Day in the Life of a VLA- Ben Lewis

Name: Ben Lewis

Office: Tanzania

Age: 32

Hometown: Kansas City, Kansas, USA

What made you volunteer as a VLA?

After working with Asylum Access San Francisco as a Policy Advocacy Intern as a law student, I was excited to have the opportunity to continue working with the organization as a Volunteer Legal Advocate (VLA) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. As a policy advocate, so much of the work is theoretical. The legal issues are truly challenging and engaging, but I missed the direct client interaction and real life stories that had brought me to law school in the first place. So when I had the opportunity to accept a Global Justice Fellowship through the University of San Francisco Law School, I jumped at the chance to live and work in solidarity with the very communities that I had been advocating for earlier on Capitol Hill.

What was your greatest accomplishment as a VLA?

Beyond the individual client victories that we’ve been able to accomplish, I’m quite proud of the policy advocacy and coalition building that I have done around refugee and asylum seeker rights. I have forged strong working relationships with our US embassy and civil society partners here in Dar es Salaam. As a result, I was able to have language inserted into two forthcoming human rights reports touching on the rights restrictions (specifically, restrictions on the freedom of movement and the right to work) imposed by the current Tanzanian Refugees Act of 1998.

I have also strengthened our relationships with regional and international partners around issues of refugee and migrant detention, children, and women’s rights. As a result of these efforts, Asylum Access Tanzania is playing an integral role in the regional migrant detention dialogue. For example, we are looking to co-host a regional East African workshop on migrant detention in 2012, and have made a submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants on refugee and asylum seeker detention in Tanzania.  We are also beginning to partner more strategically with other legal service providers in the hopes of taking a more active role in addressing the procedural due process violations endemic to the Tanzanian refugee system.  These are accomplishments that I hope will have lasting impacts on the organization.

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

The greatest professional challenge so far has been the technological limitations of the office, both in terms of infrastructure and staff capacity. In terms of infrastructure, the office would benefit from updated (1) computer hardware, (2) computer software, (3) telephone system, (4) internet signal amplifier, (5) high capacity printer, and (6) PDF scanner.

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

The Tanzanian government’s position on refugees has been the greatest challenge. As a result, prioritizing policy advocacy is likely the most helpful approach to help our clients assert their rights, in addition to individual legal counseling and Know Your Rights workshops.

Describe a typical workday in Tanzania.

I enjoy a short 20-minute walk to the office from my apartment in the hip Mikocheni neighborhood of Dar es Salaam’s northern district, and am at the front doors by 8:00am. Clients are frequently awaiting us even at this early hour, and I usually get straight to work either conducting client intakes, following up on outstanding client issues, or working on any one of a number of policy or grant proposals. Here in Tanzania, it is customary to serve coffee or tea in the morning, so VLAs enjoy a leisurely caffeine break mid-morning while checking in on emails or chatting with other staff. The entire staff take a lunch break from 12:30pm  to 1:30pm, often eating together outside under a banda (thatched roof shelter). After lunch, it is more work and then home around 5:30 or 6:00pm.

Tell a story about a language barrier or cultural difference.

The main language spoken in Tanzania and throughout East Africa is Kiswahili. However, nearly all of our clients are multi-lingual. In addition to Kiswahili, they frequently speak English, French, German and/or a number of regional languages and dialects. As a result, our office has no fewer than three interpreters on call to facilitate client interviews. It is easily the most linguistically diverse place I’ve ever lived. My days are often beset with language and cultural barriers. But I find that one gesture is nearly universal: a smile. This has gotten me through many difficult and potentially tense moments here in Dar already — from haggling with bajaji drivers and market vendors, to navigating the public bus (dala-dala) system, or conducting client intake interviews — I find that an honest humility, desire to communicate, and a simple smile go a long way.

What is your best memory of your experience in Tanzania?

My best memory of the experience so far just happens to be one of the earliest. Within my first weeks at Asylum Access Tanzania, I was able to assist my first client — a Kenyan man who had fled multiple attempts on his life due to the political and ethnic violence following the 2008 Kenyan elections. This man had been all but abandoned by the humanitarian and legal regimes created to protect him.  UNHCR officials told him that he did not qualify for refugee status, and he was similarly rejected out of hand by the Tanzanian government without ever receiving an RSD interview. Due to our advocacy, this man and his family were able to exercise their legal right to protection and are now seeking formal refugee status as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

Unfortunately, such stories are all too common in Tanzania.  So my best memories continue to be driven by the individual clients that I am able to advocate on behalf of and for whom I am able to make a tangible impact in their ability to realize their human rights.

Describe a typical weekend off in Tanzania.

Life in Dar es Salaam has been both inspiring and challenging. A typical day off involves being gently awoken at 4:45am by the Adhan (Islamic call to prayer). Dar es Salaam is approximately 50% Muslim and 50% Christian, and the Adhan can be heard throughout the city at the five prescribed times of the day. On a well-rested morning, I’ll take a short jog down to the beach and watch the sun come up over the Msasani Peninsula. The hues of red and orange over the Indian Ocean are a breathtaking way to start the day. On the other hand, if I’m feeling a bit lazy, the call to prayer is a reminder that I can go back to sleep for a couple more hours!

What is your favourite way to de-stress while in Tanzania?

My favorite way to de-stress is at my other “headquarters” — Mbalamwezi Beach Bar, located just across the street from my apartment.

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

My experience with Asylum Access Tanzania is changing the way that I see refugee and asylum law. During my legal studies, courses on refugee law were regarded as somewhat static international norms — widely accepted and hardly controversial.  I envisioned refugee law practice as a primarily paper pushing activity — as the cross between an immigration officer and an underpaid corporate attorney.  But asylum and refugee law is highly dynamic and rewarding in practice. It challenges me daily and requires excellent interpersonal skills, reading, writing and critical thinking.  It provides a myriad of opportunities for zealous advocacy on behalf of courageous and inspiring clients.

My legal and scholarly focus to this point has been primarily international development and humanitarian accountability.  Because of my work with Asylum Access, I am appreciating more the complex and multifaceted ways that human migration both prompts and is exacerbated by humanitarian response.  And because of this experience, I see myself continuing to work directly with refugees, migrants and displaced peoples as I work to promote greater humanitarian accountability.

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

Prior to attending law school, I worked in the immigrant rights movement in Kansas City, Kansas with a grassroots community-based organization providing economic, social, and educational programs to a population of primarily undocumented urban immigrants.

During my time at USF Law school, I was Student Bar Association President; President of the International Law Society; Managing Editor of the Journal of Law & Global Justice; and a founding member of Law Students for Global Justice, a student-led global justice advocacy group. I was also fortunate enough to study international criminal law and transitional justice in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; advocate alongside an indigenous peoples federation before the International Finance Corporation’s Compliance/Advisor Ombudsman in Pucallpa, Peru (regarding human rights accountability in international development lending); and successfully advocate before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights on behalf of internally displaced Haitian peoples (regarding a moratorium on forced evictions from IDP camps).

Schools Attended and Degrees Conferred:

College of William & Mary, Bachelor of Arts in History and Religion.
University of San Francisco School of Law, JD Honors, International & Comparative Law.

Interview by Nadhifa Mahmoud, Volunteer Legal Advocate and Communications Liaison, Asylum Access Tanzania.