Friday, September 16, 2016

Dear Mom, I've run away and joined the lawyers!

So, I landed this amazing opportunity through the Young Lawyers International Program (YLIP), which is run by the Canadian Bar Association (CBA). The short of it is that I’m being paid* to live and do legal work abroad. 

Specifically in South Africa.

More specifically with Lawyers for HumanRights.

Guys, this is a big deal. It is hugely thrilling, and honestly a little intimidating. I’m stepping out into legal work and immediately being handed responsibility for some seriously vulnerable people, so I am very intent on doing it right the first time as much as I possibly can. I should also make sure to say right off the bat that I’m really, really excited to be going back to Africa!

Passing through construction on the new terminal at YYC, and I laughed hard when I realized that to get between terminals, Calgary is going to use shuttles on roads inside the airport. This city's love of roads and cars is incredible.

A Little Bit of Context
Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) is a non-governmental organisation aiming to promote awareness and protect the enforcement of human rights. The group’s activities originated in South Africa, but are slowly expanding abroad. LHR began in 1979, fighting oppression and the abuses of human rights that took place under apartheid. Their work is now multifaceted, and has grown to include projects related to voter education, refugee and migrant populations, housing, land, unsafe working conditions, gender violence, as well as penal and environmental reforms. First and foremost, LHR is a watchdog whose goal is to produce clear strategic policy that allows for the effective delivery of socio-economic rights for disadvantaged persons. One of the ways they do this is by providing free legal services for individuals (and communities), both non-national and South African, who have had their constitutional rights infringed.

My Role in the Field
It took me a little while to really internalize that what I’ve signed up for is kind of international aid work. My role with LHR is to provide as much support for their existing initiatives as I am reasonably able to. One of the reasons Canadian interns are taken by LHR is because Canada was very influential in helping South Africa redraft their post-apartheid constitution. For this placement, my support is focused on two projects in particular:

Project 1: Strategic Litigation Unit
The self-stated mission of the Strategic Litigation Unit (SLU) is ‘to use the law as a positive instrument for change and to deepen the democratisation of South African society. To this end, it provides legal services free of charge to vulnerable, marginalised and indigent individuals and communities who are victims of unlawful infringements of their constitutional rights.’

My work with the Strategic Litigation Unit (SLU) is going to involve refugees. The African National Congress (ANC) is the ruling party here, and is attempting to pass amendments to the Refugee Amendment Act (RAA). The proposed changes are alarming in that they are functionally proposing to strip refugees of many fundamental human rights. In some ways this is obvious as you read through the proposed changes. However, how far-reaching the impacts of many of these changes are is still only just becoming apparent to me. Although I read the proposed amendments before arriving, I am not intimately familiar with other South African laws. As I have started working my way through material for clients (think: the Refugees Act, the Immigration Act, and the regulations around identification and access to services) I am running headfirst into amendments that vastly change a person’s quality of life, their recognition as a person, and their chance at resettlement.

For a group of persons who already face abuses because of their vulnerability even with protections in place, the repercussions of this potential law are very scary. Litigation is already underway in an attempt to stop the bill from passing into law, and my role is to assist with research, drafting, and whatever other tasks my supervisor decides on as we head toward the Constitutional Court.

Looking out over Pretoria. Everything is red and green, even with the very serious drought South Africa has been facing over the last year. Water rationing is becoming common, and rain isn't predicted (even though it's the rainy season now) until November.

Project 2: Refugee and Migrant Rights Project
Dove-tailing nicely with the SLU, my work with the Refugee and Migrant Rights Project (RMRP) also clearly involves refugees. South Africa takes in one of the highest numbers of refugees annually; mostly from some of the less stable neighbouring nations, but also the rest of Africa. I’ve been told to expect that at least 60% of my clients will be French-speaking, and to remember to use my mandatory holiday time fully.

Both projects will involve taking a very hard look at some intense stories. Individuals can claim refugee or asylum-seeker status for a variety of reasons, but almost all of those reasons involve some level of loss, violence, or tragedy. While I am with the RMRP, I will be a part of the team that interviews incoming claimants and ‘triages’ their issues to help them navigate the government, and how to access the services their human rights and the constitution guarantee. (This appears to involve a lot of suing the government.)

Like many restaurants in buildings that are under construction in London, the South African government does not seem to particularly care that LHR serves them fairly regularly. 
As you might expect, there is a fair amount of overlap between RMRP and SLU. This is in part because the SLU takes cases from the RMRP to support class action-type constitutional litigation, and that is the crux of my purpose here.

So… there’s my next seven months in a nutshell, guys. If I can guarantee anything at this point, it’s that this internship is definitely not going to be the sort of thing where I am responsible for fetching coffee and dropping off dry cleaning.

So far, the trip has gone incredibly well. I stopped over in London for two days to fight off some of the jetlag, made it to my apartment without incident, and my first day at work mostly involved very routine things. Everyone at the office was wonderful, I can now access my office independently, and by Monday I should even have computer access. The keys here are hilariously old fashioned, everything I’ve eaten has come in huge helpings and been delicious, and the view from my apartment is pretty beautiful.

Catching the matinee performance of Stomp! in London. I highly recommended, seeing this if you can.

Childhood taught me that this is what keys are supposed to look like. 

I may have to 'forget to pack a lunch' once a week. 

Just to dispel any potentially hilarious assumptions:

Yes, I have hot and cold running water.
Yes, I sleep on a bed with a mattress.
Yes, there is a fridge, and fully functioning kitchen.
Yes, I can and do purchase food from a grocery store.
Yes, I do have (intermittent) internet, which means…
Yes, I 100% still have access to Netflix. I admit I was not expecting that one.
Yes, this is a developed city, and I do not wander the streets on dirt roads with livestock.

… although I freely admit that two other YLIP interns posted photos earlier today about the donkey and cow they encountered on their separate walks to work this morning. In Johannesburg.

I guess this is (still) Africa?

*(Kind of paid. It's a stipend and living allowance. You know, so that I don't starve while I'm over here. Definitely nothing lavish haha!)

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