This interview was conducted whilst Lama Fakih was a Syria and Lebanon Researcher at Human Rights Watch. Lama has now left this position to become a Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International.
What do you do as a Syria and Lebanon Researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW)?
My time at HRW is largely spent interviewing victims, government officials, humanitarian workers, or other witnesses to human rights abuse, writing up and editing our research findings, and speaking with the media and in public to get the message out about what abuses we are documenting and what needs to be done to stop them.
Before joining, you worked as the Gender, Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism Fellow at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) at the New York University School of Law. What did that entail?
I was responsible for managing the Center’s project on the United States, Gender, National Security, and Counter-Terrorism. While there, I co-authored CHRGJ’s report, A Decade Lost: Locating Gender in U.S. Counter-Terrorism which was based on research I conducted in the United States, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. While at CHRGJ I also assisted in the legal representation of two individuals formerly detained by the CIA in its secret detention programme (Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., and al-Asad v. Djibouti before the African Commission in Human and People's Rights ACHPR).
Tell us about consulting for the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project in Damascus.
I provided assistance to Iraqi refugees living in Syria seeking resettlement to the United States. The cases I worked on involved individuals who were denied resettlement and who were appealing that determination.
You’ve also been Center Fellow at CHRGJ. What did you do there?
I worked on a range of human rights issues, including the gendered impact of counter-terrorism measures, the U.S. Government’s secret detention, rendition, and enhanced interrogation programme, racial profiling in U.S. immigration practices, the impact businesses have on human rights, and the right to food.
Tell us about researching the implementation of Islamic law in the Egyptian National Courts on a Fulbright Fellowship.
While in Egypt, I researched the foundations of Islamic Law and its implementation in the Egyptian National Courts, focusing on legislation and procedures pertaining to marriage and divorce that had an adverse impact on women. I was focused primarily on women’s limited access to divorce and how this affected their human rights. I examined the methodologies of Islamic and secular women’s rights advocates in trying to press for women’s rights and also supported the work of a local women’s rights NGO.
The skills and knowledge I developed and gained at Sarah Lawrence and then NYU have been essential to my being able to do human rights work today — from my understanding of the law to how to be an effective writer and advocate, my education has been a key part of my trajectory.
What are the particular barriers and advantages to being a woman in your position?
Being a woman has particular advantages and disadvantages in my work. In some cases, being a woman opens doors, for example some victims of rights abuse may be more willing to speak with me because of my gender — particularly when it comes to sexual abuse and other taboo subjects. Perpetrators, perhaps because of their stereotypes about women, are also in some cases more willing to speak to me frankly about their crimes. It does at times make it more difficult to command respect and be taken seriously. Your sex can also open you up to different security vulnerabilities.
What would you recommend to a young woman who would like to pursue a similar career?
Focus on developing the core skills you need for the job — a second language, your writing and interviewing skills, public speaking skills, the ability to multitask and be detailed oriented, teamwork — the rest will come together.
What was your first job, and what did you learn doing it that you still use today?
My first real job was at the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. There I learned that almost everything we see is constructed by people — it was someone’s idea — and you can be one of those people. You can set the context for how others see an issue, understand a problem, and what should be done about it.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far?
People trust me with their stories. The horrific things that have happened to them. They trust me to share it with people that can make a difference. Those relationships are very valuable to me and I take the trust they put in me very seriously. The difficult aspect of course is that often you have a very limited ability to directly affect and improve someone’s very difficult situation.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
Listening, being honest and balanced, being a clear communicator orally and in writing, being a team player and generous with your time, effort, and ideas, not being afraid to lead — these are key aspects of my job. You learn these skills in work and in school but really they are about your character. In my life, my family has played a critical role in helping me to build up these skills.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
How to fail or fall short. It is inevitable. It happens to us all, but never manages to get easier. I think there is such a thing as failing gracefully, but I think it’s rare to find people who can do it.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
Achieving any kind of work life balance is a constant challenge. Not burning yourself out and keeping yourself healthy and sane while doing this kind of work can be a challenge, and it’s one that often falls wholly on your shoulders. Everyone has different coping tactics but I find a healthy balance of time away, yoga, and cultural events keep me centred.
What achievements are you most proud of?
My relationships with the people I work with and on behalf of.
Why the interest in foreign policy?
The world is increasingly global which makes things in seemingly far-off places known to you and relevant to your world. We have to engage with the world around us in the global sense to have an impact on what is immediately around us.
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
My mother. She’s uncompromising on the things that matter, has shown me the value of hard work and importance of love and support for family and community. My values, embodied in my work, come from her.
Lama Fakih | Senior Crisis Advisor | Amnesty International
Seven years' experience
CV in brief:
Find Lama online: @lamamfakih
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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