A Nairobi Summer: Internship at the UNHCR
Amy Kim is an Industrial Relations major in her fourth year at McGill. In the summer of 2013, she had the opportunity to work for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Nairobi, Kenya, as an external relations and public liaison intern. For two months, Amy learned about the organizational proceedings of refugee protection and helped edit, summarize, and evaluate the legitimacy of UN refugee reports. Here is the interview that follows.
Interviewer: So tell me about how you got your job?
Amy Kim: My friend's mom works in the UNHCR, so I harassed her contacts perpetually to the point that I was being irritating. But needless to say, I got the job!
I: Is there any advice you would give to students who are looking for internships at developmental agencies?
A: I had to pester a lot of people in order for me to get where I was. So don't give up. Email potential employers constantly, call them, do everything you can until someone shows interest. If they don't show interest, it's fair – they're busy people - but there's bound to be one person who'll be curious as to why this person was so persistent in the first place!
I: Can you tell me a little about your responsibilities working as an intern there?
A: I was in charge of all public documents, from their creation, editing, to final formatting. I formulated press releases, informational brochures, and wrote letters to potential donors.
I also organized maps, the metrics of statistics, reports used within these public documents, and just generally monitored and managed all the public information being given to the agency from the actual field, where people were overlooking the refugee problems. I would create a document that summarized all the arguments within the public information I was given by the people who worked in the field, and write up a “Practices and Lessons Learned” from the public reports so people didn't have to read 20 to 50 pages of the report. I saw what development programs succeeded, and what programs could use improvement.
I also did a lot of general office work, such as data filing. There was this one day called “Evaluation Period,” where people from the head office from Geneva came in to evaluate everyone's jobs at each department. I had to create binders full of statistics, documents, and reports to inform evaluators what my department had been doing.
I: That's a lot of responsibilities! Can you tell me about some of the refugee topics you worked on?
A: Well, one report I had to read over and check the legitimacy of the metrics used was on food and shelter in East Africa. There was also another report updating us of the various refugee camps in Darfur. Basically, I just looked over all these reports from the field and made sure to validate any unclear information.
I: There must have been some challenges involved in your internship.
A: It was a very bureaucratic system. If you published anything, it would take months to get it approved. Also, each person will tell you to change various things, so every time you they do, you have to go back to the report and reformat it.
It was also pretty frustrating that my boss had to take on more than she could handle. All the people at the UN are highly motivated people that want to do their best to aid the refugees, so she was swimming in so much work and giving the interns tasks that weren't necessarily related to our department. Sometimes, it would be work that the human resources or social media department were in charge of doing, not work that was related to the public informations department.
I: Well, what was the biggest lesson you learned while on your internship?
A: Statistics are really dismal (laughs). But one statistic that really resonated with me was the fact that there are 300,000 refugees in East Africa, but only 3,000 get homes while the rest stay in campsites. The people at the UNHCR are already working overtime to get more people into homes. I guess I just gained a greater respect for those who work in development. They work so hard and oftentimes they don't see much results or the results come slowly. Yet, they all continue to work for the cause.
I: In contrast, what was one of the most satisfying parts of your internship?
A: Oh, there was constantly news because you were working in a large organization. There's always something going on – rebels are being displaced, crises are occurring. It all unfolded in front of me. For example, when I was working, there was a crisis were Rwandans were fleeing from the DRC, and 60,000 people were displaced along the border, trying to get into Rwanda. The UNHCR had to send in people, shelters, and tents.
I saw it all going on in the office – I sat in on conferences and saw all the projects being implemented to deal with the situation. It was satisfying to know that there are actual people in this place working towards crisis amelioration.
I: Do you have any tips for first year students after your experience?
A: I would say that if you are interested in doing development, go to the actual field. Don't work in the office and do administrative stuff like I did. I didn't get to see the groundwork – the sweat and grit – of development at all while I was sitting at my desk. It's also better to work in the field and then work in the office, so you actually have experience and are conscious of what programs are most helpful to refugees, and then start to implement such programs in the office.
I: Finally, developmental internships often get students to move out of their comfort zone, especially because they're living in a new area that they might not be comfortable with. Did you experience any sort of culture shock while you were in Nairobi?
A: I personally didn't, because I've moved around my entire life, living in places like Jakarta, Indonesia, for instance. It wasn't that hard to adjust. However, I would suggest that before going, it's important to do research on the place you'll be living in. The problem is that western media tends to dramatize and play up the violent parts of Nairobi, but it wasn't that bad. I felt that watching movies made by non-western, local Kenyan directors helped give me a very different perspective of Kenya.
Ultimately, Amy's internship provided her with an eye-opening experience to the organizational structure of developmental organizations. While developmental work may sound exciting, it presents its own set of challenges, such as overwork, bureaucratic wrangling, and unfortunately, sometimes a lack of any results or improvement in aid. Nevertheless, her internship was rewarding and provided a short glimpse into the life of a staff member at the UNHCR.