Anya Sass: Advocacy Programme Volunteer

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Anya volunteers in the Scalabrini Advocacy Programme. This placement serves as a bridge between her experiences, which were rooted in a very real experience of conflict, and her dreams to become a refugee attorney. Anya reflects on past, present and future, and the threads that link them together.

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 A (long) road to Damascus

As a twelve-year-old, having read her father’s books on conflict and human rights, Anya announced her intention to be a war correspondent. Ten years later, having worked and travelled after high school, Anya planned a week-long trip to Syria. Once she arrived, Anya found a ‘hospitable, magical country rich in history’ – and ended up living there for four years.

Anya lived in Syria from 2011 to 2015 – during the height of the conflict. She was based in one of the oldest city cities in the world, Damascus. Here, she taught English to adult students. ‘There was a market for teaching English because many people were trying to learn the language before fleeing to another country,’ Anya explains.

Living in a warzone, one realizes that conflicts are ‘significantly more nuanced’ than their depiction in media. Although there was not any ‘active fighting’ in her neighborhood, Anya recalls that there was ‘regular shelling coming in from neighbouring areas – including the block next to us – routine car bombs and ambushes in our street’.

Conflict filters deeply into the way you lead your life, Anya explains. ‘You start to create a flawed logic to maintain your sanity. Like choosing to walk on the other side of the street because the bombing is coming from the other direction’.

‘No one makes the choice to be a refugee lightly.’

‘I watched many of my friends (in Syria) make a difficult decision to leave. It makes me angry when people try to categorize refugees as ‘economic migrants’. They just have no idea how difficult it is to make the decision to flee. There is a deep emotional trauma just making that decision, let alone acting on it.’

In 2015, Anya and her Syrian husband made that difficult choice themselves, and decided to go to Canada, Anya’s country of origin. Once there, Anya became increasingly vocal and dedicated to the rights of refugees.

With a plan of pursuing a career in the refugee sector, Anya enrolled herself at university. She is currently completing a joint major in Political Science and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

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If this volunteer placement were a job, this would be my dream job.”

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The South African context

The volunteer placement in Scalabrini dovetailed neatly with Anya’s career plans. ‘If this volunteer placement were a job, this would be my dream job,’ Anya reflects. Her role at Scalabrini is to provide advocacy advice to clients and conduct research projects. However, the advice desk had to close when the National Lockdown was announced in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Volunteering during the Covid-19 pandemic

The pandemic resulted in fundamental changes to Anya’s volunteering placement. All services shifted online, and everyone had to work from home. ‘My placement at Scalabrini suddenly became remote’, she explains (on a Zoom call). ‘I miss dealing with clients – but it has been nice to have time to delve more deeply into research projects.’ She is currently working on research around a specific clause of the South African Immigration Act, which has allowed her the opportunity to interact with several lawyers in South Africa’s migration and refugee sector.

Common threads of migration

Having had such personal experiences of conflict and migration, one wonders if Anya sees any commons thread when working with people who are refugees in South Africa. Despite the very different context, says Anya, ‘I do think that people, wherever they are in the world, just want to have a basic level of comfort and safety.’

In Syria, Anya saw a conflict rooted in deeper histories and anxieties. These anxieties are exploited by bigger powers, which use propaganda to ‘play on people being angry. I don’t think people are inherently bad. Bad things happen to them, and they get manipulated into reacting in a bad way.’

The future

Where will Anya’s life take her next? After the completion of her degree, Anya plans to undertake a postgraduate course in forced migration. The ultimate goal, however is to be a refugee attorney. ‘I want to be a refugee lawyer fighting unfair border regimes … and doing the work I do now, in advocacy and refugee law’.

The volunteer placement at Scalabrini, it seems, has assisted with this goal. 'I’ve always received a lot of really valuable feedback from my work and I feel like I’ve learned a lot in my short time at Scalabrini, as well as come away with some extremely valuable experiences. This placement has been such a great learning opportunity and has only solidified that this is the field I want to stay in.'

With such rich life experiences and such powerful determination, we are sure she will successfully reach her goals. Good luck, Anya!