This is the fourteenth 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 Mariana Olaizola, former Legal Director and member of the IRAP chapter at Yale Law School, and current Social Protection Officer at the UNHCR.
The views expressed here are entirely her own.
How did you become involved with IRAP and how did IRAP impact your law school experience?
I enrolled in law school with the firm intention to develop an expertise in international and domestic refugee law. After spending more than two years working in Myanmar, where I witnessed widespread displacement and statelessness, my mission in law school was clear: to acquire the knowledge and skills I needed in my professional life to help create a better, freer and more humane world for people who need to migrate in search of safety.
When I was deciding among different law schools, a student at Yale Law School (YLS) told me about the work she was doing with IRAP. I knew right away that I would seek to join IRAP from day one of law school, and so I did. I volunteered with IRAP during all three years at YLS, doing in-depth casework as well as intakes, and served as a student Legal Director during my 2L year. I was also lucky to participate in the Spring break trip to Jordan, where we had the chance to assess the regional situation from up-close and interact with individual refugees.
IRAP’s law school chapter members provide aid to our clients and support for our legal, litigation, and policy advocacy initiatives. Please describe your experience working on IRAP projects to secure and expand pathways to safety for displaced people.
As a volunteer for IRAP, I worked on a couple of complex cases which demanded a lot of creative thinking, time and persistence. Both cases involved representing particularly vulnerable refugees who faced steep legal obstacles in their resettlement cases. I learned a huge amount while working on those cases – not only about the law and legal argumentation, but also about what it takes to be a supportive team member. The second case I worked on was intractable, and my frustration with the lack of legal solutions available inspired a 60-page legal analysis that I submitted as my J.D. thesis (at Yale, called the “SAW”).
What have you been doing since you graduated from law school?
I have been working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at the regional office for Southern Latin America on promoting the social and economic inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers, mainly through advocating for their integration into social protection schemes at the local and national levels. As part of my work, I meet with government representatives to negotiate changes in administrative regulations that respond to the needs of refugees and vulnerable migrants.
In what ways has your involvement with IRAP in law school impacted your career?
Through IRAP, I represented my first refugee clients, which was a beautiful, challenging and deeply rewarding experience. I was also privileged to participate in a clinical seminar with IRAP’s Executive Director Becca Heller and former Deputy Legal Director Lara Finkbeiner, in which we had the chance to look closely and critically at the different elements of international and domestic refugee law. My participation in IRAP also coincided with the enactment of the Muslim Ban and the flurry of litigation efforts that followed – several of which were led by IRAP. Witnessing these processes unfold was a riveting and eye-opening experience.
At a time when refugees are more politicized than ever, how do you engage with the issue on a personal level?
Protecting and advocating for the rights of refugees is my daily work, whether I am in the office or out in the field. The work is highly conceptual at times, and very practical (sometimes even tediously so) at other times. What enriches me the most, on a personal level, is having direct interactions with the people we are working for and seeing the impact of what we do, even when that impact seems small compared to the magnitude of the needs.