A Day in the Life of a VLA – Rita Crowley-Ornelas

Published May 2012

Name: Rita Crowley-Ornelas

Office: Ecuador

Age: 25

Hometown: Albuquerque, New Mexico

What made you volunteer as a VLA?

I was intrigued by the opportunity to work abroad, better my Spanish and learn more about asylum law.

What was your greatest accomplishment as a VLA?

I am very proud of the work I do in Esmeraldas, a northern province which borders Colombia.  The refugee community in Esmeraldas is particularly underserved, but through my regular visits, consultations, and Know Your Rights trainings, I feel that I am actually making a difference.

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

The greatest professional challenge I have faced has been communicating in Spanish and how it affects my confidence during meetings and interactions with government officials. Through my experiences in Ecuador, I have learned how to maintain my confidence while communicating in Spanish as well as how to ensure that I understand what is being communicated to me.

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

To me, the greatest challenge is the government’s lack of compliance with the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Refugee Convention). I spend most of my time drafting appeals for asylum seekers who have been denied refugee status despite satisfying the necessary requirements under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Unfortunately, only approximately 3% of appeals are granted despite being valid claims.

Describe a typical workday in Ecuador.

The office opens at 9 am. We are open three days a week for walk-in consults. A day of consults involves interviewing 5 to 7 clients, determining what type of case they have, and if it is a case we are able to take.  If we decide to take the case, we file the necessary documents and set up an appointment to meet with the client within one week.  When I am not on consults, I follow up on my current cases and work on documents to submit to the government ministry in charge of refugee status determination.  The majority of my time is spent working on appeals for asylum seekers who have been arbitrarily denied although they fit the refugee definition.

Tell a story about a language barrier or cultural difference.

In addition to running the walk-in clinic in Quito, each VLA is also assigned to work in a province and conduct consultations there.  I travel to the Esmeraldas once a month, which is on the Colombia/Ecuador border. Those who live along Ecuador’s northern coast, and asylum seekers and refugees from Colombia’s coastal provinces speak with a distinct accent. This poses a new challenge of learning how to understand what clients are saying and growing accustomed to the local dialect.

What was one resource you needed that Asylum Access didn’t have?

The lack of resources for travel to my province can sometimes be frustrating as it is a 7-hour bus ride each way.

What is your best memory of your experience in Ecuador?

My best Ecuador experience so far was when several coworkers and I spent the weekend at a beach called Playa Escondida, or Hidden Beach.  Not only was it beautiful and completely secluded, but it was the first quality time I spent with my coworkers.  I remember feeling so lucky to be working abroad with fun, inspiring coworkers.

Describe a typical weekend off in Ecuador.

I usually spend the weekend traveling with friends (my AAE coworkers!). I enjoy going to the beach since the buses to the coast are affordable and it is a nice escape from the mountains. When I’m in Quito, I try to get as much rest as possible, catch up on chores, and usually go out dancing with friends.

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

I really enjoy going out with my coworkers, whether it’s to a happy hour after work or dancing on a Saturday night.  We all get along really well, like to have fun, and spending time together outside of work is a good way to de-stress.

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

Prior to working with AAE, I was certain that I wanted to practice immigration law at a public interest organization for the rest of my life. After being here, however, I am much more interested in working internationally and hope to continue working abroad in refugee rights after my time with AAE comes to an end.

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

All of my legal experiences have been in the field of immigration law with various public interest organizations in the Los Angeles area.  My specific area of interest is detainee rights and direct legal services in detention centers.

Schools Attended and Degrees Conferred:

Occidental College, B.A. in Spanish Cultural Studies, B.A. in Diplomacy and World Affairs
Loyola Law School, J.D.

Interview by Asylum Access Ecuador Volunteer Legal Advocate and Communications Liaison Christina Asencio.