats to little islands to visit tourism projects. It was very cool, I stayed for 20 months. Six months before my contract ended, I began looking for jobs, on ReliefWeb, Devex, the international websites, creating profiles on all the UN websites. It’s almost a full-time job.

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On being recruited as a UNV: I was contacted several times by U.N.V., and eventually selected for a position with U.N. Women in Morocco, to work at a knowledge management centre on gender-sensitive budgeting. There are not so many people who have worked on KM, gender, and communications. When I was in Ecuador, and I noticed no one in the BTC programme was working on gender, I volunteered to take it on, so I ended up giving trainings on gender. As a junior, we were quite free to take initiative, although you have to be lucky with your boss. At some point, I got offended by some colleagues on the field, and I went to my boss and told him that the sexual harassment is impossible, given that we’re working for BTC, and we have a gender policy. I began sharing more about the gender policy, and they saw this in my CV. I interviewed in June 2014, they asked me to start in September, and we agreed to start in November.

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On the prestige of working at the U.N.:
You have power. I think that’s what makes it so addictive. You’re in a certain circle of people. It opens doors, people listen to you. Even the people who have worked for the U.N. and know how it is, it’s still a Wow factor. It’s like, “Oh, you work for the U.N.”

Now, when people ask me what I did before, and I say I was in Morocco with UN Women, they say, Oh, wow, that’s interesting. I don’t think it would be the same reaction if I said I was in Morocco for BTC, you know?

On unexpected challenges: Sometimes, it’s a cultural issue. In Morocco, if the boss doesn’t ask for it, even if your colleagues know you need it, they won’t give it until the boss screams for it. In Morocco, there was already a conflict that was worsened by my presence and I ended up, for the first time in my life, resigning, after working there for over a year. And I don’t exclude the possibility of working for the U.N. again. Now that I’ve had one experience with a U.N. agency, I think I would cope better with another one. Not for U.N. Women: it’s a new agency, it’s still growing, and they’re very particular. For example, the Moroccan office insisted on only using photos of unveiled women, which to me did not reflect at all the groups we were working with.

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On being picky before you apply: Where before when I was looking for jobs, I’d apply to everything, now I am careful. If I sense, from the job description, that they don’t understand communications, then I simply don’t apply, and avoid these kinds of problems before they arise. The job descriptions are so important. Or volunteer positions where they ask for 3-4 years of experience. I would never apply for that kind of project or programme; four years of experience, that’s a lot, already, and then they’re not paying you? That doesn’t feel right. I only apply for jobs that sound professional.

On quickly narrowing down your scope:

There were so many offers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan. But after living in Morocco, I preferred not to apply in that region, so that eliminated several options. I wanted a break from needing to cover myself, from men being able to say anything at all to me, from not being able to walk alone in the streets…the sexual harassment in Morocco was extreme and a daily thing.

How do you decide which opportunity won’t be a good job?

If I get questions during the interview that clearly show that they don’t understand what I can do. Like if they ask me to build an intranet, I say no, the communications officer is supposed to coordinate that work. But I’ve also picked up a lot of these skills – doing radio, producing video, taking photos. When I started my career, I was totally not interested in audio-visual media, but they became a big part of my jobs and today I’m passionate about photography and getting more and more familiar with video. . People expect you to know how to design and build a website, how to code HTML, which I ended up learning on the job. Now I also ask, when they send me the procedures manuals, to what extent they apply their own procedures and policies. I also received emails from the UN, six to eight months after applying, and I couldn’t even recall which job it was for.

How did you know you’d like your current job?

They were extremely responsive, they invited me to an interview within ten days of submitting an application. You can sense if people like you, even if it’s only by phone or via Skype. I think the HR manager really liked me, because after the first interview, he wrote me back and suggested that I prepare better with concrete examples. I had a good feeling.

stock-photo-192844041“You’ve got to be open-minded about what you take on.”

When BTC asked me to do knowledge management, I thought, I really don’t want to do this. It sounded terrible, I had a breakdown when I started working because I couldn’t understand what it was about, but now, I’m a coordinator of knowledge management, communications, and advocacy. And if I’d said no at that point, they wouldn’t have extended my contract, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Morocco, and I wouldn’t have ended up here. Sometimes, it’s important to broaden your scope. I wanted to work on press freedom, and in the end, I worked on gender, rural development, agriculture, environmental projects, now I’m working on WASH. It can open doors, and lead you onto paths you didn’t consider, but may indeed be good options.

On having a ear to the ground:

I thought I’d work in the non-profit sector in Belgium. That’s what I had foreseen. Not working in the Amazon with indigenous communities, nor visiting tiny villages in rural Congo.. This sector is so unpredictable. Maybe they will close a programme, or the NGO will leave the country. You never really know for sure.

 

 

Thank you so much, Kimja !

Are you, too, interested in joining the UN?

Get Kimja’s detailed guide on how to get into UNV, including the word-for-word questions she got in her interview, how she answered them, and how she wrote an application that was selected, first for an interview, then for a job.

Download it here.

Photos by Kimja Vanderheyden, Rwanda internet cafe photo by Sam Floy, top drumming photo by Jessica Menon, potatoes photo by Maarten Siebe, Ecuador photo by Edgar Dávila Soto,  and Orange the World photo by Kimja for UN Women. 

How to get a Professional Position at the U.N.

asfaha-with-dr-mustafa-tolba-former-executive-director-of-unep-late-80s Asfaha Beyene grew up in Asmara, Eritrea, but was forced to leave when war broke out, dropping out of university in Asmara to move to Nairobi. He joined the U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP), the start of a long and rewarding career in the U.N. system and beyond. In this first of a three-part interview, he tells us about joining the U.N. without a college degree, studying for the entry exam, becoming a Professional, and learning the organisation from the inside out.

On being seen as a threat: At that time, we were regarded as the northernmost province of Ethiopia, near the border with Sudan and the Red Sea. Eritrea only separated from Ethiopia in 1993. Then came the 30-year Eritrean War for Independence, a civil war between the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, and the Ethiopian government. Even as boys, we were always suspected by the Ethiopian government, and whatever we did, could be subjected to persecution, or imprisonment.

On following the norm: Back then, maybe 10% of Eritrean students made it to university, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. I was in life sciences, to study either biology or chemistry so I that I could become a doctor, or a chemist, or some sort of agricultural engineer. We didn’t know what we were doing. We told ourselves, all the good students would go to science; arts was left to the weaker ones, that sort of cliché.

On dropping out of college: To cut a long story short: I was through with school. The revolution started, Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by a military junta; I was in my first year of university, and had to withdraw because of the confusion.

On choosing work that lets you travel:  I worked for one and a half years at Ethiopian Airlines as a transportation agent, then worked for the airline KLM for three years. My intention was to leave Ethiopia and eventually venture out to Europe or the United States. I didn’t see any future in my own country. But while I was doing this, at KLM, I fell in love with the mother of my only daughter, and got married!

On leaving home forever: In 1978, we emigrated to Kenya, because we didn’t feel safe as a young couple in Ethiopia. You can’t live in Eritrea; it’s a war zone, and all young people had left the country. In Ethiopia there was a communist military junta, with a very exaggerated control of young and old in the government who might object in any way.

When you can’t get a work permit: In Kenya, I was looking for a job, but I couldn’t find work. Work permits are only given to highly-qualified professionals. I was a non-trained, non-qualified high school graduate. To work for the UN, you don’t need a work permit. So I found a loophole to find a job in Kenya. I joined the U.N. Environmental Programme in 1979, and was hired as a clerk, one level above a messenger. It didn’t require a degree, and at that time, there was no inflation of degrees, so they didn’t mind that I had finished high school and only started university, because I had worked for Ethiopian Airlines and KLM, so I had the so-called “relevant experience” to become part of the travel team. As a travel clerk, I would organize the travel of professionals going on mission, we organised meetings for participants, either a workshop or a conference, whatever UNEP organises. I was the most junior of a four-person team.veronica-buscema1

On speaking English well: My English was not good; coming from Ethiopia, which is not a former British colony, nor a colony of anyone. At that time, our English was not at the standard of the Kenyans, who were trained by the British. Although I had a working knowledge, I had to struggle.

On being an introvert: You’re shy because you’re not exposed; you’re not confident, so you don’t speak well. But I buried my head and worked hard, and while I was working hard, I was noticed, and this is why I could apply to another department. The head of that department had interacted with me: he had seen me working hard, staying late, and so on, so he thought, okay, this guy would be a good addition to my team. He encouraged me to apply, I applied, and I was selected.

On preferential treatment: At UNEP, the decision-makers were all expatriates. I didn’t experience any discrimination. My immediate supervisor was from Somalia, the chief was British. Discrimination can happen when you’re sharing a common pie. But we all reported to expatriates: from England, America, Africa, India.

On getting promoted within the U.N. system: After 1,5 years as a clerk, I saw a position advertised as administrative assistant in a different area: the Fund Program Management branch, focusing on portfolios and different projects. I was in the project control unit, keeping statistics on different projects: the number of projects, the amount of money we spent on each area of activity. It became more interesting than travel; I got my first promotion, but within the same category of general service. In the U.N., there are two categories: general services (G-level), and professionals (P-level). I was in general services, a local staff: someone on the support staff, not one of the professionals.

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On wishing the internet existed back then: After a few years, although I didn’t continue my studies, it was not possible then to go to university. These days, you can do all kinds of studies whenever you want, wherever you want. Back then, it wasn’t. I really wanted to continue my studies, to complete my degree, but I couldn’t, so I was simply working. By then, I was in my early thirties, we had our child, and we had to stick to our jobs.

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On not being able to go home: Although I wasn’t really interested in politics, I didn’t feel good to go back to Ethiopia. Although I had an Ethiopian passport, I regarded myself as a refugee; my wife and I couldn’t go back to Ethiopia, because we didn’t have any guarantee that we would come out again. My job became not only a source of daily bread, but also a passport. Unless I continued working with the United Nations in Kenya, I wouldn’t be a legal resident of Kenya.

A job as a passport: My job was more than a job: it was my life. I dedicated myself in an extraordinary manner; I was not the cleverest, neither the most intelligent, nor the most trained. But I showed loyalty.

On living from hand to mouth: It was really a struggle. Luckily, my wife also worked as a secretary in the UN, so together, we had two local salaries. We had a decent life, but with a struggle. Being in General Services, I was paid in Kenyan Shillings, a salary – about USD 200 per month – comparable to the local salary of a secretary in Kenya, or an accounting clerk, or an assistant somewhere. Just an office worker, without big responsibilities.

From General Services to P-level: There was an opportunity to compete for one professional level position, within the Fund Management branch in which I was working. We were 17 people competing for the job; I was one of the few without a degree; most of them had at least a first degree. The competition was intense: we had written tests, an oral interview, another exercise summarising a text and answering questions on political, geographic knowledge and current affairs. Obviously, I prepared for it.

How did you prepare for the U.N. exam?

I read all relevant subjects: all the relevant professional knowledge that I needed to know, about project development and management: what are our projects, what is UNEP, what are our areas of activity and expertise, whom do we compete with, what are our internal projects, what are our external projects, what is our mandate, how do we cooperate with other UN agencies. I interviewed senior staff, to know what they did.

I had a subscription to certain magazines – I used to go to the library and read the Economist to familiarise myself with current affairs, so that if I’m asked what is happening in the United States, which party is ruling and which party has failed, what is happening in the UK, and in India, I would know a little bit. Current affairs is important, since we are serving the globe, and in situations around the globe; you don’t have to be an expert politically, but it’s good to have an idea.

On becoming “Professional”: To be “Professional” in a developing country like Kenya, it means you change your life completely. From 1 January 1987, my salary quadrupled, and on top of that, I started getting my salary in American Dollars: 70% of it was in dollars, and 30% in shillings. I got all sorts of additional entitlements: the best was that I could send my daughter to an international school, and I would be paid 80% of the expenses. I would also be entitled to duty-free imports. At that time, in Kenya, as a developing African country, electronic items were the most expensive items you could think of. I could import a car tax-free, which is slashed by half. I could import a television, a radio, anything you want. Our life changed completely: we became expatriates.asfaha-with-wife-and-daughter-on-holiday

On risking a new hire: You see, when you select someone, judging from the CV and half-hour or one-hour interview, you normally take a leap of faith and say, this person looks good. But once they come and join you, they might be good, or not so good. I believe there are only good people, but in the wrong job. You can easily be disappointed.

In the end, all employers are selfish. They don’t employ you in order to help you, I don’t believe many people use nepotism and then employ their friends and family.

On wanting to work with the best: If a person is a competitive person and wants to succeed, (s)he wants to have the best person next to him. All of us see it selfishly.

I don’t agree with the sentiment that you would hire someone in order to help him. I always hired someone selfishly: because I needed them. That’s what I believe happened: they thought, this guy is going to work hard for us, he’s going to be loyal, I would be very happy to have him next to me.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the most competitive person, I didn’t have impressive skills and education, and I wasn’t by any means genius or clever. I was just a normal person. but I became comfortable to anyone who selects me as his junior colleague or subordinate.

On becoming employee of the year: People want to work with someone who makes them look good. Honestly, I’m not good at that. I don’t work to make someone look good. But, I am loyal, so I just work to be good at work. Then, of course, once they notice you, they say, we need this guy.

That’s what happened to me, even after retirement. I didn’t want to work, after thirty years of service with the UN. But my current employer keeps on telling me, look, Asfaha, just be here with us. They just want me to be there with them, and be part of the operation, giving advice, solving problems, firefighting and attending to all sorts of daily challenges. That’s what I have been doing right from the beginning, and that’s why people want me to be next to them.

On becoming the right-hand man: My boss got a promotion, he became Deputy Executive Director (the second-in-command at UNEP) and had this substantive responsibility of Fund administration. The whole system of fund management that we use to catalyse the UN system for environmental projects was under his responsibility. At the same time, normal administrative services (like human resources and budgeting, accounting, procurement, travel, building management) also came under him. He had a very big responsibility. At one point, he asked me to be his special assistant.

asfaha-with-colleagues-at-an-opening-ceremony-of-uneps-annual-governing-counsel-meeting-early-90s-nairobiOn developing a strategic perspective: Instead of doing a specific job in the project pipeline – on project control and management – I would support him on his day-to-day activities. Everything that came to his desk would pass through me. If the job needed to be done by others, I delegated it; if it was for him, I’d pass it on to him, and brief him on exactly what it is, and he’d give me feedback that I’d follow up on. That actually gave me a good opportunity to see what the organisation is all about.

Rather than looking at one department and one aspect of the work, it gave me an opportunity to see the general raison d’être of the organisation. I started thinking more strategically, rather than operationally. That was a transformation in my professional life.

I started understanding what the organisation (UNEP) is all about: its relationship with other UN agencies, its relationship with governments, the different aspects of its work, who is the governing body of UNEP, Who are its members, what is their mandate, what is the relationship between UNEP and the U.N. Secretariat in New York? How does UNEP fit into the international sphere, how does it relate to UNESCO, to FAO, to other organisations? Then I could begin to understand.

On understanding the U.N. ecosystem: We had a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with each organisation. E.g., FAO, being about food and agriculture, we’d say, okay, we have projects on forestry, let’s encourage FAO to think of the environment, as they are doing their mandate only through food and agriculture. With UNESCO, an authority on education and training, we sought to introduce environmental subjects in schools so that there is  public awareness and expertise on the environment. World Health Organisation (WHO) on health: environmental health is very important. World Meteorological Organisation: UNEP and WMO are the ones who started the climate convention.

Instead of looking at it as an administrator pushing a project for approval, releasing the money when the progress report comes, that kind of micro-level operational work, I had the opportunity to follow in my boss’ footsteps on a daily basis and see, at a macro-level, how the organisation fits into the international community and into international development.

Thank you, Asfaha!

Interested in joining the U.N. ? Download our free guide to preparing for this year’s U.N. Young Professionals Programme here.

 

 

UNEP headquarters photos by Arthur Dahl, Tigrinya photo by Veronica Buscema, and the rest of the photos from Asfaha Beyene with kind permission.

How to build a career at the U.N.

Lisa International Careers

This post was originally featured on Human Rights Careers.
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Lisa’s background:

Lisa Smyth is an international development communications specialist, currently Communications Manager at the Forest Stewardship Council in Bonn, Germany, and simultaneously completing a Masters of Communications for Development at Malmo University in Sweden. Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, Lisa got her first job in the field at the United Nations, without any connections, family money, or even a Master’s degree. Here, she talks about experience vs. education, and what to do when your application get rejected…

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How to get a job at the UN

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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 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. human-rights-careers-logo

Due to the politically-sensitive nature of her work, her real name and exact location have been left out of this article. 

This post was originally featured on Human Rights Careers.

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