Day in the Life of a VLA: Andrew Damron

Name: Andrew Damron

Office: Asylum Access Thailand

Age: 28

Hometown: New York City, United States

What type of law did you practice before volunteering with Asylum Access?

Before coming to Asylum Access, I practiced refugee and asylum law in the United States. I worked with the Hofstra Law School Asylum Clinic where I served as a Post Graduate Fellow. While there, I was a mentor to the clinical law students and worked on various asylum cases, which served as a wonderful stepping-stone to my program at Asylum Access.

What made you volunteer as a VLA?

I applied to become a VLA at Asylum Access Thailand because I wanted to gain new perspective on asylum and refugee cases from another part of the world. I wanted to practice in asylum law through a new lens, which would ultimately help me when I return to the United States. Furthermore, I knew that urban refugees in Bangkok are in an extremely vulnerable state because Thailand does not assist asylum seekers and refugees in any capacity. I wanted to work somewhere and provide essential legal services to the most vulnerable populations.

Describe a typical workday in Thailand.

I arrive at the office before 10:00AM. I prepare for my client interviews for the day and usually have one or two meetings scheduled for each day. I anticipate the problems that might come up during the interview. I interview my client (oftentimes with the help of an interpreter). When I’m not meeting with a client, I’m writing client testimonies for my clients’ Refugee Status Determination interview before the Bangkok UNHCR office. Sometimes I also have to write a legal brief for my client. I always look forward to our lunch break, where my coworkers and I venture off into the alleys surrounding our office to find some great cheap Thai food.

Tell a story about a language barrier or cultural difference.

The biggest language barriers usually take place outside of the office since our interpreters are very professional and have gone through extensive training. With that said, on one occasion I was receiving a Thai massage – the ones where they dig deep into your pressure points to the point where tears are dripping down your face. The masseuse asked me if the amount of pressure was okay. I replied with “good,” or so I thought. As it turns out, after an hour-long massage, I repeatedly told her that the massage felt “delicious.” I was completely embarrassed, but now I understand why everybody was laughing at me during that massage.

What is your best memory of your Thailand experience?

My best memory is connecting with my coworkers, who come from five different continents. Everybody has a different background – whether cultural or professional – and it has been a wonderful experience to connect with each of them in some way. When I return to the United States, I know that I will return with an enriched professional and personal experience because of the people around me.

What was your greatest accomplishment as a VLA?

To focus on a small victory, I have a client who is a survivor of sexual assault in his home country. He was ashamed to talk about this experience with me, and he understandably refused to talk about the attack with the UNHCR. If he were to talk about this attack during his refugee status determination hearing, it would show even more profoundly his fear of returning to his home country. After a series of conversations surrounding this issue, he has finally agreed to open up to the UNHCR about this incident, which I feel could significantly help his case.

What was the greatest personal challenge you faced as a VLA?

I had many financial insecurities coming directly from law school (i.e. no savings) to Bangkok to work as a volunteer for six months. In addition to private fundraising efforts, I applied to grants through private organizations and through my law school. Eventually, my financial situation worked itself out as I was awarded two grants to stay in Bangkok for six months. A mentor once gave me some great advice: Sometimes you have to embrace the universe and trust that things will work out.

What was the greatest professional challenge you faced as a VLA?

The greatest challenge is facing secondary trauma as a result of the hearing traumatic stories directly from my clients. This goes hand in hand with not showing emotion during a client interview. For example, I represent three children who were trapped in a house while people set it on fire. They were badly burned as a result. Now, in Thailand, they are seeking refugee status before the UNHCR. As their lawyer, it was difficult to hear the emotional stories and to watch the children cry as they explained to me what happened in their home country. I had to stop the meeting, make some copies to gather myself, and then return to the meeting.

What do you see as the greatest challenge to asserting refugee rights in Thailand?

The wait. As Thailand does not present any opportunities to assert refugee rights, asylum seekers rely completely on UNHCR. The situation is severe for urban refugees in Bangkok because UNHCR Thailand is overwhelmed beyond its capacity.

There are currently over 7000 urban refugees located in Bangkok (3656 registered asylum seekers, 1004 recognized refugees, and 3100 pending / unregistered asylum seekers). The UNHCR is not able to process each client with haste, and many asylum-seekers’ Refugee Status Determination interview dates extend beyond two years of their registration date.

Over the past year, there has been a significant influx of Pakistani urban refugees. While many asylum seekers registering now will have an interview date in late 2014 or early 2015, Pakistani asylum seekers will likely not have their RSD interview before 2017. Thus, for many clients it can be several years before they have any result from the UNHCR on their refugee status determination hearing, which will in turn take even more time to proceed with resettlement.

What one resource did you need that Asylum Access didn’t have?

The VLAs at AAT have had the opportunity to work with a local psychotherapist and talk about many new things, such as sexual and gender based violence. Based on these meetings, we realized that we need even more training in interviewing survivors of sexual and gender based violence.

How will this experience shape your future career plans/goals?

I have an even deeper understanding of the importance of legal services for asylum seekers and refugees. Upon my return, I will continue to promote the advocacy for asylum seekers and refugees throughout the world and plan to continue working in asylum and refugee law.

Schools Attended and Degrees Conferred

Hofstra University School of Law, Juris Doctor (2013)
Drexel University, Bachelor of Science in International Area Studies (2009)