Working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was Matthew Clare’s “dream job”. Six years after completing his undergraduate degree, the 29-year-old from Lancashire managed to secure a role as an interpreter with the ICRC in Gaza. Has it met his expectations? And what advice would he give students looking to embark on a similar career?
I had wanted to work for the ICRC for a long time. It had always been my dream job. When I was studying Arabic at The University of Manchester, an ICRC recruiter came to talk to us about the organisation. It was really inspiring and the recruiter told me she was always on the lookout for Arabic speakers, but that experience was essential to apply successfully to the ICRC.
I spent the next couple of years working in Egypt and Lebanon to improve my Arabic, and I also did some postgraduate studies. I stayed in touch with the ICRC and they would tell me ‘you’re getting there, you just need a bit more experience’.
I never lost sight of my goal and eventually applied to be an interpreter. I was successful and before long was deployed to Gaza. I started here in July 2017.
How important was it to get the relevant experience under your belt?
Experience is really important. The ICRC looks for three main things in candidates: experience, potential and maturity. It does take time to get the relevant experience. Most people don’t start working for the ICRC until their late twenties or early thirties.
Showing maturity and the potential to develop are also key elements. From your first day in the field you need to show a level of maturity and quickly adapt to your surroundings. In doing so, you continue to grow and learn new things.
Can you talk us through your role as an interpreter?
It’s probably not the typical interpreter role. As part of the ICRC’s mandate, we visit places of detention to ensure detainees are being treated humanely, and we also try to facilitate communication between detainees and their families.
Currently we’re working on a specific project to help strengthen access to health care for detainees in places of detention. So I’m doing a lot of translating and interpreting between the ICRC detention doctor, local medical staff and the detaining authorities.
Additionally, I have also been working as a detention delegate, which means visiting prisons, meeting with detainees, understanding their concerns and following up on them.
How were your first days in the job?
The first days were quite intense as there’s a lot to take in! I had a couple of weeks with my predecessor, who talked me through the role and exactly what I’d be doing.
Then I had to learn about all the different ICRC systems, ways of working and security rules – no mean feat. At the same time, I had to adapt to life in Gaza, and working with colleagues from different parts of the world, who I’d never met before.
So yes, the first few weeks were a little hectic, but they were really important in helping me understand the role.
What have been the highlights of your time in Gaza?
Since the first day I arrived in Gaza I have felt at home here. The ICRC offers you the chance to be involved in work that no other organisation does. We have a specific mandate and role in places of conflict or violence and to be a part of that is really special.
Sometimes we get families in our office asking about the whereabouts of a loved one. If we have them registered as being in a place of detention, or we are able to locate them through our dialogue with the authorities, we can pass a message on to them from their family. They really appreciate the words we share and it’s so satisfying to be that link between family members.
And what about the challenges you face?
We can’t always help everyone or give people exactly what they want. There are limitations to our work. So managing people’s expectations can be tough. You just have to be open and honest with them from the very start.
What advice would you give someone looking to embark upon on a career with the ICRC?
First, speak to someone who knows the organisation and who can answer your questions. Understanding the ICRC is a crucial part of being successful during the recruitment process, as is finding out what role suits you. There are many functions within the ICRC, and not all of them require technical skills. Explore your options!
The ability to adapt is also really important. The ICRC often works in volatile situations. Your job can change from one day to the next. So you have to be able to adapt to the situation and the needs of the local population.
Finally, you have to be comfortable living and working in close proximity with people from different backgrounds. When you’re working in places affected by violence, you end up spending a lot of time with the same people. You have to know how to get on with people.
If you would like more information about working for the ICRC, visit the careers section of our website or get in touch with Sophie Da Silva, recruiter and HR marketing officer, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.