A Day in the Life of a VLA- Mandy Murphy

The following interview is the first in an ongoing series designed to give supporters and prospective VLAs a better sense of the daily challenges and triumphs of our work. Please share your thoughts by emailing development@asylumaccess.org.

Name: Mandy Murphy

Office: Ecuador

Age: 28

Hometown: Kismet, KS

Schools Attended and Degrees Conferred:
Kansas State University – Bachelor’s Degree, Business Administration
Northwestern University School of Law – Candidate for Juris Doctor, May 2011

What type of law did you practice before volunteering with Asylum Access?
I came to Asylum Access in the summer after my second year of law school.  Previously, I worked in a international human rights legal clinic under the supervision of a clinical professor.  I was part of a team petitioning for individualized sentencing hearings for all the men on Malawian death row in the wake of a court decision abolishing the country’s mandatory death penalty.

What was your greatest accomplishment as a VLA?
My team of VLAs was able to obtain an order demanding that our client’s child be enrolled in school. As an Afro-Colombian, the boy had been denied a seat for the upcoming school year by the director of his elementary school. By collaborating with an administrative agency (similar to CPS), we were able to ensure that the boy had access to his right to receive an education as a refugee.

What was the greatest challenge you faced as a VLA?
The most challenging cases I received as a VLA were cases of security.  At times clients arrive at the office and they have just recently been victims of an attack or a serious threat and they are in such danger that they cannot return to their home. Because of their grave nature and the sense of urgency they bring, these cases can be quite stressful.

Tell a story about a language barrier or cultural difference.
The first case I received as a VLA was that of a Nigerian woman – I was to write her appeal.  In our first meeting, she came to the office to give her testimony and answer any questions I had regarding the facts leading up to her departure from Nigeria.  Ultimately, I learned that she fled due to persecution at the hands of her late husband’s family who were members of a powerful traditional African religion that practiced witchcraft on its enemies.  Overcoming my natural Western skepticism of the supernatural was a somewhat difficult task when it came to drafting the facts of her story in a persuasive way in her appeal.   

Describe a typical workday in Ecuador.
Every workday is different in the Asylum Access office.  Our days are full of a variety of tasks, from providing consultations to walk-ins, conducting country of origin research, drafting appeals or assisting clients with any number of processes related to asserting their rights. The position also requires some degree of interaction with the Ecuadorian government.  Much of a VLA’s day can be spent outside the office at the foreign ministry, the prosecutor’s office, the ministry of education or some other government agency.

Describe a typical day off in Ecuador.
On weekends, I often take advantage of those activities in and around Quito: hiking to the top of Pichincha, biking in Cotopaxi National Park, visiting the market towns of Otavalo or Cotocachi, hiking or zip-lining in the cloud forest near Mindo or just site-seeing in Quito.  On extended weekends, I have traveled to the beach for whale-watching, snorkeling or lounging.

What do you see as the greatest challenge to asserting refugee rights in Ecuador?
As in many countries that experience a large influx of immigration, xenophobia is a problem in Ecuador. Outsiders are generalized, suspected of questionable morals and accused of taking employment opportunities away from Ecuadorians.  A lack of education as to the plight of the refugee is also a problem. If Ecuadorians better understood what it means to be a refugee and what it means to not have anywhere else to find security, there would likely be greater tolerance for the refugee community.

Interview by Anne Davis, Ecuador VLA & Communications Liaison

October 28, 2010