This is the thirteenth installment of our Alumni Spotlight series, which features interviews with former IRAP students who have become strong advocates and leaders in their fields of practice.
Meet Alex Zetes, former Chair and member of the IRAP chapter at the New York University School of Law, and current Global Advocacy & Policy Manager at the Refugee Solidarity Network.
The views expressed here are entirely her own.
How did you become involved with IRAP and how did IRAP impact your law school experience?
My interest in IRAP began before I even started law school. When I was considering various J.D. programs, I kept seeing IRAP student chapter tables at student life fairs. I had originally decided to go to law school after working with Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa compelled me to pursue a career working with refugees. Given my personal and professional interests, the potential to work directly on a refugee case so early in my legal education was of significant interest to me. The opportunity to participate in a student project like an IRAP chapter became one of the draws of specific law school programs.
When I began at New York University, it was therefore only natural that I applied to join NYU’s IRAP student chapter. During my time at NYU, I first served as a student volunteer on an Afghan SIV case. I also attended IRAP’s Jordan trip, and went on to be Chapter Chair during my 2L year. After I handed off leadership of NYU’s IRAP chapter, I continued to work on my original SIV case, and have worked with IRAP on intake interviews for the last few years.
My involvement with IRAP was the most significant and impactful extra-curricular activity I engaged in during my law school career. It gave me practical, real-life context for what otherwise felt like a rather academic program of study. It also built on and reminded me of my original reasons for wanting to become a lawyer, as well as exposing me to alternative models of engaging with refugee issues.
IRAP has a unique model of partnering law students with pro bono lawyers – please describe your experience working with attorneys on urgent refugee resettlement cases.
As someone who entered law school with a strong public interest bent, working on a case in IRAP’s model was an eye-opening experience for me, as I had never fully understood the value of pro bono partnerships. My student advocate partner and I worked with a very committed attorney based in Texas, who was himself a veteran and felt deeply engaged in making sure our Afghan client, who had been an interpreter with the U.S. Military, was protected under the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program. Unfortunately, our case has turned out to be exceptionally complex, and is still ongoing well after that attorney supervisor had to step off the case. Under IRAP’s model, my student advocate partner, who is now a third-year associate at a law firm in San Francisco, has taken over as the official pro bono attorney on the case, and together she and I supervise a team of two current NYU law students. Working in this way has allowed for us to provide consistent representation to our client.
What have you been doing since you graduated from law school?
After completing a couple fixed-term fellowships, I took on the position of Global Advocacy & Policy Manager at the Refugee Solidarity Network (RSN) in October 2018. RSN is a New York-based 501(c)(3) that works with civil society in some of the largest refugee hosting states around the world to protect refugees where they are. We work in a partnership-based model, which allows us to build strong relationships and ensure that our work complements that of our partner organizations to address the most urgent needs they face on the ground.
In my role as the Global Advocacy & Policy Manager, I work directly on our programs and also look at how we can leverage our programmatic work towards advocacy and policy at the national, regional, and global level. In the last nine months alone, I have worked in-depth on a research project RSN has been spearheading with partners in South and Southeast Asia on protections for the Rohingya in the region, have deepened our programmatic work on pro bono in Turkey with our long-standing partners there, and am leading development on new partnership, capacity-building, and advocacy projects in Mexico. We are currently strategizing on how to best draw connections between these and other projects to further our partners’ work in their respective countries, and to engage in comprehensive advocacy relating to refugee protection more broadly.
In what ways has your involvement with IRAP in law school impacted your career?
Working with IRAP was a pivotal early experience for me in my law school career, as it allowed me almost immediate exposure upon entering law school to the real-life mess that is the U.S. refugee resettlement process. The U.S. legal education system doesn’t often provide sufficient practical experiences for students, and my involvement with IRAP was exceptionally important in opening my eyes to how things work in the real world, which has served me immensely as I’ve begun to build a career in this space.
Concretely, my work with IRAP helped make me competitive for a fellowship I received my first summer of law school, which took me to the UNHCR in Ankara, Turkey. My experience that summer ultimately led me to my current role.
At a time when refugees are more politicized than ever, how do you engage with the issue on a personal level.
For those of us who focus on these issues day in and day out on a professional level, personal engagement becomes a tricky balance of a sense of obligation and of healthy boundaries and protecting one’s own mental health. I, like many of us, am outraged by the current politicization and unnecessary humanitarian crises relating to non-voluntary migration. I feel privileged to be able to devote my professional life to doing what I can to address some of the challenges refugees are currently facing in host countries.
But even with that, it often still doesn’t feel like enough. In my personal capacity I also volunteer at an asylum pro se clinic in NYC and have volunteered in Tijuana. I continue to engage on a personal level where I can, and I try to keep myself informed of ongoing developments.
At the same time, I recognize that, unfortunately, these problems will persist beyond this week, month, and year. In order to protect myself from trauma and burnout, and to be able to continue to work in solidarity with these populations long-term, I’ve also had to institute rigorous practices of self-care. It’s a difficult balance that sometimes feels selfish, but I know that ultimately, both I and my work will be better for it.