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Sitting face to face with refugees, listening to their stories, and deciding their future is an intense real-world experience for a college student. Aytugce Birerdinc ’03 (Istanbul, Turkey), had that experience in Lebanon, Beirut, this past summer.

Birerdinc spent two weeks working at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and another two with the law firm of Kadige & Kadige. A government and law major, Birerdinc was earning academic credit for her work with both the commission and the firm.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is an agency that helps the world’s uprooted peoples by providing them with basic necessities such as shelter, food, water, and medicine in emergencies and seeking long-term solutions, including voluntary return to their homes or beginning afresh in new countries. In more than five decades, the agency has helped an estimated 50 million people restart their lives.

“During my internship with UNCHR, I was working in the eligibility department and then, for a short period of time, in the relocation center,” says Birerdinc. “More than anything else it was an emotional experience working with the refugees.” Birerdinc sat in on interviews with people who sought refugee status. It was her job to investigate whether they fulfilled refugee requirement guidelines set by the UNHCR.

“They would tell you their story about escaping, which could be very gruesome and hard to listen to,” recalls Birerdinc. “The first couple days were really tough and I had a big responsibility and hard decision to make. Their stories were really graphic and told about such hard things. I had to remove myself from it all to be able to think logically and critically. The people I worked with had high (emotional) walls around them. You can’t let the personal aspects get to you.”

In addition to being an attentive listener, Birerdinc had to be a bit of a detective as well. “I would find discrepancies throughout some interviews and had to be able to see through people who might be lying about what happened,” she says.

Birerdinc’s internship supervisor was Rafik Saidi, high commissioner of the UNHCR office in Beirut. “Taking into consideration Aytugce’s qualifications, academic background, and time span for her internship, we provided her with a tailored program, including briefing on the mandate of the organization, the refugee definition according to the various international legal instruments, UNHCR activities in Lebanon, e.g. eligibility for refugee status, resettlement to third countries before she started her practical training in the eligibility department,” says Saidi.

“Throughout the various stages of the assignment, she demonstrated a good understanding and showed a good grasp of the new concepts and procedural requirements,” continues Saidi. “Aytugce integrated [into] the UNHCR team very well and showed a great team spirit. Friendly and conscientious, she earned the respect and esteem of all colleagues who worked with her.”

While she was there, the UNCHR took advantage of Birerdinc’s Turkish background and reevaluated all Turkish refugees on file. “During her internship period, although short, Aytugce’s contribution to the office was very positive. Her knowledge of the Kurdish problem and the various Kurdish political factions brought a greater insight in the treatment of Turkish Kurdish cases and helped colleagues in the eligibility unit to assess their cases in a more objective way,” says Saidi.

During her second week at the UNHCR, Birerdinc worked with the resettlement department. “After a refugee has been accepted and has status, there is a long, difficult process to resettle them somewhere in Europe, the United States, or Canada,” she says.

Language was not a barrier for Birerdinc during her time at the UNHRC since she is fluent in English, French, and Turkish. A majority of the refugees were Sudanese and Iraqi, with conversations taking place in Arabic. While the interview was taking place, Birerdinc would read the translation as her colleague typed it in English. Living in Lebanon was not a culture shock either since her parents reside in Beirut. Her father, a United Nations diplomat, is posted in that country.

Birerdinc’s internship gave her real world experience in her major and a glimpse of what a future in international law may hold. “The government and law aspect comes up in reports,” she says. “The way I asked a question was the way a defense lawyer must ask a juror. I had to lead the refugee into telling me what I needed to know. I found that the line of questioning gives you the end result.” After each case, Birerdinc had to provide a case summary, defending, proving, and explaining why the refugee was or was not given status.

“I realized that the work I was doing was really important because I was deciding the future of people’s lives,” says Birerdinc. “It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to help people and see them settled somewhere where they will be physically and emotionally safe.”

“It has been a pleasure having her as a trainee, and I hope that her association with UNHCR will pave the way for a better understanding of UNHCR’s humanitarian work,” says Saidi.

Birerdinc’s internship at Kadige & Kadige found her helping defend a subcontractor who had been hired to do work at a water park. Her supervisor was George Khadige, owner and head lawyer of the firm.

“I was in charge of reading through the contract and all the correspondence that took place and finding a way to defend our client,” says Birerdinc. “The contractor wrote the contract and thus it was very difficult to try and find any material that could be used in our defense. Working at the office with all of the lawyers there gave me a real understanding of the need for social skills and the ability to comprehend complex and complicated documents.”

At the conclusion of her stay at the firm, Birerdinc drew up her own legal resolution.

“The reason that I really enjoyed my internship has to do with the fact that I was able to see the differences that I was making,” she says. “While working at the law firm, I gained a real understanding for the procedural processes of working in a firm. Although I was reading through documents and gathering information most of the time, I knew that my work was going to make a difference in people’s lives — and that is a great motivating force.”

Birerdinc is a member of the International Students Association and participates in many of its activities. “I think that Lafayette does offer opportunities for students to flourish academically,” she says.

Categorized in: Academic News