Alumni in the field: Afghanistan

Erdem Ozyurek (LLM 2017) began his career as a lawyer with Maurice Blackburn, where he worked for almost nine years alongside a host of mentors and leading litigators. But it wasn’t until a chance offer presented itself while Ozyurek was on holiday that he found his calling.

He shares his story with MLS.

Erdem (left) and colleague.

I was in Berlin when I received an offer to be a legal officer for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, stationed in Kabul.

An old friend who was working there called to caution me as to whether I was sure about working in a war zone. I got back to Melbourne, packed my things, said a tearful goodbye to my Labrador ‘Kevin’, and left for Kabul.

Upon landing, you see the dry landscape and helicopters hugging the mountains. The dust, the heat, the dry air, the military presence. You exit and see the level of security, the huge T-walls and barbed wire. You enter an armoured bullet-proof vehicle with a bunch of people who are also new arrivals.

You drive through Kabul, seeing women and children begging in the middle of the road, until you get to your compound where there is a full vehicle check for explosives and weapons. These dogs are not for patting. No matter how much one has travelled, until you get to a place like this, you really have no idea.

Upon reaching the compound you meet a thousand people from all over the world, and you do not really know how everyone fits into the big picture, nor do you know all the UN agencies and what they do, let alone INGOs (International non-governmental organisations) and NGOs. It does not take long before you know everyone on a compound. It is your first day, and looking back now, people really do go out of their way to make it a smooth transition.

From 2014 to early-2015, I lived and worked in Kabul as a Legal Officer. I loved it, but as my supervisor said, I needed more of a challenge.

It was my second day I think when I met the then-Director of the Human Rights Unit. We struck up a conversation as strangers – as anyone who knows me will tell you I tend to do – and spoke about travel or something inane. By the end, she said I should try human rights when I was done with legal affairs. So it was always on the cards that I might transfer.

I transferred to the Human Rights Unit and was stationed in the Gardez Field Office for just over a year.

I wanted to do a LLM (it is often a requirement for UN positions) to become more familiar in the fields we work in, being international human rights and criminal, refugee and humanitarian law.

I left Gardez in March 2016 and hit the ground running to do my Masters at Melbourne Law School. It was not easy, but the teachers are of course brilliant: Professors John Tobin, Bruce Oswald, Tim McCormack and Michelle Foster, to name but a few. I always drop in to say hello whenever I am back in Melbourne.

I was again applying for work before I finished the course. There was of course no guarantee that I could again join the Mission here. I was successful before I received my final grades and I was again tearfully saying goodbye to Kevin and off to beautiful Afghanistan. This time, however, I was stationed in sunny Jalalabad, as Head of the Human Rights Service in the Eastern Region.

I have been asked how the situation in Afghanistan has evolved on the front of human rights since I first started working here in 2014 and what the future looks like for Afghanistan.

There is only so much I can say as a UN staff member. I understand that, from the outside looking in, the challenges may at times appear enormous. But in the short time that I have had the privilege of working here, I can say we are supporting Afghans to achieve tangible progress and do some great things for peace to be established and for the country to flourish.

As told to Bess Keaney

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