Alumni Spotlight: Julie Veroff

Julie Veroff
Volunteer Summer, Ghana, 2005

Julie Veroff participated in AJWS Alternative Breaks in Nicaragua and AJWS Volunteer Summer in Ghana in 2005. She received an AJWS-AVODAH Double Impact Social Justice Grant to support her internship with the UN High Commissioner on Refugees in Zambia. Julie is currently pursuing a master's degree in Development Studies at the University of Oxford.

The AJWS-AVODAH Double Impact Social Justice Grant enabled me to spend two months as a research intern for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Meheba Refugee Settlement, Zambia. Opened in 1976, Meheba hosts approximately 14,000 refugees, primarily from Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. Needless to say, their experiences of conflict, trauma and human rights violations are horrific.

During my time in Meheba, I conducted 20 focus groups with nearly 200 people in three different "blocks," or communities. I also interviewed 15 community stakeholders, including the Chief of Police, the Zambian Ministry of Community Development and Social Services, teachers, and refugee staff of the FORGE Women's Center, Peace Education Project and Refugee Advocacy Initiative.

My goal was to understand the operation and perceptions of justice systems in Meheba; how refugees make strategic choices about whether and which justice systems to access; and barriers faced in obtaining justice. Little has been written on justice in the unique space of protracted refugee settlements and camps. They are removed from the conflict, yet not transitional or post-conflict; they are governed by a trio of host state, UNHCR and NGO actors; and they are no longer considered "emergency," but cannot guarantee desirable long-term solutions.

I believe that much of refugee resistance to using formal justice systems in Meheba is due to several factors: distaste for widespread corruption; lack of faith in the investigation capacity of the police; a sense of solidarity in refugee identity that manifests in an unwillingness to see fellow refugees harshly punished in Zambian court; and dire poverty that distorts notions of justice and creates incentives to utilize compensatory rather than punitive justice. There was a great deal of desire on behalf of the general refugee community and particularly refugee leaders for more training on mediation, justice administration and the law and human rights, and a wish for access to legal representation and advice.

My time in Zambia was one of the most academically and personally enriching experiences I have had. This was my first fieldwork-based research experience, and affirmed how crucial it is to truly engage with and investigate the needs and opinions of a community before designing a successful intervention. Being tasked with spending every day out in a community, asking people questions about their lives with the goal of making concrete change based on their input, was the direct action I had been yearning for during my last year in school. It was great to finally be able to connect many of the big ideas discussed in my classes to actual, on-the-ground work.

Professionally, my internship with UNHCR strengthened my desire to work in communities affected by conflict, particularly with vulnerable populations like refugees. I am planning to take a few years after finishing my master's degree to work in the field. Afterwards, I am considering going to law school. Many of the refugees I spoke with felt that if they had access to legal representation or legal advice, respect for human rights within systems of justice could be greatly improved. I have read about models of paralegal programs in developing countries that are geared towards strengthening local justice mechanisms and capacity and I would like to help create or work with an existing organization to extend such a program to protracted refugee camps and settlements.