How to kick start your humanitarian career

Not so long ago, I was a student, a volunteer, someone who is very passionate about the cause of refugees but who did not know exactly where to start or how to get my dream job. Throughout this journey, I had to correct misconceptions and adopt new attitudes. I had to work on myself and prioritize my interests. And I would like to share with you these not so secret ways to kick start your own humanitarian career.

1. Gain a degree in a relevant field

I am the last person to believe that studying a certain specialty automatically grants you the skills and requirements to land a job in the same field. It is not about WHAT you study per se, but rather about HOW you study it. The majority of staff at the protection unit in many organizations have a legal background as it is the legal unit of the organization. However, I would like to stress that having not studied law in particular does not necessarily exclude you from enjoying this opportunity. I am taking the time to highlight this idea because I would really like professionals in the field to correct this misconception because it does frustrate potential applicants who might actually meet the requirements for the job nonetheless.

Let us rephrase, a degree in law is a great bonus! Protection work is the space where international and humanitarian legal instruments are applied in order to assist displaced people and serve a common cause. So, clearly, having had studied these instruments for years and applied them as a student, an intern or a lawyer makes it much easier for you to do your work properly. However, you can also have the requirements and knowledge to do this kind of work if you have a background in international relations, political science, humanitarian action, human geography…etc. While international relations as a major does not exactly introduce you to legal instruments that you could use for Gender-Based Violence or child protection casework, it does give you the background to understand the reasons behind displacement of human beings, migration trends and the work of international organizations and UN agencies, which is just enough background for you to do well in your job.

What I want to highlight is that whatever you choose to study does not necessarily define your career just yet. It is just a first direction towards what you are meant to be doing and what you will excel at in the future. Protection is about, well, providing protection to vulnerable people. So whether or not you are a lawyer does not define how good of a protection staff member you will be.

2. Be culturally competent

Being part of a UN agency or an international organization means working with people from extremely varied and different cultural backgrounds than your own, every single day! You need to remember this and, if you have never thought about it, you need to take it extremely seriously. For a lot of people, this is probably the hardest part of any work in the field of migration or displacement. It isn’t automatically easy for some people to be in a multicultural environment, let alone deal with people from countries you have never known existed, hear languages with sounds you have never thought a human being could produce and witness traditions you only thought were mentioned in fiction novels. I honestly only heard of Eritrea few years ago when I had to meet a group of Eritrean asylum seekers for the first time in my life. I had no idea what language they spoke and I could not understand for a while what exactly triggered the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia or why they have to be in the military for life. Now I am amazed at how far I've gone by even being able to speak some Tigrinya.

It isn’t easy. But this would be your environment every single day. It isn’t enough to respect different cultures, though. You will have to be culturally competent. It is a skill, and like any other skill, it gets better with time. It is not important how culturally competent you already are; what is more important is how flexible and open you are to learning about these cultures and making an effort to break the cultural barriers. And in a context where people are displaced from their own home, away from everything familiar and arriving at a destination they also probably never knew existed, it is extremely important to take into consideration people’s acculturation processes and realize that, apart from the atrocities of war and the difficult journey, culture shock can be as traumatizing, if not more.

3. Choose your focus

Protection is the cornerstone of humanitarian work and it is a very broad field of work. It revolves around providing a safe space for displaced and vulnerable people and making sure their special needs are addressed. However, with the background of displacement, wars and other atrocities in the world and with the intense difficulty of the journey to the country of asylum, it is important to choose a focus that you are passionate about and focus on it if possible. Some of the common areas of work are child protection, GBV (Gender-Based Violence), Community-Based Protection (CBP), RSD (Refugee Status Determination) and others... In some operations, you would find different people focusing on each of these areas. In others, one person might be the focal point for two or more of these topics.

I haven't thought of this when I first started; and that is why I am including it as one of the basic pathways to start your career, because I feel it is really important to be focused and consistent. When I first started this career, I wanted to do literally everything. RSD, Child Protection, GBV, CBP, MHPSS, you name it.. I even did translation and interpretation at some point because why else would I speak Arabic if I couldn't put it to good use, right? But sooner than later, I realized it was not humanly possible in this career to be the one person who does everything even if you want to, because you will soon get burnt out and helping others will not be an option until you could help yourself first.

4. Be eager to learn

The internet is full of online courses and trainings on topics in the humanitarian field. Once you have chosen your potential focus, you could start looking for relevant trainings online to have at least a basic knowledge on its components and how it is addressed from a humanitarian or protection viewpoint. My best online friends are Coursera and Edx. They have always provided courses related to gender and GBV and others about children in displacement and how to protect vulnerable individuals. They also provide more general courses on international humanitarian law for those who would choose RSD as a focus.

I also recommend researching local and international conferences and events which tackle the issue you choose to work on. Be an eager learner; there is literally no limit to knowledge. So use any free time you have to read and find more information on the area you want to specialize in. Protection is limitless.

5. Volunteer

Volunteering is, according to me, the best way you could gain experience before getting that dream job of yours. As a young student, volunteering can give you space to perform similar tasks with the opportunity to learn from mentors and people who have more experience in the field. This brings me back to my first point about not having to be a lawyer to work in humanitarian aid. Experience and knowledge comes from all sorts of activities you perform while building your portfolio for this position, so know what you want exactly and work accordingly.

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