When the notion of this blog first gestated in my mind, I had a vague hope to curate the testimonies of significant figures that crossed my professional world, and share it with others as a way to communicate the essence of a meaningful life. I am kicking off this interview series with Perrine LeClerc, whose dedication to refugee protection with the UN Refugee Agency has led her to Russia, Turkey, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Uganda, Chad, Mexico, France and Niger. Presently, she is based in Paris and is the Head of Office for a Migrant Shelter in Nanterre. I first met and befriended Perrine about 7 years ago when we were both stationed in Ankara and immediately fell in love with her genuine and unpretentious personality. Despite moving on to different hemispheres, we continued to stay in touch about our present highs and lows and she never stopped inspiring me with her courage and honesty both in her professional and personal journey. Interviewing her for this project of mine has only further heightened both my affection and respect for her, and I hope you get as much out of it as I did! If you want to know more about the type of work that Perrine has engaged in, then these articles from The Guardian (here) and The New York Times (here) (which also features Perrine) may interest you.
1. Describe your childhood influences and what you believe shaped you to be where you are today.
I was born in Reims, and the first of a family of four. Very quickly this was my place- the elder one. Somehow I was always taking care of my sisters. Yet despite this ‘leadership’ role I was a shy introvert. I spent time reading and it was through books that I created my own personality. I was an idealist, a dreamer. I was captivated by the adventures of heroes doing good things for society, who wanted to make a difference and who stood out because of their courage and strength. So Jean Valjean, the 3 Musketeers, Jean of Arc were the characters that struck a chord in me. And all the collections by Emile Zola and Victor Hugo. For me it was not enough to be shining and famous without having done something noble for others, or a cause bigger than your own self. Indirectly I guess this was also what made me conscious of social justice. All of this was on an aspirational level.
On a practical level, I just loved adventure. I was a Scout since I was little so this exposed me to the positive values of living in a community, respecting others, respecting the environment, prioritising team spirit and all the creativity that comes along in this territory. These are still values I thrive on till today.
2. When did you start working in the humanitarian industry and why did you choose to do so?
Before I started University, I went with a group of 7 friends to Peru for a social-development project after preparing for 2 years. It gave me a taste of what type of work I wanted to engage in later but I didn’t know how to channel that specifically yet in terms of my academic studies. I eventually read Law at Tours University in order to have a solid, multi-disciplinary training, and because the subject also corresponded to my ethics and desires for equity. The first year of law sort of opened my eyes to how to world was structured and I felt I was rediscovering the world in a different lens, and re-processing news, political issues and challenges within this new lens.
It somehow made me also more invested in the world as a whole, and I had this notion of wanting to fight against injustice and bigger causes globally. I wasn’t sure what to do so first I took 1 year break and went to England to improve English, then I interned at Amnesty International in Budapest. I enjoyed my time there but it also became clear to me I wanted direct contact with people, and this I couldn’t find in advocacy alone. Then I did a Masters in Political Science in Grenobles University which further drew me into the humanitarian field and human rights world. At the same time, I was crazy curious and passionate about Slavic countries and wanted a taste of life there. So I went to Moscow, and did an internship with UNICEF and through inter-agency meetings I met UNHCR representatives and got my first job at UNHCR Moscow. It dawned on me then that I really enjoyed work in refugee protection because it has both sides – legal expertise in terms of how it defines and structures refugee protection, and at the same time the field exposure in terms of how it gives you direct, boots on the ground contact with the organisation’s beneficiaries. So it has the nice mix of action and law.
In a way you can say that my interest in social justice and going to the field have always seen me heading towards the humanitarian world since Budapest or even Peru, but by the time I worked for UNHCR in Moscow in 2007, my clarity on how I wanted to manifest these passions became stronger.
3. What is your significant memory about the job that you feel has helped you grow as a person?
Russia was definitely the beginning of change. Admittedly, I didn’t really know about the refugee fate this is not really what brought me to UNHCR specifically. But in my daily contact with the refugee population, I then completely embraced the cause of refugees as I spent hundreds of hours listening to their stories their doubts, fears, hopes, resilience and dignity though they had gone through so much. And that always kept me in admiration. I remember meeting grown men who had traversed through the mountains to flee their past, one with a son who lost his leg, and they were weeping in front of me. As a woman I felt touched by the tears of men, and to see that kind of courage by those who have experienced so much of life’s cruelty moved and changed me.
And also on a personal level, I was going through so much adjustment between the Russia of my fantasy and the Russia I was living. I previously understood Russia through Tolstoy and Dostoevsky but once actually living there I discovered a hardship, a fatality and an aggressiveness. I rebelled against everything I saw. They are strong people, their lives are so full and so extreme. I was reconciling between fiction and reality and learnt more tolerance from this.
I think in the beginning of this kind of work though, it’s possible to struggle between your professional and personal life and let each bleed into the other and eventually I learnt how to balance that.
4. Which duty station has left you with the most significant memories and why?
I loved all of my experiences especially in Africa because I was working in camps which is what I really wanted to do but Mexico remains my most treasured professional experience. It was as though the first time in my life, I had my dream job. It was really hard, I was on the field at the border, at a very specific time when there were big changes of migration flows and UNHCR’s work then was unique. Our objective was to basically make sure people fleeing from Central America wouldn’t risk their lives crossing Mexico into the USA but to stay in Mexico and seek asylum in Mexico.
Work menu was filled with diversity – we had capacity building programmes with the government to ensure that asylum seekers were informed of their right to seek asylum. We were developing new shelters for people for a new purpose and not just as a stop gap measure. Developing programmes for humanitarian assistance including cash based interventions covering 2 big regions of Mexico – Chiapas and Oaxava. And also visiting all the detention centres, preventing refoulement and ensuring people were aware of their rights.
I was just learning a lot and every day was different. When I started we had a team of 8 and by the time I left it was a team of 20. For me that was the most rewarding and challenging experience ever and I was just doing what I loved.
5. For the people who are suffering because of war and persecution what do you think people as individuals can do to participate in being part of the solution?
In our own world there are too many conflicts but as soon as we recognize the existence of the person and their past, and not ignore or close them in a political box, it’s good. It doesn’t have to be something humanitarian or big.
6. Do you have a favourite piece of art, whether music, photography or literature, that you feel strongly reflects how you feel about the work you do.
Nina Simone – Ain’t Got No, I Got No Life. The lyrics are great, as it reflects on what is it that you actually need to have a meaningful life, and it isn’t very much at all.
Khadijah Nin – Sina Mali Sina Din. It’s about freedom. ‘I have nothing but I am free. No fortune no debt, flies away like a bird. I am free.’
7. You work closely with people who have lost everything. Seeing and knowing that, how does that impact how you want to live your life?
I am much more tolerant, judge less and am always surprised at how close I feel with people I initially felt so different than me. Just chatting with a Congolese woman from Kivu who didn’t get to study, I feel her reflections about life are not so different to mine and this is a beautiful thing. To live without judgment . It’s not always easy but at least I remember that.
8. How would you define the best self that you aspire to be?
Being mindful about the complex struggles of the world but staying with hope, always. I think that whatever the condition of the world, it is important to embrace the light. I still remember Russia as a time where I was suffering to witness a painful political situation, and one day one of my good friends said ‘Perrine you cannot be unhappy for what you cannot change.’ This is a wake-up call. I don’t want to be a negative activist – I want to be happy and turn this consciousness of the world’s flaws into positive change as I don’t think it’s going to change anything if I’m depressed. I’m not by nature a very light person but it’s what I aspire to be.
9. Describe what you wish your essence to be in one word?