Day in the Life of a VLA: Felista John

Published June 2013.

Name: Felista John

Office: Tanzania

Age: 28

Hometown: Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

How did you hear about Asylum Access?

I heard about Asylum Access through the website. I had once met a VLA, so I already had a personal contact. I became very interested when she told me that Asylum Access worked with refugees. At that time, I was studying in Spain. I decided to postpone going back in order to apply as a VLA at Asylum Access Tanzania and my dream came true.

What was it specifically that attracted you to becoming a VLA?

This has been a very long inspiration to me because I like to work with refugees. That’s why I decided to study refugee law and human rights law at the university while completing my law degree at Tumaini University-Iringa. I also volunteered for an organization in Arusha called Arusha Women Legal Aid and Human Rights Centre. This was during my university break and I happened to gain more experience working in the area of human rights. With the courses I chose during my university studies, I was sure that I could one day work for refugees and in human rights in general.

What has been your greatest accomplishment so far as a VLA?

Since I came to AATZ, I can say that my greatest accomplishments come from working with my clients. For example, once, a couple came for a consult and I managed to draft a letter on the same day and with luck, they were recognized as asylum seekers. They are currently waiting to be considered for refugee status determination. That is one of my greatest accomplishments.

What is the greatest challenge to asserting refugee rights in Tanzania?

It’s difficult to have refugee applications accepted, and that’s the constant challenge we face at AATZ. We are not the ones making decisions; we can only provide legal aid to refugees and asylum seekers. What we do is address the issues and our clients sometimes wait many months for a response. This is a big frustration for me. For example, yesterday we learned that a letter had been issued about a case, but we had not been informed along with the client. We had been waiting for four months without news. You usually expect a response within a week, but not more than that. This client was living in a desperate situation, not knowing what would happen. To address this kind of problem, we are always following up to see what’s happening with our clients.

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

I would say language is most difficult, though we have other challenges as well. For instance, our office doesn’t have any air conditioning. We work in a very hot environment; sometimes you wish you could work outside because it’s so hot.

How long have you been working at AATZ? What is your role and has it changed since you began?

I began in August of 2012 and I have four months remaining until the end of my contract. My responsibilities are to provide legal aid to refugees and asylum seekers at our office. I also work in other programs like our Women’s Empowerment Group (WEG) and I was also involved in the prison survey of refugees and asylum seekers [report forthcoming in late 2013].

Can you describe what a typical workday looks like at Asylum Access Tanzania?

I leave my neighborhood, Mbezi, early in the morning in order to catch the bus. Because of the terrible traffic in Dar es Salaam, it takes around one hour and half to get to the office. I arrive around 8:30 or 9:00 am and drink a cup of coffee. If it is one of my intake days, I will meet with the new clients. If there are no new clients, I’ll work on other things, follow up with prospective clients or sometimes review WEG programs to identify new topics for the group meetings.

I divide my time between programs, depending on the needs. With the different programs available, we have clients coming in everyday. You find everyone very busy working on their different projects, cases or programs. It’s pretty busy in the office.

Before you started working with AATZ, were you aware of the situation refugees face in Tanzania?

I knew a little bit. I knew we had refugees and urban refugees, but I didn’t know in detail what was happening in the field. I’ve learned that we have other local NGOs working with refugees, not just UNHCR, who are doing a great job. I’ve also learned about the urban refugee policy that we are advocating for so that refugees can live in urban areas and participate in other activities instead of being sent to camps. I really like this element of our work, engaging the government about important issues through policy advocacy.

Tell us a story about a language barrier or cultural difference.

I once interviewed a client from the DRC and he told me that he spoke Swahili. So I started the interview, but then I realized he wasn’t speaking Swahili. I needed to call an interpreter and we started the interview over again in French. I realized that Congolese Swahili is different from Tanzanian Swahili so it is sometimes difficult to understand the client and provide advice. It’s useful to speak French since most of our clients speak French fluently.

What do you normally do on the weekend?

Coming from Kilimanjaro, which is very, very hot, I enjoy going to the beaches on the weekend. We don’t have any beaches at Kilimanjaro. So I go to the beaches on Saturdays. On Sundays, I go to church in the morning, then I return home to prepare some food for lunch and dinner. Sometimes I go out with my friends, but I make sure to get home early so I get up on time on Monday.

How will this experience shape your future career plans/goals and what will you do at the end of your contract?

This experience has brightened my knowledge of refugee and human rights issues. In the future, I would like to continue working with vulnerable people, especially refugees. I wish I could continue in this area and with this group of people.

At the end of my contract, I will be going back to school to study Peace and Conflict Studies in Spain. I postponed my studies to volunteer at AATZ, but I will be going back in September to finish the remaining 5 months. When I return to Tanzania, I would like to continue working with AATZ.

Schools Attended and Degrees Conferred:

– Master of Arts in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies- James 1 University, Spain (expected in 2014)
– Postgraduate Diploma in Management of Foreign Relations at Mozambique-Tanzania Centre for Foreign Relations, Dar es Salaam-Tanzania
– Bachelor Degree in Law, Tumaini University-Iringa (Tanzania)