Katherine Dunn

2009 (Summer)
Protection Officer, UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency)

Gaziantep, Turkey

What job or path of study did you pursue after graduating from the CASA program?

Before CASA, I studied literature on a Fulbright scholarship in Morocco for one year, and I completed my JD and MA in Arab Studies, both from Georgetown University. After CASA, I pursued my career in humanitarian assistance, beginning as a caseworker for the International Organization for Migration in Baghdad, Iraq; then beginning in 2013 for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). For UNHCR, I've worked in West Africa (Senegal and Liberia) as well as several locations in the Middle East (Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey) as a Field Officer, Resettlement Officer, and Protection Officer.  My work has ranged from interviewing refugees for resettlement, to coordinating field operations, to designing and implementing assistance; all with the aim of ensuring the rights, dignity, and safety of people forcibly displaced from their homes.

Has your CASA experience helped you in any specific or surprising ways throughout your career?

Fluency in Arabic has greatly facilitated my work, including in my communication with colleagues, beneficiaries, and community leaders. The ability to speak or read Arabic without the need for interpretation allows for a more direct exchange of information. It also signals to Arabic-speaking refugees and displaced persons a deep respect and appreciation for their culture, thereby increasing their trust in the international systems mandated to protect their human rights. Arabic is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, and it is the first language of many of its staff members. In our operation, we hold meetings in Arabic and English, with simultaneous translation, and we encourage the issuance of all operational materials in both Arabic and English. These practices allow essential stakeholders to participate fully and to guide the conversation with up-to-date and firsthand data. Using the local language also helps ensure our accountability to the affected population and the application of solutions appropriate for the context.

Do you have any recent academic or professional successes that you would like to share with fellow CASA alumni?

I'm lucky to go to work every day with people who model commitment, compassion, insightfulness and indefatigability, even in the face of large-scale and protracted crises. In 2016, we created the Protection Monitoring Task Force for the humanitarian response in northwest Syria, whereby humanitarian workers on the ground in Syria collect data on a monthly basis about the severity and types of risks faced by displaced people and affected communities. This information is displayed on an online dashboard hosted by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The dashboard facilitates analysis and allows humanitarian organizations to target their resources and programming where they are most needed.

Do you have a favorite memory from CASA? What is your lasting impression of CASA?

The level of fluency to which CASA brings its students is unparalleled, so much so that it is most often met with disbelief until witnessed directly (at which point people are thrilled). CASA fellows sacrifice the comforts of home and dedicate a year of their lives to pursuing such earthly gains as grammar and vocabulary knowledge — no surprise, then, that they are a selfless, curious, and driven bunch, with a delightful dash of humor.

What advice would you give to current CASA Fellows?

Enjoy this time in your life and the opportunity to live inside the Arabic language.  You made the very smart choice to focus on the language for a year — the amount of time and attention that you can give to this project now will benefit you for the rest of your life, whatever you choose to do.  After CASA, let your career choices be guided by what you love, and rest assured that there are always multiple correct choices for which path to take.